‘Income that surpasses the waiting’: in dire need of trees, Malawi tries woodlots, bees, bamboo

Women among their pigeon peas, one of a suite of interventions under the EU project. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Women among their pigeon peas, one of a suite of interventions under the EU project. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Success in rejuvenating land through forest-based enterprises has had dramatic outcomes for farmers.

In the late afternoon in the highlands of Malawi, the air is chilly as the sun descends. But the welcome is warm. A group of men and women take us to woodlots established under a project called, Empowering Forest Dependent Communities Through Commercialization of Small-Scale Forestry, 2015–18. Led by World Agroforestry, its aim was to contribute to poverty reduction through the development of small-scale forestry and other forest-based enterprises. Funded by the European Union, it received further funds from the UK Department for International Development. World Vision and government departments were the main partners.

Forester Lusaka with Alikanjero. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

The first woodlot belongs to Joseph Alikanjero, who says he replaced maize with pine seedlings because he felt his ‘land was not yielding much’. This is not a wealthy community. We wonder if Joseph can wait patiently until the pines mature before he earns from them.

‘He understands that it will take time but he has the conviction that it will yield income that surpasses the waiting,’ says Victor Lusaka, the District Forestry Officer, translating the farmer’s answer from Chichewa, the country’s main language.

The second woodlot is a mix of pines planted in 2017 and naturally-regenerating indigenous trees. ‘When we were given the pine seedlings, we left the other ones to grow,’ explains the owner, Godfrey John. He is proud of the pines. If possible, they look even healthier and more upright than those in the pure stand.

Godfrey John in his mixed woodlot. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

‘They are growing straight because they are racing against the other ones,’ observes World Agroforestry researcher Joyce Njoloma.

Meanwhile, the native trees provide medicine. ‘This is good for arthritis,’ says John, tugging at a leaf.

And it is also good, very importantly, for firewood. His family now has to trek less often to gather fuel from a beleaguered forest reserve nearby.

The project was carefully sited around protected forests under particular threat in Karonga, Mzimba, Ntchisi, Dadza, Machinga and Chikwawa districts. Reducing time in firewood collection was project indicator 6 and ‘more sustainable forest management’ an overall goal.

Miombo woodlands shown in dark green, from White (1983). Photo: Edinburgh Geoscience

It will be 15–20 years before the two farmers can sell their pines. The evaluation of the project by lecturers at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources singled out this as a shortcoming of woodlots. But both men are making the land under pines productive in the short and medium term. Alikanjero plants sweet potatoes and beans in the rainy season. John is building the land’s fertility.

‘These indigenous species are typical of ‘miombo. They shed leaves and improve soil structure and productivity,’ explained forester Lusaka, referring to the woodlands that stretch from Tanzania to Angola, sustaining millions of people. Miombo has not received as much attention as other forest types in Africa, such as the Congo rainforest, in a major omission by the international community.

Budala now has over 120 beehives. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Under the project, almost 14,000 men and women were involved in creating individual or communal woodlots. Over 2.2 million trees were planted, of which over 80% survive to date.

Besides woodlots, other enterprises were beekeeping, tree nurseries, briquette making, fabrication of clay energy-saving stoves, and bamboo cultivation and furniture making. Where a village took on every possible enterprise, the result is almost idyllic.

The village of Budala has a nursery, woodlots, fruit trees, clumps of bamboo, and maize intercropped with pigeon peas. Showing us around, the women erupt into song. They are particularly happy about beekeeping. Like everywhere it was introduced, it has been the runaway success.

This highlights the importance of value chains. Honey generated a breathtaking USD 23,000 for Budala in 2018. A nursery school stands brightly painted; several women now own solid brick homes roofed with iron sheets. So strong is the demand for honey from towns that the village is unable to satisfy it. The business can grow some more.

A community member with her house built from honey sales. Photo: World Agroforestry/C Watson

‘Other villages want to join us. We said the door is open,’ explained Bruno Zande, group secretary in Budala. Two more groups have formed.

Beehives hang in native trees, saving the trees from being turned into charcoal. The trees in turn are a habitat for pollinators, add carbon and nitrogen to the soil, and protect streams from which youth irrigate tomatoes and winter maize. It is win-win-win-win-win.

The evaluation scored beekeeping as a ‘very suitable’ forest-based enterprise, noting that ‘it creates an incentive to preserve forests, honey is easy to process and store in rural settings and has a market’.

Empowering Forest Dependent Communities Through Commercialization of Small-Scale Forestry has responded to many of Malawi’s most intractable challenges.

Next to a mango with a beehive, a youth-run tomato field. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

According to the project evaluation: it raised incomes for participants from forest-based enterprises by about 110% in Africa’s sixth-poorest country where 70% of people live below the international poverty line of

USD 1.90 a day. And that is before profits from the woodlots or bamboo come in. At the project’s sites, tree loss was reduced by 47% in a country with the highest rate of deforestation in Southern Africa. Around Ntchisi Forest Reserve was a particular success; regreening between 2014 and 2017 can be seen on Google Earth. Across all project sites, about 5000 hectares were revegetated through farmer-managed natural regeneration.

The project also seems to have improved food security, with 54% of households reporting access to adequate food throughout the year, up from a baseline of 15%. In time, it may fill micronutrient gaps in a country where 37% of under-fives suffer stunting: orchards were planted, and fruit trees dotted around homesteads.

Fruit trees around homes. Photo: World Agroforestry/C. Watson

Despite the wins of this high performing project, however, it was designed before today’s fuller recognition of the devastating gravity of climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and land degradation. The last is particularly pressing in Malawi, where 60% of land is affected by soil erosion and nutrient loss, with dramatic consequences.

‘The soil is so depleted of carbon that it can scarcely hold water and is largely unresponsive to fertilizer,’ said Nyoka Betserai, who heads World Agroforestry in Southern Africa. ‘Organic matter is now becoming a limiting element to production.’

Not everything was measured. But that does not mean it did not take place. Reporting faithfully on the required indicators, what this diligently executed project fails to report is that it undoubtedly also increased resilience to climate shocks, safeguarded some biodiversity, and captured carbon. These are among the existential challenges of our time and of Malawi, and that is no mean feat.




World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of scientific excellence and development that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Knowledge produced by ICRAF enables governments, development agencies and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at multiple scales. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.









Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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