WasteAid recently partnered with International Conservation and Clean-up Management (ICCM) to identify ways to improve waste management in Malawi.

The study set out to understand what activities are already taking place and to provide recommendations to develop inclusive and sustainable resource management across the country.

Urgent need for waste management

Malawi is a landlocked country in south eastern Africa. Its estimated population of 18.6 million is expected to double by 2038. One of the world’s least developed countries, 74% of the population live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day (World Bank). As the government and municipalities struggle to provide basic services, waste management is rarely prioritised.

With no alternative to dumping or burning their waste, Malawians are suffering severe consequences.

Widespread pollution of air, groundwater and agricultural land is harming human health, wildlife, livestock and crop yield; blocked drains encourage diseases spread by mosquitoes and dirty water; and smoke from burning waste causes a wide range of health problems as well as contributing to climate change.

Dumpsite in Malawi

In addition, accumulated waste is causing significant disruptions to the national power supply. Over 96% of energy in Malawi is sourced from hydro schemes from the River Shire, but the build-up of waste in the river is leading to power outages across the country. Poorly managed waste impedes plant growth contributing to soil erosion, landslides and flooding, with further impacts on infrastructure. The frequent loss of electricity for long periods of time has a catastrophic impact on economic production and consumption patterns.

A complex patchwork of waste challenges

WasteAid and ICCM interviewed 220 stakeholders, including people working in government ministries, municipalities, the health sector, education sector, private waste managers, informal waste collectors and innovators, NGOs and residents. Each interview covered a wide range of themes from personal attitudes and behaviours to health and economic factors, waste and recycling activities, and the challenges faced at each step of the waste value chain.

The study revealed a widely accepted and expanding network of secondary material buyers and sellers across Malawi, exchanging and selling items such as plastic bottles and basins, scrap metal, old shoes and jerry cans. Particularly within rural and peri-urban communities, people recognise the monetary value of waste materials and exchanges happen frequently. While this relationship with waste resources is positive, local recycling methods often create products of poor quality.

For example, the agricultural sector represents one of the biggest contributions to Malawi’s economy (employing 80% of the population), yet poor product quality prevents compost from being used on larger-scale farms. Organic waste used to create compost is rarely separated at source from other wastes, and as a result the final product is often contaminated with thin and hard plastics, cartons and other non-biodegradable materials.

Similarly, products made from other waste materials are often of low value. Sales of certain ‘innovations’ seem largely driven by sympathy for the seller or in response to insistent or exceptional marketing.

Informal waste workers are vulnerable to health and safety risks and do not have access to appropriate PPE. Numerous respondents claimed that it was ‘only by God’s grace’ that they had not been seriously injured so far.

There are very few waste recycling and disposal facilities around the country, and the fragmented nature of the sector is limiting opportunities for growth and innovation.

Young people picking waste from a dumpsite in Malawi
Minors scavenging from dumpsites in Malawi have no protection


A cost-effective approach to sustainable resource management in Malawi

The information and opinions shared by stakeholders helped to inform a suite of recommendations, which would help strengthen waste management provision in Malawi in an affordable and inclusive way, by:

  • Developing sustainable waste management infrastructure
  • Improving waste collection and recycling practices to increase value recovery
  • Supporting coordination among different actors in waste management sector
  • Strengthening occupational health and safety
  • Enhancing economic resilience throughout the waste value chain

The fully costed recommendations harness the power of waste management to boost inclusive and sustainable development in Malawi. We are now actively seeking partners and donors to help deliver the change that is so urgently needed for this vulnerable and growing population.

Poorly managed waste in Malawi
Without management, waste accumulates  and impacts on national infrastructure

This study was delivered in partnership with ICCM with funding from the Scottish Government’s International Development Small Grants Programme, managed by Corra Foundation.

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