This study was carried out by International Conservation and Clean-Up Management and WasteAid in Malawi, between April and October 2020.
This feasibility study on community waste management in Malawi was funded by the Scottish Government’s International Development Small Grants Programme. International Conservation and Clean-up Management and WasteAid worked with waste managers across Malawi to identify the support and capacity building required to manage waste effectively, efficiently, and economically in their local communities.
The term “community waste managers” encompasses a wide range of actors, often in informal settlements with no formal waste management systems, who are active in waste and resource management.
Global production of municipal solid waste is predicted to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050 – a 70% increase that will put sustained pressure on Earth’s delicate ecosystems and human existence. The environment, economy and public health in Malawi are at increasing risk from the dangers of poorly managed waste. The Malawi Government currently lacks the infrastructure, resources, and capacity to manage the rising quantities of waste being generated. Inadequate waste management is leading to the accumulation of waste, causing serious environmental and social consequences, including a heightened flood risk and threats to public health from water-borne and vector-borne diseases. In addition, the regular open burning of waste is causing local air pollution, accelerated climate change, and further public health concerns related to respiratory diseases.
Figure 1 Informal waste collectors search for items of value at an open dumping site
Objectives and approach
The main objectives of this study were to determine the main barriers faced by community waste managers in Malawi, and from this to create a set of recommendations and costed action plan to help overcome these challenges.
In order to achieve this, a series of structured consultations were conducted with various stakeholder groups across the country. Stakeholder mapping segmented stakeholders into categories according to the sector they represent. These included informal waste workers, private waste operators, NGOs, and representatives from municipal authorities. Questionnaires were designed to collect qualitative data and facilitate a discussion with participants, encouraging them to talk openly and in-depth about their experiences, behaviours, and opinions on waste management in Malawi.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the field work was adapted in adherence to national guidelines. Interviews were carried out via phone, email or using locally trained facilitators to eliminate unnecessary travel and person-to-person contact. The field work was accompanied by research and analysis into existing waste management structures, government policies, and past NGO-led waste initiatives. Data was then analysed to identify key challenges and opportunities within the waste sector and more specifically in relation to informal waste workers. This analysis informed the recommendations and proposed next steps.
The findings of the study highlighted some important and, at times, completely novel perspectives and information. In particular, the study identified existing value chains for certain waste materials and ways to strengthen these to enhance the opportunities for vulnerable informal actors in the chain. The Malawian waste market has been in part developed by NGOs and private industry, alongside ongoing innovation, reflexivity, and bricolage by locals. Varied methods of reuse and recycling are carried out across the country, with varying degrees of success.
There is a widely accepted and expanding network of secondary material buyers and sellers across Malawi, exchanging and selling items such as plastic bottles, plastic basins, scrap metal, old shoes, and jerry cans. Particularly within rural and peri-urban communities, waste materials are largely perceived and acknowledged as having monetary value. Exchanges of materials happen frequently within communities. Whilst 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, 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, with thin and hard plastics, cartons and other non-biodegradable materials contaminating the end-product. Similarly, other items 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.
As a nation, Malawi currently lacks sufficient waste collection services offered by either the public or private sector. Homes in rural and peri-urban areas rarely have the opportunity to opt in for waste collection due to both cost of service and inaccessible roads for collection trucks to reach properties.
There seems to be an inherent disconnect between all groups and individuals dealing with waste. There are no shared learnings, nor connections and collaborations, limiting the opportunities for growth and innovation within the sector. The industry is fragmented, and many respondents seemed unaware of others working with waste within their area.
Finally, and perhaps most concerningly, informal waste workers lacked a combined knowledge of health risks associated with waste and access to appropriate PPE. Numerous respondents claimed that it was ‘only by God’s grace’ that they had not been seriously injured so far.
Challenges and Opportunities
Survey responses revealed the significant challenges faced by waste workers in Malawi. By appraising and assessing these challenges alongside market conditions and experience of waste management activities elsewhere, we arrived at some key understandings. The sector is weak and fragmented, with inadequate and poor-quality practices, and little opportunity for waste workers. Understanding of the environmental and health impacts of poorly managed waste is generally low, which in turn prevents waste management activities from being prioritised by the Government or municipalities.
The identification of these challenges was combined with analysis of present opportunities including the prevalence of organic waste to make high-quality compost; the understanding of potential value within waste; and the opportunity to expand current waste workers’ efforts through the provision of more in-depth trainings.
Figure 17 A compost making site within an informal settlement in Lilongwe
Figure 2 Challenges and Opportunities of waste management in Malawi
The following points emerged from the analysis and helped form a framework for the recommendations:
There is a clear need for accessible and inclusive support for informal workers in sustainable resource management.
Different actors in the waste value chain would benefit from a more cohesive and coordinated waste management sector.
Waste management infrastructure and capacity is weak, and this has a compounding negative effect on structural inequalities.
Improving recycling practices and standards would increase the value of recovered resources.
Informal actors in the waste value chain lack the knowledge, skills, and PPE to protect themselves from occupational health and safety and economic risks.
The report outlines a set of recommendations which will achieve greater connectivity within the waste sector, whilst building the capacity and creating better opportunities and outcomes for waste workers. The recommendations focus on delivering these objectives through a combination of advocacy work, interactive training, and educational activities, and strengthening networks.
Thanks and Acknowledgements
We would like to thank the Corra Foundation for their support in the development of this work in particular, for the additional support in helping our organisation address COVID-19 restrictions. The assistance and engagement of all those contacted to complete our questionnaires is recognised and appreciated. We also wish to thank the multiple local facilitators who aided us in data collection following COVID-19 restrictions.
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