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FEATURE STORY June 29, 2020

Harnessing Nature to Boost Sustainable Livelihoods in Malawi


World Bank


  • A recently approved World Bank project in Malawi puts nature and communities at its heart.
  • The Malawi Watershed Services Improvement Project will help people earn a good income for themselves and their families, while boosting resilience.
  • It builds on the work of the Shire River Basin Management Program, which helped rehabilitate over 35,000 hectares of degraded watersheds.

The US $160 million Malawi Watershed Services Improvement Project, recently approved by the World Bank’s Board, builds on the existing networks and tried and tested interventions from another World Bank-supported project, the Shire River Basin Management Project, which the government of Malawi implemented from 2012 to 2019. As countries look to recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19), these projects’ delivery models offer helpful examples of how to make use of nature to boost resilience, build robust systems and stimulate economic development for the poorest. 

The Shire River Basin Management Program helped rehabilitate over 35,000 hectares of degraded watersheds, an area equivalent to 50,000 soccer fields.  This was achieved through soil and water conservation measures such as rehabilitating gullies created by excess runoff, protecting stream and river banks, rehabilitating community forests and adopting new agricultural techniques. Fixed payments of $1,500 for these activities were provided to communities through a Community Environmental Conservation Fund (CECF). 

All of this was delivered in close collaboration with community groups. Guidelines on watershed management were developed and adopted by the government, with more sustainable land management practices such as soil fertility improvement grounded in the wisdom and experience of community groups. 

The effort also supported sustainable livelihoods, as farmers received financial incentives to improve their land management. Lonesi Petulo, 48, who lives in Tsangano – one of Malawi’s remotest and poorest areas – explains how she made a profit of $371 from an initial investment of $41: “I bought a bag of fertilizer and paid casual labourers who helped me in the field. After harvesting, I sold the potatoes and realized $412.” 

Petulo says this has made a huge difference to her life: “I am now building a house. I am able to buy cement and iron sheets, which I could not afford before. I have a child in secondary school whom I am also sponsoring with the same money.” 

The project encouraged enterprise development in other ways too, including helping establish more than 300 Common Interest Groups (CIGs). These CIGs received training and low-interest micro-loans totaling $855,000 as start-up capital for enterprises ranging from maize mills to goat husbandry to fish mongering. In addition, a total of 80 Farmer Field Schools were established, benefiting 2,160 farmers – three-quarters of them women. By adopting the recommended agronomic technologies, participants increased their income by more than a third. 

“Unlocking the potential of communities through enterprise development can help lift them out of poverty and drive economic growth, while at the same time helping to restore degraded watersheds”, says Greg Toulmin, World Bank Country Manager for Malawi. “Strong institutions are also essential for this, particularly as landscape restoration is a long-term endeavor.”

The Shire River project funded more than 50 capacity building programs, including training courses and study tours, and supported the establishment of Malawi’s National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) as well as community-based institutions for watershed management. 

These outcomes all serve as a robust foundation for the new Malawi Watershed Services Improvement project. This is the country’s biggest landscape project and will help restore 95,000 hectares of watersheds – scaling up nearly three-fold from its predecessor. 


World Bank

It will provide $40 million in rapid livelihood support to over 250,000 people in vulnerable rural communities through various grant schemes.  Of particular interest for enabling rapid COVID-19 response are transfers to existing CECFs, to provide micro-credits to community members that are linked to adoption of sustainable landscape management practices.  In addition, matching grants to farmers groups and agri-enterprises (including service and input providers, buyers, processors, and aggregators) will enhance agriculture-based livelihoods, with a focus on female farmers and agri-entrepreneurs.   

The project leverages digital technologies, including ICT tools and geospatial information systems to monitor and pay beneficiaries based on results, as well as mobile money to facilitate funds transfer.  In additional to the grants, the project will finance water infrastructure and services (including 10 small multipurpose dams, 20 rainwater harvesting structures, 8 boreholes, and 10 small-scale irrigation schemes) to improve water availability and reliability for production.  Some of this infrastructure, such as the irrigation schemes, is already designed and will be ready for construction within eight months after project approval.  Construction will create about 2,500 jobs, with an estimated US $5 million in direct payments to local workers.  

Overall, the project will directly benefit approximately 350,000 people, most of whom are smallholder farmers. In a country where most people live in rural areas and more than half the population lives below the poverty line, access to opportunities for rural livelihoods can help people be more productive and support their families. Land management and watershed improvement support functioning ecosystems, helping purify water and improve food security, which also benefits families. 

These projects are of particular interest as countries look towards the COVID-19 recovery, adds Toulmin: “The delivery model of the Shire River Basin Management Program and the Malawi Watershed Services Improvement Project provides a strong example of how to provide services that make use of nature to boost resilience, build robust systems, and stimulate economic development for the poorest.” 

Resources from the Water GP’s multi-donor Trust Fund the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP) helped to develop the Malawi Watershed Services Improvement project.