Making a living from waste

Norah (far right) working on waste heaps with her colleagues. Photo: UNDP Malawi

Just over a year ago, Norah Baziweli, a resident of Mtandire, an informal settlement in Malawi’s second largest city Lilongwe had a very tough daily routine.


  • Over 80% of waste generated in urban Malawi is of organic nature that can be converted to improve food security through urban and peri-urban agriculture as well as to contribute to household incomes.
  • 14 sanitation clubs have been formed with churches and communities. Community interviews have confirmed that the amount of waste in markets, schools and residential areas have reduced.
  • 16 school clubs have been formed with primary school pupils where they are participating in waste collection, waste arts and debates.
  • There are several technical reports supporting decision on waste marketing, urban agriculture and waste management and baseline findings in Lilongwe city.
  • Lilongwe University for Agriculture and Natural resources has used information and data from the project to develop teaching and learning materials on several modules and courses including the newly established MSc degree in Environment and Climate Change Science.

She would wake up at 04:00am every morning to do her house chores and to prepare breakfast for her three young children. As soon as they had gone to school, Norah would leave for the City’s dumping site to join dozens of other jobless women who sifted through piles of garbage to collect material. What they salvaged they would turn into products such as plastic mats and handbags, for sale. The returns were not high because of the quality of what the women were making.

“I used to struggle a lot to make ends meet with the money I was getting from selling these plastic mats. I could still not afford to buy necessities for my household and most of the times my children would go to bed on an empty stomach” explained Norah.

But their fortunes changed in 2010 when United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Habitat launched a US$250.000 project which trained Norah and 36 other women in how to make compost manure from waste products. This manure enables crops to grow faster and better, and is an organic replacement for fertiliser.

“When I heard of this project I knew I would not only benefit financially but also be able to use the same manure in my small garden and increase the yield too” she said.

The women were organised into a co-operative group working under the Lilongwe City Council. Now Norah’s routine is not as hectic as before.

She and her friends go around homes, on foot to collect their rubbish. They sort it out, separating materials such as plastic bags, glass, paper, then pour the unwanted items in a pit, where all the rubbish is burned, to avoid breeding of germs. They collect up to 100kilogrammes of re-useable junk per person, every week, leaving the city council to collect the remaining unwanted material for safe disposal.

The garbage takes four weeks to decompose and turn into perfect manure, which is bagged and sold to small scale farmers and home owners for use in their gardens. A single bag of 50 kilograms can fetch up toUS$110 per month. Their main buyer is Malawi’s biggest flower-growing company which purchases nearly all the manure produced.

Norah sells an average of 30kg bag of manure and earns US$50per each month. This is enough to feed her family well and send her three children to school.

“From manure, I have managed to educate my children.  Basic necessities such as sugar, salt and soap are no longer a luxury as was in the past. I can even afford a decent meal every day,” said Norah, beaming with happiness.

The benefits of the project are multiple; unemployed women now have special skills in hygienic methods of treating garbage and earning a living from it; residential areas of Lilongwe are now much cleaner because there’s less garbage lying around; Norah’s family as well as 36 other households are slightly better off because their incomes have improved; previously refuse was littered everywhere and it attracted flies and other germs, especially in communal informal settlements. Incidents of water borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery especially during the rainy season have been reduced   partly due to efforts of the women’s group to clear locations of garbage.

Instead of throwing things around, UNDP supported the Lilongwe City Council to clear a five hectare piece of land into a dumping site, where all residents now deposit recycle material such as bottles, papers and plastics for collection.

UNDP has provided US$7.500 for construction of a shelter for the women to store their manure, instead of keeping it at home. More than sixty other women in Mtandire are also being trained by the UNDP project in garbage recycle skills and how to produce manure. They, like Norah, will soon run their own business before the end of the year. 

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