Malawi: Sustaining Community Empowerment for Sustained Restoration of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve

Aliness Harry, 35, from Group Village Head (GVH) Kalebe in Traditional Authority (TA) Malengachanzi in Nkhotakota District, is happy, for she found a stable livelihood in chilli farming, which “assures her of a better future”.

Introduced by African Parks, in partnership with Tropha and Nandos, chilli farming is improving Aliness’s life and likely to catapult her to greater economic independence if she maintains her seriousness and keeps increasing her produce.

Aliness, who lives in a village about half a kilometer along Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, had been in the midst of the reserve’s plunder bandwagon. She used to harvest firewood, exposing herself to death, among many other dangers.

With chilli farming, in which she started participating during the last farming season, Aliness says she will find no reason to return into the restored reserve, “even if the new management under African Parks leaves or in the very unlikely event that they fail to protect it”.

“Last season, I harvested 50kgs of chilli from a quarter acre, which I sold at MK2,500 per kg, earning myself MK95,000. This season, I am expecting at least 150kgs from a half acre.

“My prospects are very high. This is proving to be a profitable farming business. I am seeing myself always having my basic needs,” she said, beaming with gratitude.

Aliness is among 109 people belonging to nine clubs for chilli farming in Malengachanzi B Zone, overseen by GVH Kuchelachela 1 and eight other GVHs and village heads. All the other farmers are also benefiting or expecting to benefit in their own right.

David Nangoma, Park Manager for Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, says besides the better economic benefits chilli presents, the crop’s smell repels elephants, which means “people and other crops are safe in the unlikely event that some elephants break through the reserve’s electric wire fence to cause havoc in communities”.

Chilli farming is one of the many community empowerment enterprises African Parks introduced as part of a positive community engagement to restrain people from the restored reserve.

This was after the organization, in August 2015, signed a twenty-year agreement with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife to manage the reserve through a Public Private Partnership arrangement.

Other initiatives include mango processing, bee keeping and fishing farming.

For instance, in GVH Mapulanga in TA Kalimanjila, a 14 member Chilengendwe Conservation Enterprise is, among other things, processing tasty Kota-kota Dried Mangoes every mango season, since 2021, using what they call processing house and storage facility.

African Parks introduced the enterprise in partnership with United States Forest Service and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Lyson Kumayani, Chairperson, says each group member has ten mango trees from which they pluck the starting-to-ripe fruits for processing, packaging and selling.

“We process the mangoes into grades one and two and then package them into 150 grams packets for sell in Lilongwe, Nkhotakota and within the community.

“We sell grade one mangoes at MK3,000 per packet and grade two at MK2, 500. Every season, a quarter of the profit is reserved for the group’s operations while we share the rest of the money. Our future is brighter”.

According to Kumayani, the group, for example, earned MK700,000 in 2022, after selling 374 packets. They sold 274 in 2021.

In the 2023 season, said Kumayani, the group even sourced the mangoes from other farms as they target to package and sell 10,000 packets, following increased demand for Kota-kota Dried Mangoes.

“But we have packaged 5000 packets so far, which are on the market. The money has not yet started trickling in, so we are unable to estimate how much money we are having so far this season,” he said.

Nangoma says about 820 people, sparsely spread around the reserve, are currently participating in enterprises such as these and that their households are getting better. He adds that many other community members are expressing interest to join.

In Malengachanzi B Zone, for instance, Lonely Mdefu, 22, from GVH Chulu, wants to plant chilli on her half acre farmland, after seeing that others benefited last season. Millicah Robert, 39, is following suit.

Aliness says if she and other farmers actually use fertilizers this season, their chilli yields and earnings would increase highly, thereby attracting more community members to join.

Mathias Mtambalika, 67, from GHV Nkhongo 2, is another perspective chilli farmer and concurs with Aliness, adding that they also need pesticides and other chilli-farm supplies to increase yields.

But Nangoma, while agreeing with Aliness, says chilli can sustain even without manure or fertilizer, which is, after all, expensive and likely to minimize farmers’ profits.

Manure or fertilizer, according to Nangoma, may be needed “just to increase the yield to optimal hectarage production”. He, however, said farmers could still use fertilizers cautiously, if they insist.

GVH Kuchelachela 1 is happy with the introduction of chilli farming, also considering the fact that the crop’s smell repels elephants.

“We are safe and earning better money to provide for our families and households. I doubt if anyone would go back to tamper with wildlife in the reserve.

“African Parks must be commended for introducing enterprises such as these. The organization has our support and collaboration,” he said.

At Chilengendwe Conservation Enterprise, Joseph Mwanga, 43, has received MK241,000 since 2021, as a group member. He used the money to, among others, improve his house, pay school fees for his children and buy other basic necessities.

“Never shall I go back to committing poaching and other wildlife crimes in the reserve.

“In fact, this season, with increased production and demand for Kota-kota Dried Mangoes, which will likely bring me and fellow members even more money, I intend to make further improvements to my house, including flooring and fixing window flames and glasses, among others,” Mwanga said, smiling with glee.

Nangoma says the ultimate goal must be to sustain these enterprises so that community members continue embracing them as alternative and eternal sources of income, through which they should be seeing the benefits of conservation.

According to him, one of the sustainability strategies that African Parks has put in place, is ensuring that the products–community members produce through the enterprises–have ready markets.