Empowering youth to restore Malawi’s farms and forests

Nearly all – 96 percent – of Malawi’s rapidly growing population depends on wood or charcoal for cooking. Meanwhile, land is continuously being cleared to grow crops, since nearly 80 percent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. As in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, these two factors put pressure on forests, increasing climate-warming emissions, disrupting watersheds and reducing biodiversity. 

Malawi’s government is determined to combat this potentially disastrous trend by investing in long-term solutions for natural resource management, and in 2018 announced a USD $2 million (1.43 billion Malawian kwacha) program for forest restoration. For an emerging economy like Malawi, this is a huge investment, equivalent to about 1.5 percent of the government’s annual spending

Malawi’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining has used this substantial funding to implement the Malawi Youth Forest Restoration Program, recognizing that a sustainable future lies in the hands of the country’s youth. Under the initiative, the Department of Forestry works with the Ministry of Labour, Youth and Manpower Development to set up youth groups across the country.

Throughout the program, thousands of young people are planned to receive a daily wage for growing native and fruit-bearing trees and, later on, people will receive bonuses based on how many trees survive and how much forest management improves. The impact of the program is already tangible: In its first 18 months, it employed more than 11,000 people from nearly 500 youth groups. 

This type of domestic support to restore degraded land is groundbreaking, even among a network of African countries that have shown tremendous commitment to restoration through the AFR100 initiative. For its part, Malawi has pledged to restore 4.5 million hectares (11 million acres), more than one-third of the country’s land area. As a result, Malawi’s government launched a first-of-its-kind National Forest Landscape Restoration Strategy, which provides clear targets and priority interventions for increasing forest cover as a means of achieving critical development goals. 

To measure the impact made by the Youth Forest Restoration Program and similar initiatives, Malawi became the first AFR100 member country to publish a national framework for measuring progress on restoration in 2018. The new framework focuses on collecting household data to show whether restoration is achieving its intended goals.  

For example, if rural Malawians are spending less time on firewood collection, this may indicate an increase in the availability of energy resources such as wood or charcoal due to successful community forest management. Or, if a household is better able to weather climate shocks (such as drought or landslides), it may highlight that restoration practices are improving climate resilience. People can use these data to learn from past successes or identify areas in need of additional support. 

Examining the data highlights the importance of measuring progress to understand the impact of restoration programs and to know where more investment is needed. For example, household data collected in 2016 showed that fewer than one in every 10 Malawian households received advice from local extension officers (professionals who work closely with farmers to communicate best practices) on how to better manage their forest and agricultural resources. But of those who received support, only about 64 percent followed the advice for forestry management and 50 percent for agriculture. In both cases, women received advice less often than men, but they were more likely to follow the advice. This revealed a need for further investment in extension services, more research on why people adopt restoration practices and more resources to target women. 

To prove the impact of the program, the government is supplementing ground-collected data in the Rumphi District by using satellite monitoring techniques like AI tree cover analyses and collaborative Collect Earth mapathons, where local people create their own data, to identify tree growth on smallholder agricultural land, pasture, and forests. The future of Malawi’s restoration movement looks bright. 

$2 million USD
Focal Point: 

Tangu Tumeo, IUCN Malawi, tumeo.tangu@gmail.com