Financial empowerment for nature conservation in Northern Malawi

women and children selling vegetables at a market stand in Malawi
Village savings and loan groups empower women and help launch small scale businesses respectful of the environment. Photo: Pauline Achoka / UNDP in Malawi

Residents of Tukombo, a trading centre in Nkhata bay, northern Malawi, are all smiles about the recent introduction of a village savings and loans group in their district.

Miriam is one of the happy women who is now able to access money for her various needs. “We lend money to each other to generate a 20% interest. The loan and interest are payable within three months,” she says. The twist is that the interest does not belong to the group, as is the case with commercial banks and traditional money-lenders. It is added to the owner’s account, ensuring continued growth of their savings. At the end of an agreed saving interval, the accumulating interests are calculated and divided up among the members.


  • 200 groups directly benefited from US$25,000 grants for the village savings and loans initiative
  • 4,845 beneficiaries are now successfully running small businesses
  • A pilot village savings and loans group saw 5000% growth on their income within a year

The initiative is part of the Community Development and Knowledge management for the Satoyama Initiative (COMDEKS). The five-year global programme is implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Environment of Japan, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations University. Working through the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, COMDEKS provides small grants to local community organizations to develop sound biodiversity management and sustainable livelihood activities.

In Malawi, the Initiative focuses on the Nkhata-bay region, which is composed of natural forests and wetland areas along the shores of Lake Malawi, both rich in biodiversity. Tukombo is the second largest forestland in the country, with 48,000 hectares of forests. The major sources of livelihood for the 60,000-strong population are based on agriculture, fishing and small scale businesses.

But increasing deforestation and soil erosion due to agricultural expansion threaten ecosystems and livelihoods. Fishing, which accounts for 40% of total household income in the area, is also part of the problem: “Each standard fish drying rack can use up to 180 small trees. This quickly adds up to thousands of young trees cut down annually if you consider the high population of fishermen and fish vendors in the area,” said Emily Phiri-Chinthu, Kunyanja Development Organisation Coordinator.  

A USD 35,000  project grant to the fishing communities of Kunyanja saw 15 fish ponds constructed or rehabilitated and 75 concrete pillar fish racks erected, saving approximately 7,800 young trees.  

In Nkhata bay south, villagers decided to form a committee to promote afforestation and beekeeping. With their US 25,000 grant, they bought 150 beehives which they distributed among 15 groups of 300 men and women. Since 2014, 32,000 trees (including fruit trees) have been planted by the beekeepers. Tree cutting has been reduced by a third and bush fires are now being controlled.

Projects that aim to improve governance structures for community based organizations, village natural resources management committees, and other community associations are also supported.

Formed in March 2014, a pilot savings and loans group of women in the village of Mbamba, south of Lake Malawi, began saving and trading with 5,000 Malawi Kwacha  (US$12). Their funds rose to MWK 250,000 (US$581) a year after, representing a growth rate of 5000%. All the money was collected through loans to the group members.

Since the launch of COMDEKS in Malawi in 2013, 200 groups have directly benefitted from the US$25,000 grant awarded. An additional 53 groups have benefitted from the revolving fund. From these groups, 4,845 individuals are successfully running small businesses.

As for Miriam, at the end of December 2014, her group had saved up MWK800,000 (US$1,860). The money was distributed among the group members after they set aside another MWK40, 000 as capital for January 2015. With the opportunity to borrow more capital, Miriam says the sky’s the limit.

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