Malawi women turn waste into a sustainable living

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

Norah Baziweli, a resident of Mtandire, an informal settlement in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, had a tough routine taking care of her family and earning a living.

Every morning, she would wake at 4:00 a.m. to do chores and prepare breakfast for her three young children. After they left for school, Norah would join dozens of other jobless women at the city’s dumping site to sift through piles of garbage. They would turn the salvaged materials into products to sell, such as plastic mats and handbags. Despite their efforts, the returns were not high due to the low quality of the products.

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


  • Near 160 community entrepreneurs (including 145 women) were trained in waste management.
  • Over 80% of waste generated in urban Malawi is of organic nature that can be converted into manure.
  • Waste entrepreneurs collect up to 100 kilogrammes of re-useable material per person each week.

In 2010, however, her fortunes changed when UNDP and UN Habitat launched the Waste for Wealth project. Norah and 36 other women in her neigbourhood were trained to make compost manure from waste products. An organic replacement for fertilizer, the manure enables crops to grow faster and better. The project provided Norah an opportunity to support her family, with added side benefits.

“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,” she said.

Working as a co-operative group under the Lilongwe City Council, the women visit surrounding homes to collect rubbish. They sort it - separating materials such as plastic bags, glass, and paper - and pour the unwanted items in a pit, where the rubbish is burned to avoid breeding germs. They collect up to 100 kilogrammes of re-useable material per person each week, leaving the city council to collect the remaining unwanted material for safe disposal.

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

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

“Basic necessities such as sugar, salt and soap are no longer a luxury. I can even afford a decent meal every day,” Norah says.

The benefits of the project are multiple: unemployed women now have special skills in hygienic methods of treating garbage and can earn a living; residential areas of Lilongwe are much cleaner; and households are better off financially. The project has also improved environmental conditions, especially in communal informal settlements.

Previously, the littered refuse attracted flies and other germ carriers. Now, incidents of water borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery have been reduced, partly due to efforts of the women to clear locations of garbage.

In addition, UNDP supported the Lilongwe City Council to clear five hectares of land for a dumping site, where all residents now deposit recyclable 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 additional women in Mtandire were  trained in garbage recycling and manure production skills.

Additional waste business groups formed spontaneously, receiving training from the Mtandire group, and are now in operation throughout Lilongwe. The Mtandire group has also trained groups of the urban poor in Blantyre, some of which have the Reserve Bank of Malawi and the National Bank as their clients.

At the beginning of 2015, the cumulative recorded compost sales amounted to MK7,880,000 (US $16,996), although the amount is most likely higher, as many sellers do not record their sales.

UNDP Around the world