School Fees and Trees Project – Malawi, Africa

January 13, 2016


You may be wondering why a sewing blogger/indie pattern designer is writing about planting trees in Africa. The short answer is that a portion of the profits from the Zoona Nova PDF sewing patterns will go towards funding this tree-planting project.  The long answer is that I love writing about Africa, and I hope the creative-types who stop by this space will find my stories about expat village life interesting.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to visit Malawi.  When things get organized, I’d love to have volunteers come down and help out with the project.  We could include fabric-hunting in the list of activities, some sewing, and mixing a perfect Malawian gin and tonic, too.

Deforestation has become a major issue in Malawi.  Even in the villages around my town of Balaka, I can see that trees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Each time I go out for a walk, I come back with stories of trees being cut down.  Mature trees, including mango trees, are chopped to use as fuel for making wood-fired bricks, and young trees are cut for household firewood. The landscape changes drastically each season.  How long do we have until all the trees are gone?

Clay bricks covered in mud and ready for firing. Large trees are used to fuel the fire.

Trees have never been a hot topic over beers at the local watering hole, but financial troubles are always a springboard for discussion. One night, we started chatting about the high cost of school fees.  Primary school is free in Malawi (ages 6-11) but after that, families must pay for their children’s education.  If you don’t have the cash, your child doesn’t go to school.  It’s as simple as that.

An older gentleman told us that his friend had planted hardwood trees, twenty or so years before, and that those trees were now worth millions of Kwacha (thousands of dollars).  “Those kids can all go to school just because their father spent a few weeks planting trees,” he said.

It was at that moment that an idea began to take shape.  Trees could be planted as an income source; a way for families with no regular employment to pay for school fees.

Since that “light bulb” moment, my friend Vaida and I have been busy connecting with local leaders.  On foot, we traveled out to the villages to meet with chiefs and talk about the project.  Without saying too much, we tried to understand the chiefs’ feelings about growing trees and if it was something they considered important.  We were happy to learn that in all the areas we visited, there were established community woodlots for firewood (a very good sign).  And all of the village chiefs we met were interested in planting fruit and hardwood trees for food security and income generation.  People want trees; many are just lacking the seeds or seedlings they need to get started.

In addition to meeting with village chiefs, we met with extention officers at the forestry and agriculture departments to learn which types of trees would grow best in our area.  We’ve made it a point to keep talking about what we discover, and as we do, people become curious about the project and start joining in the conversation. This led us to meet a local man who has set up a large tree seedling farm at his home.  He supports our idea and has offered to donate a few hundred fruit trees to the project.

The local youth club in Balaka is keen on planting trees in the urban areas; so we found a way to work together to bring the project into the schools around town.  There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from the local community.  The idea seems to resonate with everyone; a simple grass-roots project that addresses environmental issues, income generation, and education at the same time.

Tree Farm in BalakaVaida at a tree farm in Balaka, Malawi. 

Of course, nothing’s easy.  Many great ideas never get off the ground, and for those that do, most don’t last.  But I still believe it’s important to keep trying to make the world a better place – even if we don’t know how things will turn out.  I hope I’ve learned something from 15 years in Africa, all my failures, and my few successes. With School Fees and Trees, I hope to build a community-based project that will have a long-lasting impact on future generations. Saving our environment and making education available to everyone is definately worth fighting for.

What’s important is to involve the youth (which make up 63% of the total population), and to put the responsibility for the project in the hands of the beneficiaries.  In past projects, I found myself in the center, directing everyone around me.  This is the easiest way to get started, and you feel like things are getting done, but it’s a recipe for failure.  With the School Fees and Trees project, I’m forcing myself to stand back.  I’m good at bringing ideas, people, and resources together.  That’s my role.  Local project leaders from our community will be responsible for monitoring the activities out in the villages.  Experts will be brought in for special workshops, such as fruit-tree grafting.  And because this is a local project, by the community, for the community, we will be available at all times to answer questions, help resolve problems, and to provide technical support.  But the success of the project is in the hands of the people who have come forward and committed themselves to planting trees for a better future.

Tomorrow I have a meeting with an American NGO that works in Balaka.  I’m going to “pitch” the School Fees and Trees idea and see if we are eligible for some funding.  To date, we haven’t had any major expenses.  Paying for planting tubes, some seedlings, and a few bicycle taxis has been something I can handle out-of-pocket.  But as the project grows, we will definitely need funding.  The rest of my day is dedicated to writing an “official” project proposal so the outside world can hear about our plan.  As this post is already too long, I’ll save these specific details about tree species, project goals, and our incentive strategy for the next time.

Let me know if a tree-planting (fabric-hunting/gin drinking) holiday in Malawi sounds interesting!

1 Comment

    1. Hey Tamara, your posts are never too long! And I’d love to come to Malawi one day… Tree-planting, fabric-hunting and gin-drinking are all right up my alley 🙂

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