Africa: How one man is fighting for Malawi’s Tourism future
Crowded by teak giraffes, rosewood rhinos and canvases daubed with explosive African sunsets, a wood carver polishes his handiwork, hoping a tourist will soon stop by.
He laments only a handful of purchases have been made in the last month, and it’s the same story for seven more bamboo huts lining this roadside in northern Malawi’s Nkhata Bay district, all selling identical wares.
In the early 1990s, Force Ngwira worked in one of these stalls, but within a matter of years he realised his livelihood was destroying one of the country’s greatest resources.
“I could see we were losing a lot of our natural trees like teak and hard-growing species,” he recalls, as we drive through a tumble of healthy green hills – a stark contrast to parched landscapes in the south.
“In 1992, we would walk 1km to get wood, but after 1995 we travelled 5km. I thought, in 10 years’ time there will not be enough trees for us to use for carvings.”
At the age of 19, he formed a wood carvers’ association committed to using soft woods and established his own forest nursery using polythene tubes and watering cans.
“People thought I’d gone mad,” he laughs. “They thought trees were created by God and were available for us to use. It wasn’t easy to convince people. I had to start alone.”
In 2004, his ambitions caught the attention of charity RIPPLE Africa, where he is now employed as County Director. But he could see tree-planting alone would never be enough.
“Almost 98 per cent of Malawians use wood for cooking,” he explains as we enter a village close to his office, where a mother is preparing nsima (a starchy maize porridge) on a brick stove fired by twigs. The Changu Changu Moto (meaning ‘fast fast fire’ in Chichewa) was partly Ngwira’s invention, successfully reducing fuel needed for cooking by two thirds.
Constructed with 26 bricks, the stove provides a cost effective and simple solution to a problem. Listening to the community and understanding their needs is one of Ngwira’s strengths, and he has several new ideas on the boil – including a life jacket for fishermen, made using empty water bottles and discarded rice sacks.
For the last few years, his efforts have been focused on Malawi’s depleting fish stocks. Once awarded UNESCO status for its variety of endangered cichlids and credited with having more species of fish than any other lake in the world, Lake Malawi is rapidly running empty.
Ngwira takes me to the lake’s Makhumbi fish breeding site, where wooden boats are draped with a rainbow of nets.
“Last year we received nine million mosquito nets from America, but most went to the lake for fishing,” he says, showing me one of the offending articles with holes so tight, fledgling fish are unable to escape.
By helping to implement local bylaws restricting the use of nets and extending closed fishing seasons, Ngwira has empowered communities in Nkhata Bay and neighbouring district Nkhotakota to take responsibility for their resources. Subsequently, catches have increased.
“The biggest challenge is changing habits,” he admits. “Most people only talk about today; they never think about tomorrow. But this is the only country we have.”
By Sarah Marshall