Many farmers surrounding Malawi’s postcard tea estates struggle for safe water, but some 12 000 members of Sukambizi Association Trust (SAT) are making a difference. Our features editor JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Every day, women and children in the hilly drylands of Thyolo and Mulanje do the work of pipes—carrying water from distant sources to their homes. Many are seen carrying bulky buckets on their heads from murky, shallow wells and streams where animals drink.
Agnes Maginito, 35, once walked over five kilometres to fetch drinking water from an open well in Waluma Village, Thyolo, where she often queued for up to three hours to fill a bucket. To help speed up this daily task, her three children either missed classes or went to school late.
“We require seven buckets a day, but could only fill three. We usually woke up as early as 4.30am to rush to the well, but returned home around 8am,” she narrates.
Maginito no longer “wastes time” at the overwhelmed well. She walks just about the length of a football field to draw water from one of the 16 boreholes funded by the Sukambizi farmers.
The water points have become handy as the planet gets warmer. This is manifested by unpredictable rainfall pattern, drying rivers, a heat wave that scorched the cash crop in 2019 and reductions in tea-picking months from eight to just five.
Tea growers affiliated to SAT are planting trees in their fields and on riverbanks to conserve water. Maginito feels indebted to the winners of the prestigious Water Warrior Award from Water Witness International (WWI), whose Malawi office works with SAT on a water stewardship programme.
“Water problems are history. We drink safe water, but spend more time looking after our families, crops and business than fetching water for everyday chores. We fill four buckets within an hour,” she brags.
Maginito sits on a water users committee of 10 women and two men created under the SAT water stewardship initiative. The committee, which has been trained to sustainably manage the borehole, has banned washing clothes and utensils near the borehole to avoid polluting water with soap.
Meria Feleto, 38, explains: “We don’t want to go back to water sources filled with trash, dead frogs, plastics, mud and used condoms. “We take turns caring for the borehole, each homestead pays K2000 for maintenance and early birds clean the water point.”
The mother-of-three runs a shop where her neighbours buy basics. “We are saving a lot of time because the Sukambizi tea growers have rescued us from degrading water problems still haunting our neighbouring villages,” she says.
Last year, Cedrick Mwango, leader of smallholder farmers in Girena Block in Thyolo, moved SAT to deliver clean water to the rural population.
He explains: “At our annual general meeting, 140 delegates from all 20 tea clubs discuss life-changing projects farmers want in their areas. When we asked for a borehole, it passed.
“At last, the target communities have safe water. They are no longer bedridden by waterborne diseases, but spend more time doing income generating activities.”
SAT has established 12 boreholes in Thyolo and four in Mulanje, where some people get piped water from Mulanje Mountain.
In 2019, they allocated K1.4 billion to transformative community projects, including K40 million for 10 boreholes and K126 million for a 30km expansion of the piped water system.
The projects are financed by premiums from Fairtrade Foundation, which promotes conservation of water and nature. For Fairtrade sales, SAT receives a top-up of $0.50 per kilogramme to invest in strengthening their business and community improvements.
Mwango explains: “We sell a kilo at K121 [about $0.17] and we receive a Fairtrade top-up of 50 cents. However, every farmer is required to plant vetiver grass across a slope to stop soil erosion and no less than 20 trees per plot.
“My family has never starved since I started growing tea in 2008, when we qualified for the Fairtrade premiums. I have acquired land, four houses and a motorcycle.”
The group started in 2000 with almost 1000 farmers, but registered as a trust in 2016.
As the rainy season becomes shorter due to climate change, the farmers mulch their fields to retain soil moisture and dig pits to trap rainwater. To safeguard nature and their market, they don’t use chemicals. They are not only doing this for themselves but also non-members and future generations.
“We want trees to cover 30 percent of our fields. Every year, we establish one community woodlot and replenish trees on our farms, riverbanks and bare grounds. Last year, we planted 250 000 indigenous trees and we have over 70 000 seedlings in our nursery,” says executive member Hudson Lowani.
Their partners at WWI work with all water users to help them understand opportunities and barriers to progress. The organisation has been implementing the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) standard as a cost-effective way of improving water security and adapting to climate change for all stakeholders through targeted and tailored collective action.
WWI has awarded SAT’s water stewardship committee the Water Warriors Award for 2020 in recognition of the tea growers’ enduring courage and conviction in the fight for water access, security and justice for all in line with the global Sustainable Development Goal 6.
According to the award founder, Water Witness’ late trustee Chris Wrigglesworth, the award “addresses the fundamental nature of water as a basic human need and the risks to equitable access to water imposed by overexploitation and inequitable access to power and money.”
To Walter Chinangwa, Water Witness Malawi’s International programme officer, the award-winning farmers are “the epitome of what water stewardship stands for”.
He states: “They are not just thinking about their needs, but everyone affected by water inequalities and they engage them on how best to deal with it while conserving the catchment.
“Interestingly, they have established local institutions to advance local solutions, drilled boreholes where they are needed and work with everyone to plant and safeguard trees.”
Chinangwa recalls that the Sukambizi farmers were struggling with water scarcity and WWI helped them understand that they would bear worse impacts of climate change if they did not care for the environment.
He explains: “I was amazed how best they have dealt with the situation. At the start of the water stewardship work, I was working with a group of farmers with limited resources and knowledge in water management, but they have demonstrated a combination of rare enthusiasm and dedication”.
“Having worked with them, I have realised that if you equip a community with the right information and encourage them in the right direction, they usually feel compelled to improve their situation. The water stewardship project equipped the rural farmers with the knowledge as to how to deal with their problems, so as implementing partners let’s strive to empower local communities and compliment them on their journey to finding local solutions and don’t write them off or try to think on their behalf.”
And the award-winners pledge not to relent.
“This isn’t our first award. Our conservation work won Fairtrade awards, but the new award gives us hope that if we sustain water stewardship, our children and their children will find the rivers that flow in our tea fields intact,” says SAT administrator Dorothy Chunga.
To SAT chairperson Fredrick Mkwapatira, the Water Warriors award is a huge endorsement for the environmentally sustainable social enterprise.
He says: “We inherited this land from our ancestors and we owe it to the next generation. The award motivates us to keep doing the good work and assures buyers on the international market that the proceeds of Fairtrade are benefiting everyone, even those who do not grow tea. We hope to sell more tea.”
Malawi is losing trees faster than they are being replanted.
Mkwapatira calls for a turnaround: “The trees we plant in tea fields and community woodlots come from our nursery. “If farmers don’t plant trees, we don’t buy their tea. When non-tea growers ask for seedlings, we give them. We are all stewards of the environment.”
Women, who dominate SAT membership, occupy five of 12 seats in its executive committee. “From tea clubs to the executive, we encourage equal representation of men and women in decision-making positions because we constitute 70 percent of our membership,” says Delli Nesi, from Nkundi near Lujeri Tea Estate, where the group sells its tea.
She reckons women representation makes decisive bodies responsive to community needs.
Until recently, Nesi’s community was drinking water from shallow pools located almost five kilometres from her home.
“With a borehole close to home, we save almost three hours a day and spend more time picking tea and doing business. When we were queuing for dirty water, we couldn’t adequately care for our bodies and tea,” she says.
Agnes Mikwamba’s backyard garden says it all—having water close to home unlocks numerous possibilities.
Says the mother-of-five in Soza Village, Mulanje: “Due to lengthy walks, bathing and washing clothes was like wasting water. With a borehole near my home, personal health, sanitation and hygiene is improving. “I even grow vegetables behind a kitchen to improve the diet and end malnutrition among children.”
Amid frequent and disastrous effects of climate change, stewardship is awakening the water warriors to value water knowing its diverse benefits to different people.
“We all need water for different purposes. When we work together to save water, we’ll all win,” says Mkwapatira.