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Malawi: A boot camp maps the way for climate resilience amid hunger in southern Africa

The ravages of extreme weather take centre stage as the World Food Programme partners with a community to restore fragile soils
, Barbara Celis
A woman passes a rock to a man as they clear land in a WFP training boot camp in Malawi
Water-harvesting: WFP staff help shift stones to build a check dam in Chituwi village in Malawi's Chikwawa district, as part resilience boot camp organized by WFP. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis

A group of women armed with empty juice cartons, plastic bottles, stones, sticks and weeds draw a giant map in the sand of their village, Chituwi, in Malawi's Chikwawa district. 

They meticulously mark roads, schools, houses, bridges, orchards, crops, trees, cemeteries and all the wells from which they fetch water.

Nearby, a group of men attempt a similar feat, yet their map pales in comparison. 

Watch video: WFP's boot camp in Malawi

Sketching only the bare essentials, the men detail main roads, churches, the school and the chiefs’ residence, with solitary boreholes marking the village centre. Upon comparing their efforts, one woman, Matiya Maliko, overcoming evident shyness, asks jokingly if they really belong to the same community, prompting laughter.

“The maps are different because women are the linchpins of the household, shouldering the responsibility of most activities,” says Lorenzo Bosi, WFP asset creation, livelihoods and skills development team lead. “They also possess critical knowledge of their community’s priorities.”

Bootcamp participants in the village of Chituwi, in Malawi's Chikawawa District. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis
Round-up: The relative lack of detail in the men's map of Chituwi exposes women's role as the 'linchpins' of the community as they seek to prepare the village for climate shocks​​. Photo: WFP/Nkululeko Mazibuko

Bosi is among 60 people observing proceedings, including representatives from academic institutions, partners and government departments in Eswatini, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

They are spending two weeks in one of the boot camps organized by the World Food Programme (WFP) Livelihood Assets Resilience Academy (LARA), which supports a network of 16 African universities, to share resilience knowledge across the region and improve food security. 

Such boot camps equip participants with the skills to work with communities such as Maliko’s, restoring degraded lands, learning how to boost soil fertility and devising resilience solutions for shocks such as extreme-weather events.

Chituwi’s women, in Malawi’s Chikawawa District, look at the map they just drew on the sand. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis
Digging it: A trench is dug to stop water from flooding surrounding areas while improving the moisture capacity of the soil. Photo: WFP/Carmen Lumbreras

Boot camp guests dig holes, trenches, and learn about dams and irrigation. Guided by local farmer Khefusi Effet, they also visit the nearby village of Khokhwa, to see the water-harvesting structures that shielded the area from the ravages of cyclone Freddy in March 2023. 

“Years ago, we were losing faith in agriculture as rain washed away our crops,” Effet explains.

“With WFP’s support, we learned techniques to improve the quality of soils and reduce the speed of water flowing when it rains. After cyclone Freddy hit, many villages lost their crops and homes, but we didn’t. This year’s harvest proves that resilience interventions work and protect us.”

Bootcamp participants in the village of Chituwi, in Malawi's Chikawawa District.
Showing the way: Chituwi’s women's map provides a template for building resilience for boot camp participants representing universities, governments and NGOs. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis

Mercy Effet, Khefusi’s wife, adds: “Before, we didn’t have enough food and our children had to stay home, but now we have fruit trees, orchards, we sell veggies and use the money to pay for school fees.”

The Effets testify to the tangible benefits of WFP resilience programmes, turning fragile soils into fields of hope.

Such visits equip participants with a clearer picture of what is at stake.

“Resilience and nutrition go hand-in-hand and if we want communities to produce their own food, they need to diversify their diets and for that they need fertile soils,” says Makamohelo Semuli, director of nutrition and home economics from the Government of Lesotho.

Rocking it: The check dam is built to control and reverse soil erosion by mitigating the impacts of rainfall. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis

“The learnings of this boot camp will be critical to spread that knowledge.” 

Knowing your landscape is the first step towards learning how to care for it. That's why the community’s insights prove indispensable. The mapping exercise is just one aspect of the process that WFP regularly initiates with local communities, which is one of the cornerstones for the success of integrated resilience programmes. 

Currently, over 500,000 people have benefitted from those programmes across Malawi, where WFP works with local NGO partners such as World Vision.

Moses Jemitale, a WFP resilience programme manager, says: “For WFP and partners, it is critical to learn from communities and take decisions together before engaging in restoring degraded land, improving water management or protecting villages from floods.”

Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis
Home run: Farmers Khefusi and Mercy Effet shared how they saved their harvest from the impacts of cyclone Freddy. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis

WFP empowers communities to fend for themselves providing food assistance along with building their capacity for various activities. To have a lasting impact, those programmes are combined with access to markets, reduction of post-harvest losses, school feeding, or early-warning systems. 

WFP’s evidence indicates a significant decrease in reliance on WFP’s humanitarian assistance in Malawi, dropping from 19 percent in 2019 to just 3 percent in 2022 for those who participated in its resilience programmes.

The LARA network will be key to building the institutional capacities that African countries need to programme planning in this area.

A bootcamp participant in the village of Chituwi, in Malawi's Chikawawa District. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis
Overview: Matiya Maliko unpacks the map the women of Chituwi marked out the ground. Photo: WFP/Barbara Celis

“There is power in partnerships. Nobody can build resilience alone. Lessons from each country will impact and enrich other countries. That’s why my university and many others are joining LARA,” says Everson Ndlovu, an expert in disaster-risk management from the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe. 

In the heart of Chituwi, where women like Maliko and her community have shared shovels with boot camp guests, drawn maps in the sand and learned from each other, hope is taking root. Maliko neatly sums up the aspirations of her community: “I just need my land to be productive, my children to eat better, and to avoid flooding.”

WFP Malawi’s Resilience Bootcamp was possible thanks to the generous support of Czech Republic Development Cooperation and WFP USA

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