At 79, group village head Chimbalu of Kasungu is soft-spoken, but with uncharacteristic charm and big ambition.
His vision is clear in the serenity of his sanitary village with plentiful natural trees and fruit trees only outnumbered in his royal homestead.
“Welcome to my orchard,” says the chief, pointing at a well-manicured farmland behind his house in the country’s major tobacco-growing district.
The young trees are waiting to turn the remote setting in Traditional Authority Kaomba into a top fruit producer.
On February 25 last year, the traditional leader received 93 seedlings of tangerines and 53 orange trees from the Jesuit Centre for Ecology and Development, a social arm of the Society of Jesus. They now adorn an orchard also dotted with bananas, pawpaw and other fruit trees.
“I have seen elsewhere how fruits have helped communities and my dream is to have a big orchard. With grafting, one tree can give me 100 trees and 26 trees can bring lots of cash. I want to have hundreds of trees,” says Chimbalu.
Fruits change lives
The village head dreams to have a self-sustaining livelihood in his old age.
“Many people, too, come to learn from me,” he narrates. “I am always happy to share my experiences.”
Chimbalu’s story is part of Tasintha, a three-year project aimed at improving food security and economic resilience for communities battling effects of climate change. It contributes to the Jesuit centre’s vision of a society where communities promote environmental integrity and the poor and marginalised households have decent livelihoods.
The centre envisages the interventions uplifting small-scale farmers to become productive and resilient through enhanced livelihoods, economic opportunities and food security amid climate change.
In 2016, a storm blew off a classroom roof at Pasungile Primary School near Chimbalu Village. The tragedy threatened learners though no one was injured. The Jesuit centre worked with the student’s wildlife and environmental conservation club to plant trees and expands its woodlot. Today, such tragedies have returned.
“We planted the first trees in 2016 after receiving seedlings from the Jesuit centre, formed a club which has continued planting the trees in the subsequent years,” explains Tanazio Phillip, a teacher at the rural school.
As an incentive, the school introduced awards for students who best cared for their trees.
“Climate change is fuelled by wanton cutting down of trees. When we teach children in class about climate change and the need to conserve the environment, we are building a society that will sustain the environment for generations to come,” Philip states.
However, poverty and lack of alternative sources of energy in a country where the majority still rely on firewood for cooking.
Currently, the census shows that just 12 percent of the country’s population and just one percent of the rural majority have access to grid power. This puts enormous pressure on trees, with 98 percent of the population cooking using fuelwood.
To reduce the loss of trees, the Jesuits social arm supports alternative energy initiatives, including promotion of Chitetezo Mbaula, a locally-made cookstove which uses less firewood and emit less smoke than open fires with three stones.
The five-year-old Mbira women group has produced and sold some 1 003 cookstoves within seven months. Currently, the Jesuit centre supported the group to construct a stove production structure.
“Since I started using chitetezo mbaula for cooking and heating, my family no longer suffers from respiratory diseases because it emits less smoke than the three-stone fireplace.
Says group member Queen Mwale: “The same quantity of firewood I once used for two days now takes a week.
“Instead of frequently fetching firewood, I have more time to care for my family and participate in economic activities. Even my children have more time to do schoolwork.”
The centre also introduced village banking schemes and other microfinance management skills to ensure that local communities manage their finances better.
The village savings and loans group also bankroll value addition enterprises to improve the standards of living for members’ families who process cooking oil from groundnuts.
Some members acquire soft loans to start or sustain small and medium scale businesses.
In agriculture, which employs about 80 percent of Malawi’s workforce, the centre helps growers use climate-smart farming practices that improve crop harvests for improved food security, nutrition and incomes.
Extension workers work closely with farmers to entrench soil and water conservation and replenish vegetation which absorbs greenhouse gasses that fuel global warming and climate change.