Icon Story highlights

  • Six women and two men became photographers for six weeks, documenting a waste management project at Lizulu market in Lilongwe
  • Photos triggered conversations and reflections on engagement in waste management, care for the environment, and social and economic benefits of composting
  • Participants engaged with each other, with people in the market and their communities. Many identified practical next steps and support needed to continue manage waste
  • The photovoice project co-produced knowledge between volunteers at the market, the local civil society organisation, Lilongwe City Council, ICLEI Africa and SwedBio
  • Follow up meetings aim to support the integration of waste management and composting into future urban development plans

The river that gives the city its name

Lilongwe River runs through the centre of Malawi’s capital and gives the city its name. Rickety wooden bridges connect Lizulu and Tsoka markets which occupy sites on either side of the Lilongwe River. The markets are the bustling hubs of the city where citizens buy fruit, vegetables, electronic goods, shoes and clothing. However, Lizulu and Tsoka are also the highest point sources of pollution for the Lilongwe River and during rainy season the water level rises above the makeshift bridges criss-crossing the markets and the current carries large quantities of waste downstream. Since Lilongwe City Council currently lacks the resources to collect and process the waste, it remains wherever the river finally dumps it.

Turning waste into compost

Approximately 70% of the waste produced by the markets is organic and a Malawian civil society organisation, Our World International (OWI), piloted a project to turn the waste into compost which is used to grow food crops. The project was a success and in October 2017,

SwedBio’s partner ICLEI Africa contracted OWI to implement and oversee a waste management project. The initiative is part of a larger plan to restore the Lilongwe River and comes under the regional Urban Natural Assets for Africa: Rivers for Life (UNA Rivers) collaborative project funded by Sida through SwedBio and led by ICLEI Africa. The other cities are Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda.

Memory Mathews, one of the volunteer composters and a photographer in the photovoice project, said that seeing the change between the beginning and the end of the project encouraged her.


Inviting community participation through a photovoice project

The main aim of UNA Rivers is to contribute to improving urban human well-being by using rivers as a starting point for tackling the complex web of challenges that cities face. SwedBio and ICLEI Africa work together with the city councils in the participating cities to strengthen local sustainability and improve climate resilience, through mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem services into land-use planning and city decision-making processes. An integral part of the UNA Rivers programme design is to support better coordination between City Councils, local organisations and communities, as well as to foster community-based activities and engage citizens in being stewards of their cities.

A method called photovoice can help to visualise the changes taking place during a project such as the waste management initiative. At the same time, photovoice includes diverse perspectives from groups of citizens whose voices are sometimes not heard, such as women and marginalised groups. Photovoice is an action-oriented, participatory method that invites participants in a project to take photographs as a way of telling their own stories through images that represent their point of view at a particular moment in time.

View from a waste dumping site of one of the makeshift wooden bridges that connect Lizulu and Tsoka markets. During rainy season the river swells and often washes away bridges and dumps waste downriver.


Photos as a starting point for conversations

Eight participant photographers, six of whom were women, volunteered to take photographs each week between November and December 2017. They used disposable cameras and, for most, it was the first time they were taking pictures. In February 2018, ICLEI Africa, SwedBio and OWI met the photographers at Lizulu market to talk about the project, using the photographs as a starting point for conversations.

Overall, the participants expressed enthusiasm about the project and said they enjoyed being photographers. Going to the same place every week also helped them to notice changes and reflect on their ability to contribute to better waste management:

“We need to have hope, courage and unity. Working together towards the same goal, working as a team. It’s good to encourage each other and set goals and focus on them together.” Memory Mathews, Lizulu market photovoice photographer

Despite language differences and the need for translation between English and Chichewa, the conversations based on the photos were emotive and led to further comments from the photographers about their feelings and concern for the water quality, ecology and safety for the citizens of Lilongwe, as well as some comments about the river symbolizing life.

Insights from the photovoice activity were also captured in a video reporting first-hand the voices of the different actors involved.


Photovoice as a tool for community engagement and ownership

The photographs helped to articulate and communicate perspectives, and as a tool, photovoice produces information that can complement other sources of knowledge.

Several photographers described conversations they had had with market vendors and people going shopping in the market about the composting project. By being photographers, they attracted attention and curiosity and contributed to raising awareness about waste management and composting as a source of making organic fertiliser for growing food crops. Some of the photographers talked about the value of learning new, practical skills and mentioned that they compost waste at home and use it to grow food for their families.

“Photovoice supported a few key aims such as facilitating community-based action and engagement, inviting the voices of women and contributing as a potential catalyst for change within the larger UNA Rivers initiative.”  Jessica Kavonic, ICLEI Africa

The photovoice project resulted in the co-production of knowledge and insights between volunteers at the market, the local civil society organisation, Lilongwe City Council, ICLEI Africa and SwedBio. Follow up meetings aim to support the integration of waste management and composting into future urban development plans and policy.


Updates from the project

Developments at the recycling centre from the Our World International Instagram account (Photos: Francisco Ngwira)

Waste Management Women Volunteers

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Recycle the present, save the future

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