The future of waste: from trash to cash

Wonderful Hunga, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 24 June 2015

Lilongwe, like many other emerging cities in the Global South, is facing unprecedented urban population growth due to a number of factors. In 2008, the city's population stood at 669,021, with an annual growth rate of 4.3 percent. Estimates show that the number of people living in this capital city will have more than doubled by 2030. With the current population, approximately 109 metric tonnes of waste are produced in Lilongwe every day. Yet this figure is conservative as it is based on study that was done a few years ago.

Waste management is increasingly becoming a challenge for Lilongwe's residents. The local authority can barely collect all of the waste that is generated — a 2008 study showed that the city could only collect and safely dispose of 30 percent of the city's waste. As the problem worsens and the population continues to grow, Lilongwe may soon become a city of trash.

Yet in this bleak future, women and young people — supported by the nonprofit sector — are seeing opportunities. At least 76 percent of the waste produced by the city of Lilongwe is organic, and these residents are taking advantage of it.

Our World International (OWI) is a local NGO working in Kawale, a traditional housing area in Lilongwe City. Driven by the waste situation in his neighbourhood, OWI's founder Stephen Chiunjira mobilized women and young people in the area and formed waste entrepreneurship groups. Equipped with basic knowledge in composting, the women and young people are making compost manure, which they sell to individuals for use in gardens and to landscaping companies. The neglected waste that was causing unpleasant smells in the neighbourhood and polluting rivers is now a source of revenue.

The city of Lilongwe admits the enormity of the waste challenge it faces. Two years ago, the city government collaborated with two NGOs, a College of Agriculture, and women's groups in informal settlements in a UN-Habitat-funded "waste for wealth" project. Through the project, women in Mtandire (a populous informal settlement) were trained in waste recycling, which included composting. The women were linked to a landscaping company called Four Seasons Nurseries, which buys compost from them. About 33 women, most of them illiterate and many of them single parents, are now still making compost, even though the project ended more than two years ago.

While the motivation of the waste entrepreneurship groups is to earn a living, they are also cleaning up the city, especially in the low-income areas, where the city council's waste collection services do not reach.

Population growth and urbanisation are fuelling waste generation in Lilongwe. Considering the capacity of the government to handle garbage, the city seems to be headed towards a trash-filled future. Yet there is hope in the works of waste entrepreneurs, not just for the environment, but for the city's economy as well.

Photo: CCODE

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