Background to Chikolongo

A quick search on google will tell you everything you need to know about “human-wildlife conflict zones”. The world wildlife fund (WWF) defines this issue as “any interaction between humans and wildlife that results in negative impacts on human social, economic or cultural life, on the conservation of wildlife populations, or on the environment” (Patana, et al., 2018). Others specify that the frequency of these conflicts has increased due to the near exponential increase in human populations within said regions, and consequential expansion of human activities (Woodroffe, 2000) (Woodroffe, et al., 2005).

For the communities that surround Liwonde National Park in Southern Malawi, this was once a daily battle. More specifically, the area known as Chikolongo was highlighted as a hotspot for two main issues: human-elephant conflict and poaching – primarily bushmeat and fishing within the National Park. Figure 1 shows Chikolongo’s proximity to the National Park boundary, as well as its distance from the nearest tarred road, connecting the communities surrounding Chikolongo to formal market options for their agricultural produce.

Figure 1: Location of Chikolongo Project on the border of the Liwonde National Park. Location in relation to major towns within Malawi (left), in relation to major towns within the district (right)

Humans and elephants frequently clashed in this area due to competition for land and the expansion of agriculture towards the park boundary. As such, elephants would frequently overlook park boundaries en route to pillaging farmlands, rich in agricultural produce. Anybody who has had the privilege of enjoying a game drive in Africa will know that elephants are masters of destruction, hence their need for such large territories. As a counter to this, the communities adjacent to the park would take up arms to ensure their farmland would be protected. In the latter, humans would cross the park boundary illegally on a daily basis to collect water, “poach” fish from the river and occasionally hunt for bush meat. These activities would frequently result in community members being injured by animals, or in some rare cases, fatalities were recorded. To counter these incidents, a plan was set in action to build a fence stretching 6km for this portion of the park boundary. This required combined effort between the Department for National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), the German Embassy in Malawi and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). In addition to the fence’s construction, DNPW and IFAW also planned for the development of community fish ponds, to address the pressing need for improved riverine conservation, along with the creation of alternative income generating activities.

Figure 2: (Left) The primary wildlife issue, Elephants crossing the National Park boundary fence (2014); (Centre) The Chikolongo project site (2015); and (Right) The primary human issue, Community members crossing the National Park boundary to collect water.

These fish ponds were completed in 2014-15, with assistance and technical aquaculture expertise provided by Imani Development in collaboration with the University or Stirling, Institute of Aquaculture. During this initial stage, project staff members were trained by Imani experts, through the first, full fish production cycle. For the duration of this phase, an Imani aquaculturist was based on-site at the Chikolongo project, as part of Imani’s hands-on approach. Furthermore, a fish farming manual was developed with the project staff, specifically for the fish ponds at Chikolongo and to ensure sustainability of the aquaculture activities. Following the initial installation of the fence and the  establishment of the fish ponds, IFAW approached Imani to form a partnership agreement for ongoing management of the project and the introduction of further opportunities. Ever since, Imani has been responsible for implementation and management of alternative diverse livelihood strategies with the project, to the benefit of surrounding communities.

My first visit to Chikolongo

My part in the Chikolongo story started when I visited the project for the first time in January 2016. I had been in Malawi for under a week and was acclimatising to the heat, ironic since I was living in Chikwawa at the time, aptly labelled “the furnace”. Since it was during the rainy season, the dirt road connecting Chikolongo to the Liwonde-Mangochi tarred-road was in poor condition, which meant the final 15km took almost an hour. I didn’t mind. The road snakes its way through a series of villages and small trading posts, passing a myriad of farming plots, village schools and smiling faces. Indeed, this part of the journey  would became a regular source of joy over the coming months and years.

On arrival, I was introduced to the project team – comprising 8 full-time staff – the majority of which reside in the villages surrounding the project site, some of whom are reformed ex-poachers. When the project was established, Imani knew that it would be imperative to engage the local communities for ongoing involvement, as they understood the needs of the community, the local economy and value chains, soil conditions, as well as views and mechanisms of the Traditional Authority, in this case it was the Chikolongo chiefs. I was then given a tour of the site. By this time, the project site comprised two community water taps, five fishponds, two duck houses and one hectare of land for family-managed agricultural farming, with 24 households directly engaged (see Figure 3). At this time, the community taps and family plots were serviced by a motorised diesel pump at the river, with a pipeline running approximately one kilometre through the National Park to the project offices outside the fence. The community taps initially served approximately 300 households in the Chikolongo area, with water for cooking, washing, drinking and “home crop” agriculture.

Figure 3: Layout of the Chikolongo Project January 2016. Project site in proximity to R. Shire (left), Project site, showing offices, sports field, fish ponds, poultry area and agricultural family plots (right)

The family plots were designed by the chiefs, to enable community members to cultivate on 15x30m2  irrigated plots under lease agreements as a source of income generation. Each plot has access to a tap which is connected to the bulk irrigation pipe from the pump station at the river bank. Furthermore, the plots were used in six-month rotations, such that various members of the Chikolongo Community have the opportunity to farm the plot for periods of time. The families who utilised this land were given regular training on Good Agricultural Practises (GAPs) such as: conservation agriculture, integrated pest management and integrated plant nutrient management. Farmers grow a range of different food and cash crops, leading to improvements in not only income generation, but perhaps most importantly food security. Crops grown include tomatoes, onions, Chinese cabbage, rape seed, turnips, okra, eggplant and indigenous pumpkin, as shown in Figure 4 and 5.

Figure 4: Various vegetables grown by 24-families in the family plots (2016-2019)

Figure 5: Various vegetables grown by 24-families in the family plots (2016-2019)

My ongoing role as an aquaculture consultant was to support fish farm management and improve overall productivity, provide technical training sessions and to assist with marketing of fish products to the community and nearby markets. More specifically, this included: daily water quality monitoring and management, to ensure good fish health; developing feed and fertilizer schedules, to ensure cost-effective and sustainable input use; sampling, grading and harvesting schedules, to ensure that fish growth could be tracked and assessed; budget management, to ensure that the fish farm would be commercially viable and sustainable. Since the project has a significant focus on animal welfare and conservation, it was also important to train fish farm workers on humane-slaughter methods.

Part of my role was also to continue the good work of my predecessors from Imani who developed a feed recipe that could be made using locally available ingredients (e.g. soya, rice bran, fish sweepings, groundnut, maize etc). I was excited to get stuck in with the hands-on approach demonstrated by the Chikolongo project staff and community. I enjoyed a good year visiting the project site at least once a month.

Typically, visits would be over several days, to ensure that there was sufficient time to conduct training and support to the on-site management. A key feature of each visit would be team meetings and meal times, when everyone would eat together under the rondavel (Figure 6) from one big pot. Meals would often include either, the famous “Chikolongo fried chicken” or fish produced on-site in the Chikolongo fish farm. These times provided a perfect opportunity to get to know the team better, and for them to laugh at my nsima-eating ability and to share enthusiasm over the taste of our fish.

Figure 6: (Left) Rondavel, site of staff meetings and mealtimes; (Middle) On-farm feed; (Right) Fish produced in Chikolongo fish ponds

Over the course of the year, I saw the team’s technical knowledge and expertise grow, but also significant expansion of the site. Further funding from IFAW has allowed Imani to facilitate the installation of a solar pump system and pipeline servicing holding dams designed to irrigate >20 Ha of diversified agricultural land through gravity-fed canals. The pipeline also connects to the existing community taps to ensure a constant supply of water and additional community taps . Furthermore, following a needs-analysis with the community and ongoing discussions with the chiefs, a large storehouse was constructed in the newly fenced Block B to provide an aggregation point for on-farm production, as well as produce from local farmers within the community (i.e. high-quality storage facility), as shown in Figure 7. In addition to this, Imani consultants and project staff provided ongoing technical support to smallholder farmers and community members within their respective villages. A specific focus was placed on not only increasing yields, but also helping to improve access to markets by improving local supply chain integration. In turn, these activities translate into higher incomes for farmer families and ultimately improved and more resilient livelihoods.

Figure 7: (Left) Solar pump station; (Right) Irrigation holding dam in foreground and Storehouse in Block B.

Figure 8: (Left) Map of different Chikolongo project plots, irrigation piping and reservoirs for each Block (June 2017)

Outside of the project site, the Imani team’s impact grew as the range of additional activities implemented with the surrounding communities increased to include veterinary services, animal husbandry training and vaccinations – in partnership with veterinarians from The Ministry of Agriculture and Project Rabies; agricultural technical training; and community wood lot construction and maintenance training. Furthermore, at the request of the community, social events are organised to engage youth through educational activities and sports, as shown in Figure 9. This approach was adopted so that the project impact could be extended beyond the immediate community.

Through 2017 and 2018, Blocks A and B were used for large-scale agricultural production. This was primarily focused on production of maize and soya under irrigation and rice in rain-fed paddies in areas where the irrigation system could not reach. These crops were aggregated alongside crops produced outside of the project by community members and sold to preferential bulk-buyers from Balaka and Blantyre. Additionally, a range of alternative land uses were explored for areas that did not demonstrate suitable soil types for crop production. This included bamboo for sustainable charcoal production, and wild flowers and shrubs to supply vital pollen for the bee colonies in the apiary located between Blocks A and B. Furthermore, building on previous experiences of successful trade with the tourist lodges in the park, conservation education and community tourism have been investigated as further revenue opportunities for the future sustainability of the project.

Figure 9: (Left) Maize production in Blocks A and B of project expansion; (Right) Football match on sports field with community youth and project staff.

Despite Imani’s long-term involvement with the communities surrounding Chikolongo, it has taken a long time to develop trust with the community members and chiefs. This is often underestimated when organisations try to engage with rural populations. A key feature of Imani’s ongoing presence in the community is the need to be proactive when informing village councils in meetings and events. It is traditional practice for the people in the community to sit, discuss, debate and digest. But to be welcomed into this council takes time and patience.

Most importantly, the success of this programme has been rooted in the building of trust. This has developed slowly over time, as the community has been able to see the benefit of new expertise through improvements within their livelihoods. For example,  the combination of secure land tenure for a period of time, and access to water for irrigation has led to the family plots being a success both in terms of income generation and food security. Moreover, the ongoing teamwork shown between project staff and the community are important in developing sustainable trade options to increase income generation for the future. This will include the establishment of viable exchanges that allow for a system to continue through multiple cycles, to bring about the same outcome, in this case food or cash crop production.

To date, these community-managed family plots continue to demonstrate high productivity. Field surveys with randomly selected farmers have highlighted average crop income of MWK 325,000.00, equivalent to over $450, with on average, 75% of crops sold to either local markets, including tourist lodges within the National Park (e.g. Mvuu Wilderness Lodge and Camp, managed by Central African Wilderness Safaris) or larger trading centres in Ulongwe and Liwonde. This demonstrates how individual members of the community can take initiative and generate income when sufficient inputs are provided.

About David

David Bargh is an Aquaculture Specialist at Imani Development Malawi. David is responsible for all Fisheries and Aquaculture initiatives in the SADC region for Imani Development, while also project managing various Agricultural and Value Chain initiatives, including the IFAW Chikolongo Farm Project. David holds a Masters in Sustainable Aquaculture Development from the University of Stirling.





[1]  Patana, Mawengkang & Silvi Lydia. 2018. Conceptual Model for Mitigating Human – Wildlife Conflict based on System Thinking. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 23rd January 2018].

[2] Woodroffe, 2000. Predators and people: using human densities to interpret declines of large carnivores. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 23rd January 2018].

[3] Thirgood, Woodroffe, & Rabinowitz. 2005. The impact of human–wildlife conflict on human lives and livelihoods. In R. Woodroffe, S. Thirgood, & A. Rabinowitz (Eds.), [No online source] People and Wildlife, Conflict or Co-existence? (Conservation Biology, pp. 13-26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Accessed 23rd January 2018].