The origins of the Chikolongo project are in a response from IFAW to address human-wildlife conflict (HWC) with the community outside Liwonde National Park (Malawi). Through a process of adaptive management, founded on a partnership approach between IFAW, Imani (as local partner) and the community, the Chikolongo project has evolved into an integrated farm and enterprise project with tangible impact for the communities involved, through the provision of vital water and various opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, incomes and food security. The project continues to evolve; here we chronicle the project’s story to date – highlighting successes, impact and challenges along the way.


With human populations on an exponential rise, as is the case in rural Malawi, the pressure on natural resources intensifies, especially in vulnerable rural communities where most people are surviving as subsistence farmers on an income of less than $1.25/day. A challenge which is further compounded when communal agricultural land shares boundaries with protected areas, breeding opportunities for encroachment, temptations for wildlife (e.g. crop raiding) and ultimately, events of HWC. Given the extent of habitat loss in Malawi (>40% forestry cover since 1970), the national parks and protected areas are the only places left for wildlife and biodiversity. In the context of the growing population in Malawi (over 18 million in 2018, projected at 30 million by 2030) the competition for scarce natural resources will only increase.

Such was the case for Chikolongo, a community living adjacent to the western boundary of Liwonde National Park in Southern Malawi. The population of communities living on the western side of Liwonde NP is estimated to be as much 90,000 people. This project is focused on the extended community of ‘Chikolongo’, which encompasses 13 villages with a combined population for 1,420 people. The community is rural and, as with over 80% of Malawians, most people are smallholder, subsistence farmers, mainly growing maize as a food crop. Each village has a Chief or village head man who acts as the village lead and they are key stakeholders in the project. The villages have people mainly from Yao tribal origins. The Yao of Malawi are mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen. The Yao are a matrilineal and largely matrilocal society. Malawi’s Yao have a low literacy rate compared to that of other ethnic groups in the country.

Without access to reliable water sources, particularly in the dry season when shallow wells dry up, community members (usually women) would walk 1km through the park to collect water for household use from the Shire River; a perennial river which meanders through the park and is home to thousands of crocodiles and hippos. On the other hand, during the rainy and crop growing season, it was common for wildlife (particularly elephants) to wander out the park in pursuit of crops grown by the community. With no alternatives for where to access water or where to grow their crops safely, community members were frequently subject to wildlife encounters that often resulted in deaths (usually from crocodiles) and pillaged crops. Out of necessity, opportunity and sometimes retaliation, wildlife was poached; either for subsistence or as part of a wider network of illegal wildlife trade (IWT).

An integrated, holistic solution

In an effort to solve this problem, a combined effort between the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) of Malawi, the German Embassy in Malawi and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) saw the construction of a 6km electrified fence between the Chikolongo community and the national park. At the same time, a system to pump water out the park was developed to ensure that the community still had access to water – taking away the need and risk associated with entering the park. Out of this was borne opportunity to develop fishponds and small irrigated plots, which provided an alternative source of fish protein that was not the Shire River and reliable water supply for families to grow vegetables throughout the year. Following the installation of the fence and the establishment of the fishponds, IFAW approached Imani Consultants Ltd (Imani) to form a partnership agreement for the ongoing management of the project which would include trialing a range of livelihoods strategies to enhance the resilience of the Chikolongo community. From here the integrated farm project grew organically to incorporate poultry, apiculture, woodlots, more extensive irrigated land and a rice enterprise. To get to this point however, has been a journey of consistent project support and adaptive management with investments in both infrastructural and human capital and most importantly the development of a relationship with the community founded on honesty and trust.

Figure 1: Ducks are part of the poultry initiative                                                                                         Figure 2: One of the beehives at Chikolongo

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 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 3.

Figure 3: Chikolongo Chiefs taking members of IFAW and Imani on a tour of the rice fields and the newly constructed storage house and maize mill house.

Learning points and adaptive management

Through 2017 and 2018, Blocks A and B were used for larger scale agricultural production; with primary focus 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 community at reduced rates (food security) and to other buyers from Balaka, Zomba and Blantyre, three cities in Malawi’s southern region. Additionally, a range of alternative land uses were explored on land that did not demonstrate suitable soil types for food crop production. This included bamboo for sustainable charcoal production, and wildflowers and shrubs to supply vital pollen for the bee colonies in the apiary located between Blocks A and B.

Figure 4: Farm workers hoeing land in Blocks A and B

Poor harvests of the irrigated crops in 2017-2018, primarily due to poor soil quality and adverse weather conditions, against the comparative success of rain-fed rice spurred the decision to pilot growing Kilombero rice (a high quality, fragrant rice in demand in Malawi) under irrigation in the next agricultural cycle (advised by Alec Msusa – a smallholder agriculture and irrigation specialist). This decision was discovered to be very fruitful when the rice was harvested in 2019; with a positive 3 tonnes of rice harvested per hectare (which is above national averages) coming to >15 tonnes in total. About half of this rice was distributed to members of the communities in need, while another proportion was sold to the community at reduced rates. The remaining rice is being milled and sold for profit. A special connection was made when a tonne of the milled rice was sold to IFAW’s project in Kasungu National Park, contributing to rations of the park’s rangers and rapid response units (RRUs). With this bumper harvest, the project team is aiming to develop a rice enterprise whereby processed and packaged rice can be sold throughout the country. The money earned from the enterprise can be used to cover the project costs (e.g. inputs and salaries) for the next season, moving towards a sustainable enterprise.

Figure 5: The Kilombero rice grown under irrigation at Chikolongo                                      Figure 6: The first maize milled during the opening ceremony

Another enterprise in development at the project site is a maize mill. The mill was requested after community members reported travelling long distances to get their maize milled, decreasing productivity in other areas of their lives. The capital investment of the maize mill was provided by IFAW, with the agreement that a committee would be trained to manage it, consuming all running costs, responsibility for repairs and maintenance and its success as a venture targeting reduction in opportunity cost and increasing turnover/profit for the farm.

Family plots at the project site were designed by the Chiefs, to enable community members to cultivate on 15x30m2 (0.1 acre) irrigated plots under 6-monthly lease agreements as a source of income generation and dietary diversification. Rotation between households ensures that all members of the community can use the plots. Each plot has access to a tap which is connected to the bulk irrigation system. The families who utilise this land are 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, but also food security. Crops grown include tomatoes, onions, Chinese cabbage, rape seed, turnips, okra, eggplant and indigenous pumpkin. 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 $440, 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.

Figure 7 : Cabbage and Chinese cabbage grown on one of the irrigated family plots                                        Figure 8 : Fish harvested from pond 2

Another important feature of the project is its fish farm, comprising five ponds. The project’s initial focus was to grow fish on a fully commercial basis for income generation, supplying restaurants and lodges. Various approaches were attempted to improve productivity and to increase fish growth, however, due to species choice, size/scale, water turnover potential and input supply inhibiting the fish farm’s potential to generate significant profits, the decision was taken in 2017-18 to focus instead on a sustainable business model that would stimulate local market development and promote food security. This decision has led to multiple production cycles of smaller-sized fish which are available to Chikolongo community members, as well as market agents within the project area. In pursuit of the optimal production system, a trial was initiated from late 2019. The large square pond has been converted into a breeding pond, from which fingerlings are stocked into the four grow-out ponds, in cycles of four months – allowing for two cycles per year per pond. The model utilises the indigenous species, red-breast tilapia (Tilapia rendalli), rather than the typical Shire River Tilapia, since this species is preferred by many fish farmers and markets, due to superior taste. The ponds have been stocked with varying stocking densities of fish (3,5,7 and 10/m2) and target average harvest size of 50-70g (see Figure 8), which is best suited to this rural market context (potential annual harvest of >900 Kg for four ponds). Ongoing sampling activities enable the team to track the growth rate of fish on a monthly basis, in order to allow comparisons between the different experimental conditions of each pond and to determine the stocking model that will yield the most fish, in terms of number and biomass, as well as the largest fish – for higher-value markets. It is anticipated that the results of this research trial will be transferable to the majority of smallholder fish farmers in Malawi who operate systems with similar scale.

Closing remarks

Over my time working with Imani and the project, it has been a pleasure to see it adapt and grow; specifically through the successful uptake of irrigation farming technologies that have not been used (at this scale) in the community before. I recently led a team conducting data collection for a baseline survey of a multi-stakeholder programme that will be implementing activities towards ‘building resilience and adapting to climate change’ in the same area. Aligned with the Government of Malawi’s National Resilience Strategy, some of its activities aim to promote resilient agricultural growth, human capacity, livelihoods and social protection; so it is encouraging to see that the Chikolongo Project is already working towards these objectives and contributing to the resilience of the Chikolongo community – especially in the midst of climatic change and the socio-economic uncertainty Malawi (and the world) is currently facing.

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 improvements within their livelihoods. The Chikolongo project represents a customized, community-led and participatory approach to helping local people derive sources of income not reliant on the illegal harvesting of fauna and flora in parks (poaching). Key in enabling such an approach has been ifaw’s long term commitment to the project from both a financial and partnership perspective.

About Jonathan

Jonathan joined Imani Development’s general consulting team in 2016. His core area of work is in community and livelihoods; with focus on vulnerable communities surrounding national parks and projects seeking win-win outcomes for people and conservation through effective community engagement, monitoring, evaluation and learning. He is experienced in project management, design, implementation, qualitative data analysis and reporting. Jonathan manages and coordinates extensive data collection efforts across Malawi and in Zambia and Zimbabwe. He is originally from Malawi and is fluent in Chichewa. He holds a BSc Hons in Natural Sciences from Durham University.