Written by Deepa Pullanikkatil

Post Doctoral Fellow, Rhodes University

Founder, Abundance

“A world of abundance, where there is plenty for humans and where nature is thriving”, is the vision of our non-profit organization in Malawi called “Abundance”. We have often been critiqued to be an organization that is focusing on too many things. “So, what is your area of focus?”, “Aren’t you doing too many different things, could you not narrow your projects down to one or two?” These are some of the questions people often ask us. To answer them, I tell stories; real life stories about people I have met while working in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in our world. These are the people who inspired Abundance, to take an integrated approach to development.

Supporting community participation is key

We were working on a climate change adaptation project in Lake Chilwa Basin in southern Malawi. It is a lake basin with 1.5 million people, predominantly subsistence rural communities with natural resource dependent livelihoods. We were confident in our thinking that we were providing ideal interventions for climate change adaptation to communities in the Lake Chilwa Basin. Feeling quite satisfied in the knowledge that we knew exactly what the communities needed to adapt, we brought forth interventions such as solar fish dryers, fuel efficient stoves and efficient fish smoking kilns; we promoted conservation agriculture, we provided trainings on climate change and with the communities we planted,  lots and lots of trees.  But when we went to the villages, we realised that women’s participation was not as good as it should be and that men had other challenges they wanted to share with us. Men came to us with their two main concerns, cholera and bilharzia (a debilitating disease caused by parasitic flatworms called schistosomes affecting the urinary tract) and asked us if we could do something about that. Women said that poor access to family planning and reproductive health services were the challenges they faced. The reasons for their reduced participation was now clear. How could men attend meetings when disease burden was so high? How could women participate actively when they had so many children or so many sick people to care for?

Why interconnectedness matters

Faced with the dilemma of how to address the health and family planning needs of communities through a climate change adaptation project with a specific livelihoods and environment focus, we realised that the way forward was to use an integrated approach. We could no longer take a sectoral approach, because communities did not live their lives in compartments. They lived integrated lives with needs that were interconnected. If we wanted to help them adapt, then we had to understand and work with interconnectedness. These often cuts across sectors and does not fall under a narrow themes of livelihoods or environment.  We had to open our eyes to these new perspectives.

In order to address the cholera and bilharzia challenges, we environmentalists were required to learn about disease and parasitology. We learnt that the challenge of bilharzia was partly created by well-intentioned irrigation coverage expansion. This was a method intended to help communities improve agriculture and adapt better. But in areas where bilharzia is endemic, increasing irrigation coverage allow snails which host the bilharzia causing parasite to spread to such waters, thus spreading bilharzia in to areas where previously it was not prevalent. In such a situation, environment, irrigation and health are intertwined. Without integrated planning there is risk of creating negative impacts through well-intentioned projects. We collaborated with health institutions and undertook research. We found prevalence of bilharzia was indeed high – up to 49% in some areas. The publication of the research was shocking to many and since then, a lot of attention shifted to the neglected disease of bilharzia, and help poured in.

It’s nice when people think you’re an expert

While doing research on bilharzia, as environmentalists, the first hurdle we had to overcome was that of our own ignorance, or lack of interest to work on a field that we knew nothing about. Mostly it was the fear of appearing ignorant, after all don’t we all like being the “experts”? We as environmentalists had to learn about health, about parasitology and diseases. Going beyond our comfort zone was a humbling experience and finally, in the end, as thousands of people got treated for Bilharzia, it was satisfying to see community needs met, exactly the way they should be met.

Starvation or prostitution: Families seeking solutions to problems caused by climate change

Another story I tell people who say Abundance should have a narrow focus, is about a girl I met in Malawi who lives along the shores of Lake Chilwa. She was twelve years old at the time and was forced into sex work by her step-father and mother. It was quite shocking to learn of this. Why would a family do that to their own child? At what point did they decide that morals can be compromised? Trying to empathise with the family, I realised, that they did this because they had to survive. As a subsistence household whose crops had dried up due to drought, they had to cope with the looming hunger that faced them. The income brought by the young girl would at least provide a few meals for the family. Hunger can take precedence over the rights of girls causing people to come up with such coping methods, we realised.

A different coping strategy was employed by another family who had a sixteen year old girl. Their crops failed too and the father of the child was a fisherman whose livelihood was under threat when Lake Chilwa partially dried up in 2012. How did this family cope? When a 45 year old man offered a good bride price for the young girl, it was seen as the light at the end of the tunnel for the family. Marrying the sixteen year old was their way out of the imminent hunger that awaited the family. These were examples of linkages between climate variability, change, environmental shocks and coping strategies that impact on human rights.

Everything is connected

Both girls were eventually rescued and they went to school with intercession from communities. But there are many girls who may have not been so lucky. The diverse ways climate change impacts food security which subsequently impacts the basic rights and education of children are manifested in these stories. In such a situation, how do we separate projects into compartments of environmental or climate change or health or livelihoods or gender? Are they not all linked? Can we address one need and ignore the other?

Population or energy needs? : The causes of deforestation are complex

Talking of needs, one basic need is that of energy for cooking, which, in the case of Malawi is predominantly derived from firewood and charcoal. In Malawi, deforestation is a big challenge and land use change maps have shown how dire the situation is in Malawi. But the situation is complex. Is deforestation driven by charcoal makers whose customers are middle income people in cities who want affordable energy sources? Or is deforestation driven by rural women who use firewood for cooking? Or else, is it driven by population growth which increases demand for wood? What knowledge, attitudes and behaviours exist that promote use of this energy at the expense of forests? With a national average of 9% of the country having access to electricity (25% in urban, while only 5.3% in rural areas), it is no wonder that people resort to charcoal and firewood for cooking. Can we address deforestation without looking at population and energy issues? And is the energy sector linked with forestry or population sectors? How many policies have underlined these linkages? Very few.

It’s essential to take an integrated approach to projects from the beginning

Looking at our world now, it is evident that we continue to compartmentalise everything. We have departments of water, land, health, social welfare, gender and so on and so forth. Even the United Nations is separated into development programmes, environmental programmes, refugee programmes, food and agriculture and so on. However, the UN and development agencies do implement projects in an integrated manner. One good example is setting up the Sustainable Development Goals and the previous Millennium Development Goals. These goals cover many aspects of human and environmental well-being.

I do understand that having a focus in an organization helps to plan resources efficiently. But, haven’t we frequently seen projects using a sectoral approach and coming in at later stage to integrate aspects such as gender, vunerable groups and HIV? In our case too we did exactly that. Ours was a predominantly environmental programme and we integrated population and health concerns at a later stage, after listening to community concerns. Learning from that, we argue that taking an integrated approach from the beginning may prove to be a better way of using aid money (as efforts can be coordinated and resources shared).

This is not a new concept and has proven to work well in some integrated approach projects such as the “Population Health and Environment” or PHE projects. These PHE projects were implemented in the Philippines, Madagascar, Ethiopia and in East Africa in the Lake Victoria Basin. There was a lot to learn from them and we realised that a PHE approach could be useful in Malawi, in particular for climate change adaptation work. Malawi’s high population growth of mostly rural communities that depend so much on natural resources, makes the pressures of population on environment very apparent. Furthermore, meeting women’s needs are paramount to building a strong nation and thus family planning and health needs cannot be overlooked in an environmental project. When the P, H and E aspects are integrated there is greater synergy and cost saving.

Community development can look  like a spider web, woven with issues including human health, environment, livelihoods, climate change, education, human rights, population, gender and many others.  Having one missing link in the web will impact others. That is why Abundance is looking at addressing both human well-being and environmental needs in an integrated manner. We now work at Mbonda village in Machinga District, southern Malawi. We are trying to identify sustainable and integrated ways to meet both human needs and help nurture nature. Our vision is a world of abundance where human and environmental needs are met and there is no lack. To be truly abundant, we need to look at all aspects of life, the whole spider web. So, to those who may still ask “Why do you insist on taking an integrated approach?” we would like to answer back –We live inter-linked lives, so why not use integrated approach?


Community members at Mbonda village, Machinga District, southern Malawi, listing down their needs for interventions from Abundance in April 2016.