From Pollutants to Cash: Urban Poor Women Turning Waste into Wealth –
A project is helping slum-dwellers in Malawi’s capital turn trash into cash. “From
Pollutants to Cash: Urban Poor Women Turning Waste into Wealth” trains people to become
rubbish entrepreneurs, transforming waste into wealth through composting. The initiative reduces
pollution in poor communities while providing new opportunities for people from disadvantaged
- 263 waste entrepreneurs trained
- 20,000 households benefitted
- 20 tons of waste processed per settlement
Local government in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe hasn’t established adequate waste collection for
informal settlements. Households in poor neighborhoods dispose of garbage in drains and streams, or
burn it along the roadside. This has created a growing rubbish problem, which is polluting nearby water
sources. As unmanaged organic waste rots, it emits large amounts of greenhouse gases like methane.
“Pollutants to Cash” trains women to make compost that they can then sell. These “waste
entrepreneurs” collect garbage from Lilongwe’s slums, sorting it and processing organic
material into compost. These small businesspeople are connected to a landscaping company, which buys the
waste that has been recycled into fertile soil. Those processing the trash are largely uneducated or
widows, or older people caring for their grandchildren after their children died of AIDS.
Helping the planet
The program has reduced trash in Lilongwe’s slums, creating a cleaner urban environment and helping
preserve the city’s water sources. Greenhouse gases such as methane are prevented due to better
handling of solid waste, and compost deposits from landscaping improves the earth.
Turning trash to cash enables poor slum-dwellers to make a living. And a decent one at that – each
person involved in the project is able to produce about 3 tons of compost per month that sells for $80 to
$90, an above-average income for Malawi. This is money they can use to improve their homes or help their
children get an education. Residents of informal communities are also able to enjoy a cleaner, more
pleasant urban environment.
Plans are already in place to scale the project up, mainly by adding value to the compost product. One of
the weaknesses identified was a lack of markets for the compost–an option for adding value would be
for the women to sprout tree seedlings in tubes holding compost, which they can then sell. Another possible
approach is for women to start vegetable gardens with the compost, then sell 100 per cent organic produce
in their communities and at supermarkets.
Women from a neighboring district traveled nearly 300 kilometers to learn about the project and possibly
embark on their own after having read a newspaper story about it. Such spontaneous growth reflects the
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