Wellbeing, Economics and Ecosystem Services

Pilot in Zomba 

Author: Dr Marije Schaafsma


Zomba, a small city in Malawi, without traffic lights, where half of the (few) cars that drive around have a logo, and where the other 50% demonstrates the huge inequalities that exist in this country, where the university and forest research institute host some of the most amazing researchers and critical thinkers! And where one of the large research projects managed to hire all good-quality rental cars in Zomba, so that I ended up with this …


My first (pilot) trip to Malawi is over and I have enjoyed (most of) it. The purpose of the trip was to test my surveys, which include different valuation methods, as well as develop future scenarios as part of my ESPA Fellowship research. My Fellowship is linked to the ESPA ASSETS project, which focuses on food security and nutrition.
The bit where I had to work every evening and weekend I will leave out. The bit where the printer decided to merge all words in Chichewa into a long blurb, leaving my (brilliant!) research assistants a bit confused, I will also not dwell on. And everything that I would not do according to my risk assessment but …, I cannot tell here.

My trip started very well. I was welcomed by Dalitso from LEAD SEA, the (very supporting!) host institution and partner in the Assets project, who not only managed to arrange everything such that I hit the ground running so fast that I almost tumbled over, but also advised me to buy candles for the occasional / regular blackout. I was almost disappointed when the candles were left untouched until well into week 3 (when I realised I didn’t have any matches).

In the four weeks that followed, there was a lot of learning, digging up experiences from previous projects, some more learning, a bit of pushing and pulling, some compromising, and various sighs of relief when methods, designed in an office in Southampton, actually worked at the foothills of Zomba Mountain!

Most enjoyable, by far, were the days out of the office, in what will be my case study villages. It is perhaps a cliche for Malawi, but respondents and participants were very patient with us, and extremely cooperative in the discussions and group exercises. Big kudo to my three research assistants, who went along with my experiments while always being super professional!

It was tough hearing people say over and over again that they lack the most basic necessities, such as safe drinking water, health care and schools – and then spending the equivalent of half their annual harvest on a rental car (see above). Or hearing about the endless promises made to these villages about nursery schools, water well improvements, agroforestry or health centers that never got any follow up – and then having to admit that you are here ‘only’ to do research.

Politics at various levels may be frustrating. During one of the field days, we ran into the household listing / census (important for fertiliser subsidy distribution, among other things). A conversation we picked up walking behind two women:

“Oh.. this village will never improve”

“What do you mean?”

“Our village headman, he is a disaster. He tried to register Williams again”

“Which Williams?”

“The one that is now in the graveyard”

The combination of expert interviews and these on the ground experiences has given me a first glimpse into the realities of poverty, inequality, agriculture and natural resource management in Malawi, and I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to come back in June!



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