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Baseline Assessment: Malawi

Posted by William Ashford Dec 22, 2016

The baseline assessment tackled the "Empathise" and "Define" stages of the Design Thinking process. The team collected both quantitative and qualitative data to gain a holistic understanding of not only the issues present, but also of the culture and people more generally.

The biggest issue was agriculture. Given a lack of rainfall in the dry season, a single harvest is relied on to supply food for the whole year, leading to food security issues. Reliance on maize to provide sustenance leads to a lack of crop rotation and dependence on fertilisers.

Another major issue was fuel. Wood and charcoal dominate the energy sphere with alternative energy sources rare and/or unaffordable. As a result, deforestation is a key concern. Given most food in Malawi is cooked, fuel forms a significant part of their non-disposable income.

Water, despite its high cost, was not seen to be an issue in the communities surveyed. Education was highly valued; however many struggled to afford school for their children.
Health was not extensively analysed, given insufficient specificity in the data collected.

It must be noted that this Baseline Assessment was focused on surveying a cross-section of the urban-rural villages in the Nancholi area. Therefore, this has by no means uncovered the full extent of issues in Malawi. Surveying and analyses of other communities may yield different insights and implications.


Over four weeks our team conducted the Empathise and Define phases of the Design Thinking Process with the aim of developing a deep understanding of the issues present in the region. Within the Empathise stage we employed both quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection to obtain balanced insights.


Quantitative data was collected through surveys covering a range of topics including income, education, agriculture, food, water, fuel and health. The survey was continually iterated over the month to cover topics we had not considered and to refine the type of data that we wanted to collect.


Soil and water samples were also collected from the villages. From the samples tested, some interesting insights were gathered. However, due to difficulties in sourcing equipment and chemicals within our budget and time restraints, the data was not extensive enough.


MyMaps and Drone Deploy provide significant opportunities moving forward, specifically in water and agriculture. Tools available within Drone Deploy allow further analyses into geographical issues affecting agriculture. Such issues include elevation levels, soil nutrition, water sanitation and the relationship between farm size and crop yield.


Qualitative data collected through the surveys effectively complemented the quantitative data. Empathy Mapping, observations and personal survey questions like, “What makes you happy?” and “If you could change one thing to make life better for your family, what would it be?” allowed us to gain greater insight into what motivates and challenges the villagers.


The culmination of these methods allowed us to empathise with the communities and define their struggles. However, roadblocks were encountered in the form of poor data collection and communication breakdowns.


After the surveys were conducted, some of the data was unusable due to how the questions were asked and/or how the information was recorded. We failed to iterate the survey enough in the early stages, which led to a build up of weak and untidy data.


As well as issues with data, we faced some communication issues with our fieldworkers and one of the villages we were surveying in. Communication needs to be very clear and all stakeholders involved need to understand the nature of the project.

The Problems:

Agriculture: With the majority of the population being subsistence farmers, agriculture dominates the lives of most Malawians, with much of their time and energy being put into growing, harvesting, cooking and eating maize. Lack of crop rotation removes nutrients from the soil, forcing farmers to depend on expensive fertilisers and causing only one yield per year.


Fuel/Energy: Fuel sources are primarily used for cooking. Given that almost all food in Malawi is cooked, fuel is inextricably linked to survival and forms a part of their non-dispensable income. Even for the few households with access to electricity, wood or charcoal is used for cooking as it is cheaper. Preferences for the two sources of fuel differ, with many valuing the cost efficiency of wood, while charcoal is valued equally for its cost, accessibility and utility. With very few alternative sources of energy available, sustainability and deforestation are key concerns.


Diet: Only 50% of those interviewed had access to three meals a day consistently, with 43% living off two or fewer.  Inconsistent income streams coupled with volatile climate patterns cause food insecurity. This leads to price volatility in staple foods, where the cost of maize post harvest is 3,000MK per 50kg bag, while the same bag sells for 15,000MK towards the end of the dry season. The second dietary issue identified is the general lack of nutrition and variety stemming from a concentrated diet based on maize.


Water: At the present time of year (December), water does not seem to be a main concern for the villages we surveyed. Most villagers purchase drinking water from bores or kiosks. They do not treat their water as it is seen as safe. The bore water from Malilo and Nzeru was tested and found to be clean, whereas Martin’s bore was positive for E. Coli. All kiosk water was found to be clean. The river water is contaminated, possibly given that it is used for washing and bathing.


Education: Villagers highly value education, and many households try to prioritise schooling for their children. This is aided by the fact that public primary schools are relatively affordable. However, constraints on household budgets and extra costs associated with schooling (e.g. exams, stationery, clothing), become barriers to achieving higher levels of education.


Health: Many of the villagers have difficulty accessing health services because of associated transport costs and overcrowded and understocked public hospitals. The data collected on health is lacking in some key areas and still requires careful and considered questioning to uncover the full extent of the issues.


Future Actions:




Given that almost all food in Malawi is cooked, fuel spending forms a non-dispensable part of their income, and thereby affects food and financial security. Financial constraints and issues of access lead to charcoal and wood being used, with such practices being environmentally damaging and unsustainable in the long run.


Future actions should focus on defining the problem space with greater specificity and begin to ideate possible solutions. In the Define stage, a greater understanding of consumer behaviour around fuel, and research into the supplier space is required. Research into supply chain logistics may uncover key issues relating to issues such as access and cost, which are key concerns for consumers.


In the Ideate stage, research into alternative fuel sources and strategies are required. This can be achieved through stakeholder engagement and research into the supplier space. Stakeholder engagement will be useful in understanding current and innovative technologies being developed in the fuel space, which will inform our ideation. By understanding supply chain, we can begin to understand where opportunities lie in innovation and value adding, and the financial viability of potential solutions.


Charcoal and wood are currently being used by reasons of cost, accessibility, and perceived utility. The more price sensitive consumers prefer wood, while consumers of charcoal are more inclined to value accessibility and the relative utility of charcoal. Any solution(s) must address these key reasons behind consumers’ fuel choices.  



A balanced diet is necessary for general well-being and childhood development. From our investigation, we have discovered there are a number of confines that limit people’s access to nutrient rich foods and consequently cause health issues.


Firstly, the intense fluctuation of price dependant on seasonal availability restricts people’s access to different foods year round. Secondly, poor nutrition is causing great rates of childhood stunting – an irreversible growth condition that inhibits physical development. Thirdly, the strong correlation between a good diet, brain development and energy is also reason to further investigate the food realm in Malawi.


Future action should involve defining the problem through diet tailored surveys and more targeted food questions. Once the extent of the issue and the consumer is better understood, ideation surrounding reducing the impact of seasonal change on food pricing and increasing access to nutritional long-life foods should be undertaken.  


Economic Empowerment


At Project Everest, we don’t want to just help people or give them something, we want them to have the agency and ability to do so themselves. Our research showed that in the areas of agriculture, energy, access and women’s empowerment, there is a major issue with financial security accompanied by the strong desire for financial independence. On a practical level, this equates to skipping meals, eating nutrient-lacking food (nsima-based diets),unsustainable fuel choices, infrequent school attendance and even early marriage.


Reducing susceptibility to environmental factors such as market and seasonal fluctuations, location and circumstance and reducing dependence on farming inputs, fuel sources and sole providers could have major implications for villagers. This would lead to more expendable income which can be used to guarantee food security, fund higher education and form capital for small-scale enterprises.


We recommend investigating financial models in areas such as micro-financing, insurance and mobile money in regards to their desirability and viability. There should also be some consideration of education models especially in agriculture, basic business practices and marketing principles.




Farming and agriculture is inherent to Malawian lifestyle, culture, and economy.  Eighty percent of the rural population relies on subsistence farming for food and income, meaning their lives - activities, wellbeing and concerns - revolve around unpredictable climate and inconsistent yields.


Form partnerships with existing agricultural organisations to learn innovative farming techniques, best practices, technological advancements and the intricacies of Malawian culture surrounding agriculture.  Further independent research in this field should be carried out by PE students, as well as the testing of soil samples to understand the state of the land.  The team at a minimum should include a mixture of Agricultural Science and business students, to both understand the agricultural viability and enterprise potential.


Future action should involve the following: conceiving of ways to increase the number of harvests per year (currently only one) potentially through crop renewal/regeneration techniques and drought resistant crops in the dry season; diversifying away from conventional synthetic fertilisers by improving crop rotation to preserve the land, and developing bio-fertilisers made from compost and manure; and, if feasible, finding cost effective and sustainable ways to provide irrigation in times of drought or sparse rainfall.


Further Assessment

There are many areas that we did not gain sufficient knowledge of during the initial baseline assessment. Without sufficient knowledge of these issues, Project Everest cannot effectively build a social enterprise to combat them. Access is the information that is most lacking and most important and so it is the reasoning behind the majority of the suggested further assessments listed below.


Reasonably priced clean water should be accessible to all. Water is expensive and we are unaware of seasonal fluctuation in price and availability. Some water sources are unclean and water quality is unknown in villages with no access to government taps or bores. Multiple samples need to be taken across a broad range of villages. Water security needs to be evaluated in the dry season via surveys.An understating needs to be developed of, the market price for water throughout the year, the potential viability to provide water services or products, and where water is scarce and unclean across multiple villages.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

Women have self-identified as wanting contraception, often saying their families are too large and hence expensive. More information is needed on what the communities need and want and what they already have access to by conducting surveys and talking to health care professionals. Liaise with local organisation such as NAYO to determine the appropriateness of discussing sexual health topics. If appropriate, conduct research into current methods of contraception and why it is necessary. Set up women’s focus groups to discuss women’s issues in an open and friendly environment. Understand the cultural perspectives on contraception from both a male and female perspective and the motivation for current family size.  Assess the viability of supplying contraception.

Material Use and Under-utilised Assets

Communities should have access to sustainable and high quality materials. There is a lot of material wastage and poor materials are often used. No information has been gathered in this area. More information is needed on why villages choose the material they do. Research needs to be conducted on alternative material sources in Malawi. A catalogue of the resources in Malawi and their cost and availability needs to be developed.

Sanitation and Hygiene

To improve the health and wellbeing of villages, everyone should have access to personal hygiene. People are washing and bathing in contaminated water and lack access to personal hygiene products such as toilet paper, soap and dish cloths. More water samples need to be taken and tested from different locations along the river both within and outside of villages. Surveys can be used to determine whether villages want personal hygiene products. Investigate the cost of producing and supplying hygiene products. The extent of the pollution over a broader area needs to be evaluated. Determine if a business around hygiene and sanitation products is viable.

Wider Demographic

Everyone, no matter how far they live from a major city should have access to basic human rights. All the people we have interviewed live relatively close to a major city often with access to electricity, government services, and large markets. More teams are needed to conduct surveys in remote villages and other areas. An understanding across multiple demographics must be gained and issues common to all, as well as issues pertaining to particular demographics should be evaluated.


This post was edited on Dec 23, 2016 by (Account removed)

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Comments (1)

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