BLANTYRE, MALAWI - For eleven years, the international NGO Mary’s Meals has been feeding young students. Today, that list includes about 593,000 learners in 421 selected primary schools in Malawi. Each day, they usually receive hot porridge made from maize flour mixed with salt and sugar.
The aim is to increase enrolment for children who fail to attend classes because of hunger in their families.
Despite the program’s success in increasing primary schools enrolment levels, NGO officials say one of the major challenges facing the program is lack of firewood for preparing student meals.
Chloe Melrose is the Communications and Child Protection Officer for the NGO.
“The challenge," she says, "is that a lot of schools especially in the urban areas struggle to access firewood because in a lot of townships within the cities there is no space for trees, there is no space for vegetation. Almost every piece of land is built on so there is not much scope for trees there so these areas suffer in accessing firewood.”
Statistics show that an estimated 95 percent of the population in Malawi rely on firewood.
This has resulted in severe deforestation, with firewood consumption largely exceeding that of the sustainable supply.
Environmentalists say that once a densely populated space, now only 27 percent of total land area in Malawi is under forest cover.
Melrose says to ease the problem, the NGO buys wood from designated plots, and delivers it to the schools.
She also says since 2012 the NGO is constructing brick stoves in all school kitchens. The new equipment uses on average use six kilograms less firewood per pot of porridge than the portable steel rocket stoves used in schools’ own kitchens.
Among the primary schools under the project is Kanje in the southern district of Chiradzulu.
Its head teacher Profit Matiti told VOA that the firewood shortage is compounded by the increase in children which has almost doubled after the introduction of the schools feeding program.
“Before the [schools] feeding program, " says Matiti, "there were only 200 learners but now the enrollment has gone up but at least half to 525.”
Matiti says it is against this background that has forced the school to find new ways of getting firewood, and using it efficiently.
“We sat down with the schools management committee, schools administration and we introduced a way of establishing a woodlot. So as I am talking we have a woodlot which is just around the school to ease the problem of firewood so that we should not face problem with the [schools] feeding program,” says Matti.
He says since the woodlot is a long term measure, the school is currently making do with dried branches of trees brought by well-wishers from areas surrounding the school. But he says sometimes students go without a hot meal due to a lack of firewood for cooking
Mary Meals run similar school feeding programs in 16 countries round the world including Haiti, Kenya, Zambia, India and Ukraine.