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Women's cooperative take on energy giant in Malawi

Published on 10 January 2022

Mable Nyrienda (right) explains how the Lusako women’s rice milling cooperative in Karonga District, Northern Malawi, took on ESCOM electricity company to prevent their business from failing.

Mable is the secretary for this successful 34 women strong rice milling cooperative in Karonga District. The group’s vision is to invest in their children’s education and have nutritious food for the whole family. With significant savings in the group’s bank account through their new rice milling business this vision is becoming a reality, but Mable explains that this has not been without a struggle.

Lusako women’s cooperative

The women's group, brought together by Christian Aid and local government officers in 2018, worked together to part-finance and build a rice mill processing space so that they could start their new business. Christian Aid provided the group with the rice mill, sustainable energy systems including solar panels and support to construct the building. We work directly with the cooperative providing training, technical support, and linking them to banks so that they can secure loans.

The group then applied to the Electricity Supply Cooperation of Malawi (ESCOM) to connect the mill directly to a mains energy supply as it requires a higher capacity than their wind and solar energy can generate alone.  

The Lusako women's new building which houses the group's rice mill.

The women's new building houses the group’s rice mill. The mill has a wind turbine to generate power to sustain the batteries which are connected to the solar panels on the roof (Malata Mathews/Christian Aid)

Women march for change

We did all the necessary paperwork, but months down the line, there was no glimmer of hope.

- Mable Nyrienda.

The Lusako cooperative applied to ESCOM but did not hear anything for months, Mable explains. The women felt incredibly frustrated especially as they had to resolve to use other peoples’ rice mills to mill the rice they had already bought.

We had to fight this because they were standing in between our misery and success. We had accumulated lots of debts and we couldn't afford to pretend all was well.

- Mable Nyrienda.

To make sure that their voices were heard they decided as a group to take direct action by organising a peaceful demonstration and march. Thirty members marched to the ESCOM premises carrying their cooking materials and tents to camp overnight. The women planned to stay until their needs were addressed.

Lusako Women’s cooperative celebrate their success in Northern Malawi

Lusako Women’s cooperative celebrate their success (Malata Mathews)

As a result of the women’s actions the problem was resolved quickly. The group had to buy a cable that should be provided by ESCOM, but they have been promised a refund. If this does not happen the women say they will march again.

The cooperative’s mill has now been up and running since May 2021 and the women are already beginning to see a difference. Some have purchased livestock with their profits, and many see that things are changing at home as they are recognised as important earners within their families.

Our husbands have a lot of expectations from us. They are proud of us and we inspire many people, including young women in our community.

- Mable Nyrienda.

The group are also working with their local community to tackle issues of climate change through planting trees and encouraging climate friendly businesses. The mill has a wind turbine to generate power to sustain the batteries which are connected to the solar panels on the roof.

Breaking the Barriers in Malawi

The Lusako cooperative is a combination of small community groups led by women who came together in Karonga District, Northern Malawi encouraged by the EU funded Breaking the Barriers programme which aims to increase rural women’s jobs and income in the sustainable energy sector, improve working and living conditions, promote gender equality, and strengthen women’s social status.

Find out more about Breaking the Barriers
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