Shifting the Power in Waste Management in informal settlements

Amplifying informal settlements’ voices and actions in proper waste management


In 2022, a total of 3,914 tonnes of waste (854 by LCC, and 3,060 by private operators) was propoelry collected and disposed of out of an estimated 16,500 tonnes (0.5kg per person for an estimated population 1.1 million multiply by 30 days) This represents 24% of waste collected and properly disposed.[1] The amount of waste being generated everyday   within the city is continuing to increase as population and economic growth continue. However, the impacts of increasing amounts of waste on our environment need to be minimized. Effective waste management is critical for creating cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable communities. Poor waste management in informal settlements in Malawian Cities, has for so long been the source of significant health risks to residents. With the Lilongwe City Council (LCC) struggling to manage waste effectively, it is crucial for the community to take ownership of the responsibility of waste management. This blog highlights the key issues related to community involvement in solid waste management in Lilongwe, in the context of the informal settlements of Kaliyeka, Mtandire and Mgona.

The solid waste challenge in Lilongwe informal Settlements

Since the onset of rapid urban migration in the early 2000’s, Lilongwe City Council has suffered pressure to provide adequate social services to Malawians coming to reside in the city, in search of income opportunities.  According to personnel from the Council’s department of Health, as of April 2023, ‘only 3 of their 9 garbage trucks are working, the rest are grounded due to technical faults compromising the council’s ability to manage waste.

Lack of knowledge and data on waste generation in the city is a pressing concern that needs to be addressed. Both the city council and households, as well as various public places, struggle to accurately determine the amount of waste being generated. This information gap poses a significant challenge in effectively managing and reducing waste in the city. Without reliable data, it becomes difficult for the council to develop appropriate waste management strategies, allocate resources efficiently, and track progress towards sustainability goals. Additionally, households and public places may lack awareness about their individual contributions to waste generation and the potential environmental impacts. 

People in informal settlements are utilizing any available public open space, drains, rainwater gullies and potholes, graveyards, and even idle train rails in, the case of Mgona, to dispose of their waste. Waste mountains are mushrooming everywhere leading to the proliferation of disease-causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and pests like rats and mosquitoes. Waste dumped anywhere continues to contribute to increased risk of waterborne diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoea.  Rivers like Mchesi in Kaliyeka, Chimbalame in Mtandire and Nankhaka in Mgona which are a source od water for many households, have continued to suffer pollution from waste that is dumped in them, posing a threat to the residents’ health. These settlements have also suffered from flooding during the rainy season. The   dumping of waste in open spaces, drains, and rain gullies, which in turn causes blockages in the drainage system and other water ways, leading to flooding in nearby areas.  

The blame game

 For so long communities have blamed city council for its failure to provide waste management. According to one block leader in Mtandire

‘Our city council has failed to provide skip bins or regular waste collection services, leaving our congested informal settlement with nowhere to dump waste, and as a result, we are suffering the consequences of their negligence.’

Others have blames non-governmental organizations for prioritizing software projects such as awareness campaigns and producing knowledge materials, as well as brief hardware projects that only target a small percentage of the population. When they undertake projects, they usually focus on a small percentage of the population, which is not effective in bringing about significant change.

‘For instance, a waste entrepreneurship project that targets only 100 people in a community of over 10,000 people may have limited impact.’

One female member of the Kaliyeka settlement placed the blame on rich people within the settlement.

‘It is really annoying to see how some rich people living in their fenced compounds do not take care of the waste they generate. They use lots of things that you throw away like diapers, and then they just wait for the night and pay someone to dump the garbage on the streets or on the river banks. This is not fair.’

 Furthermore, City councils and communities often blame some private waste collectors for contributing to poor waste management practices. These collectors have been accused of dumping waste improperly and using open vehicles, leading to litter and pollution in the surrounding areas. Furthermore, their fees can be expensive, making it difficult for poor households to afford their services. As a result, some households resort to illegal dumping or burning of waste, further exacerbating the issue.

Regardless of who is to blame for poor waste management, the reality is that the negative effects are felt more by all members of the community. From health hazards to environmental degradation, the consequences of poor waste management are severe and can have lasting effects on the lives of people in the informal settlement.

Shifting the Power in Waste Management in informal settlements

During community meetings in the three informal settlements of Kaliyeka, Mtandire and Mgona, the following are the key discussion and agreement points on community led proper waste management;

Awareness of waste quantity, types and disposal methods

Effective solid waste management begins at household level. To achieve this, households need to be aware of the different types of waste and their appropriate disposal methods. Ignorance of the types of waste and disposal methods has contributed to severe consequences, including environmental degradation, public health hazards, and economic costs. By understanding the different types of waste and their appropriate disposal methods, communities will know how to rightly handle it.   Knowing about the quantity of waste produced by households or in informal settlements is also important because it can help communities plan and implement appropriate waste management strategies, such as recycling and composting programs or waste reduction initiatives. If communities are unaware of the amount of waste they produce, they may not be equipped to manage it effectively. According to a community member in Mgona

 ‘If we underestimate the amount of waste generated correctly, households or community wate entrepreneurs and indeed even the city council may be overwhelmed and not be able to handle it all, or on the other hand if we overestimate it could end up costing more money and wasting resources on unnecessary things.’

Enhancing knowledge on waste segregation at source

Community members from the three informal settlements agree that Waste segregation at the source is an effective way to manage waste in informal settlements since the Lilongwe city council cannot provide waste management services, and households are too poor to pay for private waste collection services. Communities request community-based organizations and other civil society groups to train households on how to separate waste into different categories such as organic waste, recyclable waste, and hazardous waste. This process will make it easier to manage waste and recycle materials that can be reused.

Increasing community waste entrepreneurship opportunities

While community waste entrepreneurship initiatives are already underway in the informal settlements of Mtandire and Mgona, they need to be expanded to reach more people and introduced in other communities such as Kaliyeka.  Waste entrepreneurs are producing, though a very small scale, compost manure, biogas, liquid fertiliser, briquettes and arts and crafts from plastics.  The Ward Development Committee lead in Mtandire suggested for an initiative to empower young people to be private waste collectors. By engaging more community members in these initiatives, economic opportunities will be created and the environment protected.

Formulation and enforcement of community bylaws on waste management

Community leaders in the informal settlements of Mtandire, Mgona and Kaliyeka agree that community-led waste management initiatives can benefit from the formulation and enforcement of existing community bylaws, as this creates a sense of responsibility and accountability among community members to work together to manage their waste. Kaliyeka leaders however think that community bylaws formulation should also target surrounding communities because sometimes neighbouring communities might dump waste on rivers which are beneficial to other communities too and if they do not have bylaws, all the efforts are defeated. Block leaders are key in enforcing these bylaws within their block and this is more effective.

Roles of external entities- Government and Civil society

While their communities agree to the concept of shifting the power towards community-led waste management initiatives and therefore clean up their poor waste management acts, there is still a need for external entities such as governments and civil society organizations to support these efforts. For example, the government through the city council and other Ministries, Departments and Agencies can work with the communities to provide additional waste management services such as waste collection and transportation to ensure proper disposal of mostly waste that is hazardous and cannot be recycled. Civil society organizations are key when it comes to providing education and training to community members on composting and recycling and waste entrepreneurship in general. This integrated approach to community waste management is essential for creating a sustainable, economic, and community-driven waste management system. By working together, communities, governments, and civil society organizations can create a system that benefits both the environment and the community.


Based on the current state in informal settlements, it is clear that there are no systems of solid waste management and it is important that communities themselves should taking a leading role in defining this. Communities have to take ownership in the management of solid waste they generate and implementing effective waste management practices at the source. Will help to mitigate the negative impact of waste on the environment and public health.  It is important that the community governance structure should be capacitated and mandated to sensitise their community on the dangers of accumulated waste and be in a position to enforce the agreed upon Bylaws. It is agreed that effective waste management must begin at the source – at the household level. While external agencies can play a supportive role, they should not be relied upon to do all the work. When waste is managed properly at the source, it can significantly reduce the amount of waste that needs to be transferred to the landfill, resulting in a more efficient and sustainable waste management system overall.  

In Malawi, a local NGO, the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) and its alliance partner the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor (the Federation), is supporting informal settlements in the City of Lilongwe to take charge of solid waste management within their settlements. The process is being implemented with support from the Accountability and Responsiveness in Informal Settlements for Equity (ARISE).

[1] Lilongwe City Council (2021), Annual report

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