By ICS Empower volunteers Michaela Brown, Nick Smith and Gemma Wren

Finding enough fuel to reach our project sites was not a challenge that we anticipated before arriving in Malawi. Although it’s expensive, the availability of fuel in the UK is something that we take for granted.

Since being in Malawi we have witnessed mile-long queues of people waiting all night for fuel, or worse, deserted petrol stations that no longer receive any deliveries.
In the second week of our visit, peaceful protests turned into riots in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and other regions due to this fuel crisis. As development volunteers, we have not been exempt from the problem: our field officer, Dan, often travels vast distances to find enough fuel to get us around.

Because of the challenges of finding fuel, and the cost involved in that, we have had to cut the number of villages we are working with down from four to two. It is upsetting to us to be unable to work with the other two communities, but we have to be pragmatic about maximising our resources and these two villages were a greater distance away from Nkhotakota.

Coping with the fuel crisis

It is not only development organisations finding the current situation a struggle; commercial operations, such as the construction industry, are grinding to a halt without fuel to supply the demands of their heavy machinery. For some the only way to cope with this crisis is to resort to buying on the black market. Initially this illicit trade took place in the backstreets and alleyways of poor locations.

Recently, however, the black market appears to have become the recognised market: illegal fuel is being sold on the forecourts of petrol stations in full view of all. Given the current situation, it is understandable if the authorities don’t seek to crack down on the traders; preventing the local sale of fuel could easily make a bad situation worse.


Considering the scarcity of basic amenities, time and again we have witnessed the resourcefulness of the Malawian people. Whether it’s making footballs from condoms and plastic bags, or scouring pots with sand, the people of Malawi seem to have a gift of making something from almost nothing. We are learning every day from the Malawians how to make efficient use of what we have.

Whilst we have great admiration for their initiative, it stands to reason that you can only push your resources so far until they become degraded. From our accommodation, we witness the daily practice of collecting sand from the beach to be sold for cement. This is worrying as a large part of the region’s income is generated by tourism and the beaches are a key attraction. Sand is being taken faster than the lake can replenish it, which could make the area less attractive to potential tourists and investors.

... and resource depletion

Fishing is also a major source of income for lakeshore communities, but here too there is evidence of resource depletion. By talking to local fishermen, we have heard that year-on-year they are forced to venture further out onto the lake in small, dug-out canoes to find profitable fish stocks.

The fishing problem has also taken on an unforeseen medical dimension: fishermen make use of state-funded mosquito nets to supplement their usual fishing equipment. Although another testament to Malawian resourcefulness, failing to use mosquito nets results in increased incidents of malaria, greater pressure on already stretched health budgets, and possible lower rates of productivity due to illness.

This over-exploitation is not out of carelessness, but necessity. Malawian’s recognise the need for change, yet the challenge for them, and us, is how to make this happen. The difficulty of this has recently increased for the average Malawian after a number of countries withdrew their aid programmes in Malawi (for a number of inter-related reasons).

Our hopes are that Malawians can bring about the change that that they, and their country, need and deserve.