Visualising a community’s waste management project using photovoice

Volunteers in the composting project at Lizulu Market talk about their photographs and discuss their hopes for the future of waste management in their city with Our World International, SwedBio and ICLEI. Photo credit: Jessica Kavonic, ICLEI


  • A group of 6 women and 2 men in a waste management project at Lizulu market became participant photographers for 6 weeks. Their photographs became the starting point for conversations about the river and waste management
  • The photos were the starting points for conversations that highlighted some reflections including the sense of engagement in the waste management project, care for the environmental health of Lilongwe River and the social and economic benefits for people working in Lizulu market
  • Many participants identified practical next steps and support needed to continue the waste management project
  • The photovoice project resulted in the co-production of knowledge and insights between volunteers at the market, the local civil society organisation, Lilongwe City Council, ICLEI and SwedBio. Follow up meetings aim to support the integration of waste management and composting into future urban development plans

A picture is worth a thousand words

Eight volunteers spent six weeks clearing organic waste from various locations in Lizulu market, Lilongwe. They volunteered to take photographs each week to document their experience of collecting waste and turning it into compost. Their photos and stories revealed a high level of engagement and commitment to participating in a project that aims to improve their city’s river.

The river that gives the city its name

Lilongwe River runs through the centre of Malawi’s capital and gives the city its name. Rickety wooden bridges connect Lizulu and Tsoka markets which occupy sites on either side of the Lilongwe River. The markets are the bustling hubs of the city where citizens buy fruit, vegetables, electronic goods, shoes and clothing. However, Lizulu and Tsoka are also the highest point sources of pollution for the Lilongwe River and during rainy season the water level rises above the makeshift bridges criss-crossing the markets and the current carries large quantities of waste downriver. Since Lilongwe City Council currently lacks the resources to collect and process the waste, it remains wherever the river finally dumps it.

Turning waste to compost

Approximately 70% of the waste produced by the markets is organic and Malawian civil society organisation, Our World International (OWI), piloted a project to turn the waste into compost which is used to grow food crops. The project was a success and in October 2017, SwedBio partner, the Africa secretariat of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI Africa), contracted OWI to implement and oversee a waste management project. The initiative is part of a larger plan to restore the Lilongwe River and comes under the regional Urban Natural Assets for Africa (UNA Africa) collaborative programme funded by SwedBio and led by ICLEI Africa. The other cities are Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda.

Memory Mathews, one of the volunteer composters and a photographer in the photovoice project, said that seeing the change between the beginning and the end of the project encouraged her. Photo credit: V Mellegård

View from a waste dumping site of one of the makeshift wooden bridges that connect Lizulu and Tsoka markets. During rainy season the river swells and often washes away bridges and dumps waste downriver. Photo credit: Mrs Nkosi (volunteer photographer in photovoice project)

Inviting community participation through a photovoice project

The main aim of UNA Rivers is to contribute to improving urban human well-being by using rivers as a starting point for tackling the complex web of challenges that cities face. SwedBio and ICLEI work together with the city councils in the participating capitals to strengthen local sustainability and improve climate resilience, through mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem services into land-use planning and city decision-making processes. An integral part of the UNA Rivers programme design is to support better coordination between City Councils, local organisations and communities, as well as to foster community-based activities and engage citizens in being stewards of their cities.

A method called photovoice can help to visualise the changes taking place during a project such as the waste management initiative. At the same time, photovoice invites diverse perspectives from groups of citizens whose voices are sometimes not heard such as women and marginalised groups. Photovoice is an action-oriented, participatory method that invites participants in a project to take photographs as a way of telling their own stories through images that represent their point of view at a particular moment in time.

Photos as a starting point for conversations

Eight participant photographers, six of whom were women, volunteered to take photographs each week between November and December 2017. They used disposable cameras and for most, it was the first time they were taking pictures. In February 2018, ICLEI Africa, SwedBio and OWI met the photographers at Lizulu market to talk about the project, using the photographs as a starting point for conversations.

Overall, the photographers expressed enthusiasm about the project and said they enjoyed being photographers. Going to the same place every week also helped them to notice changes and reflect on their ability to contribute to better waste management:

“We need to have hope, courage and unity. Working together towards the same goal, working as a team. It’s good to encourage each other and set goals and focus on them together.”
– Memory Mathews

Despite language differences and the need for translation between English and Chichewa, the conversations based on the photos were emotive and led to further comments from the photographers about their feelings and concern for the water quality, ecology and safety for the citizens of Lilongwe, as well as some comments about the river symbolizing life. Lulu, a popular Malawian singer, composed a song inspired by the project, called River Song.

Photovoice as a tool for community engagement and ownership

The photographs helped to articulate and communicate perspectives and as a tool, photovoice produces information that can complement other sources of knowledge.

Several photographers described conversations they had had with market vendors and people going shopping in the market about the composting project. By being photographers, they attracted attention and curiosity and contributed to raising awareness about waste management and composting as a source of making organic fertiliser for growing food crops. Some of the photographers talked about the value of learning new, practical skills and mentioned that they compost waste at home and use it to grow food for their families.

The first day women volunteers started working on the waste management site. Photo credit: Francisco Ngwira

The recycling centre after 30 days. Photo credit: Francisco Ngwira (volunteer photographer in photovoice project)

“Photovoice supported a few key aims such as facilitating community-based action and engagement, inviting the voices of women and contributing as a potential catalyst for change within the larger UNA Rivers initiative.”  Jessica Kavonic, ICLEI Africa

The photovoice project resulted in the co-production of knowledge and insights between volunteers at the market, the local civil society organisation, Lilongwe City Council, ICLEI and SwedBio. Follow up meetings aim to support the integration of waste management and composting into future urban development plans and policy.

For more information on the use of photovoice in Malawi, please download the report here.

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