Land is everything to 30-year-old Malawian farmer Sinoya Kenayala. It is more than just life; it is legacy. His only chance of providing nourishment and a secure life for his four children is his 1.2 hectare farm in the Kalonga neighborhood of the nation’s capital, Lilongwe. However, the specter of ongoing and rapid land degradation looms over many farmers and communities who depend on the land.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has recently released its Global Land Outlook 2, which issues a warning that between 20 and 40 percent of the planet’s total land area has seen some sort of deterioration.

It encompasses croplands, drylands, wetlands, forests, and grasslands and has an impact on about half of the world’s population. However, the burden is disproportionately felt by rural communities, women, young people, Indigenous peoples, and at-risk groups, as well as smallholder farmers like the Sinoya.

Land degradation in Malawi has been the result of steady demands for settlement, unsustainable agriculture, and rapid deforestation, exacerbated by climate shocks. Lilongwe, the capital, is now prone to prolonged dry spells. Less rainfall is diminishing agricultural yields and land productivity, pushing young people from villages to towns in search of jobs.

It’s having widespread economic, social, and environmental consequences. The estimated annual cost is about US$320 million, almost seven percent of the country’s GDP.

The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been harsher on vulnerable farmers who are entirely reliant on rain-fed agriculture for a steady income. In Sinoya’s case, the escalating prices of food and other household needs, combined with a lack of business opportunities, proved very costly.

Restoring degraded land could be the key to building back better from COVID-19. Focusing on land restoration and sustainable land management practices, improving soil and crop health, connecting natural areas; these all can bring green jobs, ensure sustainable livelihoods, guarantee food security, and reduce the risks of future pandemics.

These practices can act as valuable carbon sinks in the fight against climate change. Studies show that Malawi forests can help remove up to 16 percent of the country’s total carbon emissions.

Recognizing this urgent need, and in line with the Sustainable Development Goal target 15.3, the Government of Malawi has committed to achieving land degradation neutrality by 2030, rehabilitating one million hectares of degraded land for crop production and restoring 820,000 hectares of native forest.

UNDP, through its Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services Network (BES-Net) project and its Malawi country office, engages young entrepreneurs like Sinoya in land restoration activities across the three districts of Lilongwe, Dedza and Salima. BES-Net, which is supported by the Government of Germany and SwedBio, brings together scientists, policymakers, and practitioners including local communities to implement tangible biodiversity solutions with knowledge and evidence provided by UNCCD, IPBES, and other sources.

UNDP is channeling seed funds to the Malawi Green Corps, a flagship initiative of the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources to train more than 2,000 young people in land restoration, with a focus on sustainable livelihoods.

Sinoya set up his agricultural enterprise in 2020, with support from the Forestry Department. He was selected in 2021 as one of the entrepreneurs to undergo the training provided by the Malawi Green Corps.

Selling tree seedlings such as acacia, mahogany, mkukhu, and albizia versicolor, among others, Sinoya would usually make about US$3 a month. However, now expanding to sell to schools, non-governmental organizations and government officers, he is making about US$490.

“This work has given me new skills on how to better manage and care for tree seedlings. I have learnt how to establish nurseries more effectively and how to keep my business running.”

Members of the Malawi Green Corps received training in high-quality tree planting and care, seedling care, native plant species conservation and other aspects of business such as entrepreneurship and financial literacy. These skills have been helping youth access green jobs and grow green enterprises focused on land restoration and climate adaptation.

Malawi was one of the countries that participated in BES-Net’s Regional Trialogue for Anglophone Africa bringing together partners from science, policy and practice to share knowledge, create solutions and commitments around the themes of pollinator conservation, land management and food security.

Yuko Kurauchi, Policy Specialist at UNDP’s Global Policy Centre on Resilient Ecosystems and Desertification, recognizes the value that young people bring.

“The land degradation crisis is often less prioritized when compared with other unfolding global crises, yet this intersects with biodiversity loss and climate change in very complex ways and has direct implications for our food security, livelihoods, health, well-being and more.”

Engaging youth and investing in youth-run green enterprises in sustained land restoration efforts is crucial to making communities resilient. Malawi’s efforts can serve as inspiration for other countries in the region and globally and also to establish a collective global vision for our future.

And for Sinoya, this is just the start of something bigger. The seedling sales are bringing in a steady income which he has used to improve his house and farm and invest in livestock.

He also grows beans, maize, and groundnuts. Through what he is learning and with the support of the Malawi Green Corps, he aspires to establish more nurseries and invest in parallel sources of income such as sustainable beekeeping and goats.

“As a youth volunteer in the initiative, I have learnt new skills on better managing tree seedlings and establishing nurseries, thereby boosting my business skills. Tree survival rates are surely going to improve based on this new understanding. We have always been planting trees but now I’m seeing better ways that we have overlooked before.”

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