Seeds of change: Lilongwe City Council recognises the value of urban nature

Malawi's capital Lilongwe is one of Africa's fastest growing cities. Development has threatened Lilongwe's green spaces, but now city officials are actively engaging in efforts to integrate biodiversity into planning decisions.

Article, 21 March 2016
Stories of change: mainstreaming biodiversity and development
A series of pages showing how African countries are finding new ways to mainstream biodiversity into policy and planning for development
Lilongwe's residents call it the "Garden City" because of its many green spaces (Photo: Gome Jenda )

Lilongwe's residents call it the "Garden City" because of its many green spaces (Photo: Gome Jenda)

Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, is known as the Garden City by its residents. Forests, savannah woodlands and botanical gardens break up the urban space and give a home to diverse species.

But in recent years these green retreats have been at risk. New developments have been built on river buffer zones, protected parkland has been bought for private developments, and new housing plans have been made with no provision for green or public space. 

Now, thanks to the persistence of a small group of champions, and the support of international partners, Lilongwe City Council has been developing an action plan to integrate biodiversity into its planning decisions.

Martha Kalemba, an environmental officer at Malawi's Department of Environmental Affairs, first became interested in biodiversity while studying at university. Inspired by stories of how other capital cities as diverse as Tokyo and Manila were restoring nature, her thesis investigated how lower income countries could integrate biodiversity into the planning process and she used Lilongwe as her case study. 

Lilongwe: Growing fast
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and Lilongwe is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Ever since the first Urban Master Plan (1968), Lilongwe City Council has earmarked space for afforestation and conservation, but as the population has expanded, new settlements have started to encroach into protected areas, forests have been depleted as people have sought fuel for cooking and heating, and freshwater sources have been polluted. 

A turning point 

Kalemba recalls that the issue of biodiversity hit the national agenda for two reasons: 

  1. The government had recently begun to revise its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, which underscored the economic as well as social benefits of biodiversity to Malawians via food, shelter, medicine and income. As part of this process the government had started to map the biodiversity profile of the capital city, Lilongwe, and
  2. Lilongwe became a pilot for an international programme designed to improve ecosystem management. The programme, known as 'Local Action for Biodiversity', was run by international cities network ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and involved 21 local governments.

Taking action

With ICLEI's support, the city council decided to develop an in-depth biodiversity report for Lilongwe that would assess the status of its ecosystems, including wetlands, parks and planted forests, as well as the institutional arrangements in government for protecting the city's natural assets. 

As a signal of its commitment to the process, the government seconded two national staff members to Lilongwe City Council to share their experiences of developing the national strategy.

The first step was to put together a task force of different departments to explore the role of biodiversity in different aspects of urban life. The task force included departmental staff from fisheries, wildlife and parks, national herbarium, forestry, and local officials from urban planning, information, finance, trade, and from recreation, as well as local NGOs. 

Monipher Musasa, also based with the Department of Environmental Affairs, recalls that few local government officials had heard of the term biodiversity or considered it as an issue for their programmes of work. By exploring the different services that ecosystems provided the city, local officials began to see the economic as well as environmental benefits of biodiversity. 

Staff working with the water and electricity boards described how their budgets were going towards the clearance of invasive species, while representatives at the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism shared their experiences of how the city's precious parks and nature reserves were under threat from development. 

The city council published its biodiversity report in 2013. It provides a comprehensive overview of the role and value that biodiversity plays in the city, and as a result the task force has gone on to develop an action plan for the city.

Soon to be completed, the plan is a practical roadmap for integrating biodiversity issues into all planning processes. This will restore the city's precious natural reserves as a means of delivering on broader developmental aims. 

Seeds of change 

For Kalemba, the big step forward is the fact that city-level officials are taking ownership of parts of the action plan and have started to collaborate with other government departments. 

The participatory process of developing the action plan created awareness in city officials not working directly in biodiversity management – Martha Kalemba 

This is a marked change from two years ago when the term 'biodiversity' was still unfamiliar to many of them. 

For Tiyamike Malija, a desk officer at the city council, the process has already made an impact: "All along people have been applying to have these [protected] plots for construction, but recently a decision has been made to turn these areas into parks." She describes how the city council has also decided to scale up the afforestation programme that takes place every rainy season.  

Looking ahead 

With ICLEI's support, the task team has learned some important lessons along the way. For example, representatives from key sectors, such as health and education, were not present at the first meeting and as a result it has proved difficult to engage them.

The team has also learnt that rather than host meetings at the city council buildings, which has allowed officials to drop in and out, in future they would hope to host the meetings at other departments to ensure that members participate in the entire meeting. 

Putting the action plan into motion will require funds and commitment from across the government, admits Musasa, and so the task ahead is still daunting given the number of other challenges that the country is facing.

However, the experience so far has begun to convince the city council that biodiversity is not merely a rural and remote issue but one that is central to the urban context. 



Dilys Roe ([email protected]), principal researcher and biodiversity team leader, IIED's Natural Resources Group

John Tayleur (, senior programme officer, Ecosystem Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme