integration in malawi

United Purpose has been working in Malawi since 1988, while Self Help Africa began its work in the southern African country a year later, in 1989. Both operations have focussed on improving the lives of rural communities in a country that is one of Africa’s poorest.

An integration manager was appointed to support the merger of the two country teams, and meetings were convened with donors, government and civil society agencies and with local community -based partners with whom the two organisations worked.

In the months following the integration all staff were moved to a single headquarters office in the capital, Lilongwe, and working groups were created to assist with the process of planning and project implementation across the newly combined organisation.

Collectively, Self Help Africa and United Purpose implemented more than 16 projects that supported over one million people in Malawi, in 2021. The Malawi programme has a wide range of institutional funders including Irish Aid, European Union, Government of Germany (GIZ), ECHO, Charity:Water, Electric Aid, Comic Relief and The One Foundation. 

The organisation’s largest programme within Malawi is the EU-backed BETTER Project, which uses a farmer field schools approach to disseminate learning and information to more than 400,000 small-scale farming households. BETTER reached the end of its five-year cycle in 2022.

Other project activities in the country focussed on improving food production, livelihoods and resilience to changing climate and on improving water, sanitation and hygiene. In 2021, United Purpose also undertook a large humanitarian response project to support households affected by Tropical Cyclone Idai, which claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.


The integration of Self Help Africa and United Purpose brought the two organisations together on an operational level in just one programme country – Malawi – where both NGOs had large and long- established activities.

Reviving African Cotton

CUMO Microfinance
is a not-for-profit rural
microfinance company
providing financial services
and entrepreneurship
mentoring to over 84,000
clients in Malawi.

As a part of the operations of United Purpose in the southern African country, CUMO joined our organisation as part of the merger with UP, in 2021.

Borrowers and savers with CUMO are organised into more than 5,000 locally based groups, and 82% of the bank’s clients are women – underscoring the huge social value of providing rural women with access to savings and loans, primarily to support income generating enterprise.

Established just over 20 years ago, CUMO Microfinance principally services the un-banked – those in remote rural areas that currently cannot access formal financial services. The organisation’s focus is on enhancing the productivity, income and self-reliance of its members by providing loans, mentoring and financial literacy to members across 13 of Malawi’s districts.

In more recent years, CUMO has promoted self-employment opportunities in rural communities through the provision of an integrated set of financial, microfinance, vocational, and market linkage services to its members. These are all designed to enable rural poor villagers to start and grow on and off-farm small businesses as a means of generating income.

CUMO Microfinance, which is designed as a low-cost, revenue generating and self-sustaining social enterprise business has more than 100 staff in Malawi. Current on-time  repayment rates of its borrowers averages more than 90%.

Our Carbon-financed work


Our carbon credits are registered and audited by the globally recognized Gold Standard. The profit from the sales is reinvested back into more water pumps, improved cook stoves, etc. These programmes directly address four of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The global climate emergency and the extreme weather it’s causing is having a devastating impact on many of the communities we work with in Africa.

Unreliable rainfall, cyclones and droughts are destroying crops, livestock and livelihoods – making it increasingly difficult for many rural farming families to produce the food and income that they need to meet their basic needs. 

It’s for this reason that all our work is designed and implemented through an environmental, sustainability and climate adaptation lens. Our merger with United Purpose has strengthened and expanded the reach of our Gold Standard carbon financed programme. This programme provides finance that can be reinvested in projects, supporting communities most affected by climate change. This income source allows us to implement additional projects, which are larger and longer than otherwise would be possible.

Our carbon financed projects include improved cookstove projects in Malawi that encourage the use of improved cookstoves which reduce firewood consumption by half compared with traditional open fires.

The projects support groups of predominantly women to use local materials to produce the cookstoves and trains and supports village agents to freely distribute and/or sell them as an additional source of income.

Usage of the stoves - through burning less wood - decreases greenhouse gas emissions from cooking and reduces the burden of firewood collection which is predominantly carried out by women and girls.

Our new wash approach


Self Help Africa’s merger with United Purpose brought a large standalone WASH portfolio of work, as well as multi-sectoral programmes with a WASH focus.

Our development-focused WASH interventions are happening across our countries of focus in Africa, as well as in Bangladesh and Brazil – in communities, schools and healthcare facilities. We also support governments and authorities to strengthen their countries’ WASH systems and help develop markets for WASH products and services, to make it easier for people to access what they need to maintain good hygiene and water practices.

Sustainability is at the heart of our WASH work. We train and equip service providers, whether they are community-based or private, to manage their water services and make sure they can access ongoing support.

WASH work in action

Sustainability is at the heart of our WASH work. We train and equip service providers, whether they are community-based or private, to manage their water services and make sure they can access ongoing support.


Changing behaviours through innovative and gender-focused approaches

To date, more than one million toilets have been constructed through people-centred approaches to WASH behaviour change. Our ‘community led total sanitation’ approach aims to ignite a change in sanitation behaviour by supporting communities to identify and solve their own sanitation problems.

In Nigeria, our long-term support to the Government’s open defecation free (ODF) strategy has benefited at least 1.7 million people and led to the first Local Government Area in the country becoming ODF. We take a creative approach to behaviour change communication, using sports, music and information and communication technology to convey messages. And we place a strong focus on gender in our WASH work. We’ve improved gender-friendly WASH facilities in schools, and our work on tackling taboos and practices in menstrual hygiene management, through local sanitary pad manufacture, behaviour change work and community dialogue, has benefitted thousands of women and girls.

Strengthening the WASH ‘system’ for area-wide improvements

Strong relationships with local governments enable us to identify systemic barriers to sustainable, inclusive, area-wide WASH services, and overcome these issues.In Nigeria and Malawi, we have supported local authorities to develop strategic district wide WASH plans, and advocate budget allocation against these. Meanwhile, in Mozambique,United Purpose has been the NGO partner in Government-led, donor-funded WASH programmes, where we provide technical support, quality assurance and oversight to donors and the Government.

  • We have more than 120 staff working on WASH- related programming across our programmes
  • To date, we have supported the construction or rehabilitation of approximately 18,350 water points, increasing access to safe water for more than 5.3 million people.
  • We have supported the construction of more than 1 million toilets.
  • 2,500 schools have access to safe water

Increasing inclusion and social accountability in WASH service delivery

In many countries, there are considerable inequalities in accessing WASH services. We address these in our community level work and through broader WASH systems strengthening. Upholding rights and social accountability are also core elements of our global programming. We work with communities to enable them to articulate their rights and concerns on WASH, and we build processes that hold government and WASH service providers to account.

How Women's Business Centres are transforming lives in Bangladesh

It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the world’s leaders will realise their commitment to end poverty by 2030. The COVID-19 pandemic dealt the biggest setback to global poverty- reduction efforts in decades, with the war in Ukraine only worsening the situation.

In Bangladesh, the country has made huge strides in reducing poverty during the past few decades. Nonetheless, around 20 percent of the population still lives on less than $1.90 a day. A low-lying country with rich agricultural heritage, Bangladesh is also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.

As is often the case, women are among the worst affected. To change this, and to help Bangladesh’s women farmers increase their self autonomy, since 2016 we have supported the establishment of grassroot hubs known as ‘Women’s Business Centres’.

Funded by Coca Cola and the German development agency GIZ, they offer a women-led social enterprise model for sustainable development that drives their own agenda for safe food, healthy living and a sustainable planet.


Building safe spaces for collaboration and networking

Having started with a pilot of 10 Women’s Business Centres across the country, seven years later there are more than 450, reaching approximately 450,000 women producers across more than 10 districts and serving a population of approximately 2.5 million people.

These entrepreneurs work across a range of value chains, from local poultry and organic vegetables to traditional handicrafts and green energy solutions. Together, they are now building strong customer relationships and markets, improving the quality of products they produce by promoting traditional and innovative practices, ensuring regular supply and fair wages for producers, improving price points for local products and building product traceability.

And it’s not just about business growth. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WBCs became crucial sources of information about the virus as well as places where people could buy masks and soap made by local business women amid shrinking global supply chains. Telemedicine apps introduced to increase rural women’s access to healthcare were also rolled out through these centres, with extra support to use them where literacy was proving a barrier to uptake.

Our business centres provide a safe place for women to gather, learn and collaborate. The more producers engage with their local Women’s Business Centres to sell their products, the greater the customer base for other producers and entrepreneurs.

The centres recruit new members through social marketing outreach, skills training, and savings programmes to build local investment capital and act as an incubator for women looking to start or expand their businesses.

Building on success in Bangladesh and beyond

Following the centres’ success in Bangladesh, we are piloting their roll out in Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria with the focus and services they provide varying based on national and community needs.

In Kenya, for example, Self Help Africa currently supports a dairy project that involves working with cooperatives to strengthen supply chains for quality milk by increasing the nutritional intake of the animals.

In Nigeria and Malawi, meanwhile, our focus will be on health and wellbeing promotion, including promoting access to locally-produced sanitary products, to support existing local health systems.

The continued success of these centres demonstrates the importance of resilient local circular economies as a platform for community development.

450 centres reach approximately 450,000 women producers and serve a population of approximately 2.5 million people.

Women's Business Centres


Among the many projects running within these countries is a network of more than 450 Women’s Business Centres across Bangladesh, which is helping more than 450,000 women producers gain control and agency over their lives. Their focus on providing Bengali women entrepreneurs who have businesses and visions for growth with the training, products and services they need to thrive sets the centres apart and has driven their success in recent years.

In fact, the approach has proved so successful we are planning to pilot the roll out of the women’s business centre model in Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria with their structures, products and service offerings varying widely based on market demand and the leadership of women entrepreneurs.

Bridging the Gap

In north-west Cameroon, ‘Bridging the Gap’ supports local human rights organisations in Cameroon to reduce conflict between cattle herders and crop farmers over land and water access. That project ended in December 2021 but exciting opportunities to progress intercultural dialogue and cultural rights emerged, so we will support community initiatives to promote those rights.

Mangrove Forests

In Senegal, an environmental project has helped to plant thousands of mangrove trees in the southern Casamance region, in collaboration with local partners. Communities are being supported to protect and take responsibility for West Africa’s under-threat mangrove forests and surrounding environment, building ecological livelihoods for local people.