A young man travelled to Nsanje in search of a root tuber that was reputed to possess medicinal remedies.ย  The man was looking for the root not because he had a health problem and wanted a cure, he was a vendor and wanted the root for resell.ย  The vendor was looking for a root tuber of a perennial climbing plant called Columba which is found in south eastern Africa, including Malawi.ย  The plant produces thick fleshly yellow root tuber called Thabalaba in Nsanje or Njoka in Yao.

A member of Mwanda Thabalaba Club with some Thabalaba tubers

At a glance Thabalaba, or Jateorhiza palmate the scientific name, looks like any other tuberous root and can easily be mistaken for cassava with its brownish colour. But Thabalaba, which is found in the Matandwe Forest Reserve in Nsanje, is no ordinary root tuber.ย  It has monetary value as it is used in the manufacture of different medicines.ย  ย ย The root has a bitter taste and is said to be useful for treating fever, diarrhea, rheumatism, and for relieving vomiting and nausea, among other uses.ย  With such uses, Thabalaba is attracting vendors from distant places to Mwanda Village in the area of Traditional Authority Malemia in Nsanje District, who go there to buy the root tuber.

But most of the vendors are cheats. They capitalize on the localsโ€™ ignorance about the importance and real value of the root to offer very low prices, knowing the locals will have no option.

It is against this background that Mwanda Thabalaba Group in collaboration with the Department of Forest and the Environmental Affairs Department is implementing Access Benefit Sharing (ABS) Community Protocols in Nsanje district.

Mwanda Thabalaba Group which is part of a Village Natural Resources Management Committee is a communal, forest management and user group within the Mwanda Forest Co-management block established in 2012 under the Shire River Basin Management Programme. The group was established under a co-management arrangement with the Department of Forest.ย  Under the co-management arrangement, to the group co-manages the Matandwe Forest reserve while benefitting from resources from the reserve.

Mwanda Thabalaba Group comprises locals, most of whom are women who partly earn their livelihood extracting Columba roots in Matandwe Forest Reserve, covering 26,381 hectares.

Columba roots are found on alluvial soils along either rivers or streams, and under or between rocks at low altitudes.ย  The root tubers are processed into slices and dried.ย  It is the dried roots that are sold to vendors.

Members of Mwanda Thabalaba Club cutting Thabalaba tubers

Mwanda Thabalaba Group Leader Khelesi Eliya, said that although they had been selling the Columba root for some time, they had nothing to show for their hard work because of the low prices vendors offered.

โ€œA vendor would come and fill a three-ton pickup after buying the root at K20 or even K10 per Kg. We are told they make a fortune when they sell the root to exporters,โ€ she said.

The vendors resell Columba roots to exporters at either K600 or K1,000 per Kg, according to John Banda, the District Environmental Officer for Nsanje.

โ€œAnd when the root is exported, it is sold at between US$2.0 to US$3.00 per Kg [K1,500 to K2,250],โ€ Banda said, adding that the Columba roots are processed into pharmaceutical products abroad.

Malawi exported 30,000 Kg of Columba roots in the 2019-2020 financial year, according to Malawiโ€™s Annual Economic Report 2020.

The coming of the Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP), has brought a glimmer of hope for Mwanda Thabalaba Group with the introduction of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) protocols that ensures that communities that own generic resources benefit from their utilization and are protected from unscrupulous buyers.ย  At the moment, Mwanda Thabalaba Group is the only community group in the country currently piloting ABS Community Protocols.

Malawi is party to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS). Through the ABS Protocol, the Government of Malawi through the Environmental Affairs Department is ensuring that there is fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources. The access and benefit sharing (ABS) regulations address challenges that communities face in ensuring sustainable utilization and conservation of genetic resources.ย  The challenges include illegal access of genetic resources, unequal sharing of benefits arising from use, loss of export revenue and unsustainable harvesting of resources.

โ€œThe Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) through the Shire Valley Transformation Programme has put up ABS protocols which we did not have in the past,โ€ Banda said.

He said the EAD was also facilitating community protocol guidelines that would guide the community and other stakeholders in the extraction of genetic resources up to exportation.

The SVTP will irrigate 43,370 hectares of land by abstracting water from the Shire River at Kapichira Dam and conveying it by gravity to the irrigable areas in Chikwawa and Nsanje through canals.ย  With $5.5 million funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the SVTP will ensure that all impacts on environment and wildlife are mitigated at all stages of the projectโ€™s implementation.ย  The fund is to cater for issues of wildlife and environmental conservation in Lengwe National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve, Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, the Elephant Marsh, and Matandwe Forest Reserve.

โ€œThe SVTP through GEF has provided resources that have enabled both guide lines to be produced though in draft form. Locals had ideas, but had no resources,โ€ Banda said.

โ€œThe aim is to sustainably manage natural resources and improve community livelihoods. This way, irrigation farming in the Lower Shire Valley will be sustained, increasing food productivityโ€.

Banda said the Mwanda Thabalaba group was formed on a pilot basis and that in future, more groups would be established in other areas of the district.ย  The group also has a nursery aimed at domesticating Thabalaba root.

โ€œWe want to domesticate the root at community level so that it can be grown at household level to ease pressure on Matandwe Forest Reserve,โ€ Banda said.

Members of Mwanda Thabalaba Group received training from SVTP.ย  During the training, the group learned how it could utilize the Columba root in a sustainable manner, among other things.

Eliya expressed joy that government had come up with interventions to protect groups such as hers from dishonest buyers, and to ensure sustainable use of natural resources in Matandwe Forest Reserve.

โ€œWe were at the mercy of buyers. We thank government for intervening when we complained against prices buyers were offering. Imagine one of them insisted on buying the root at K10 per Kg,โ€ she said.