Three generations of a Norwich family lend a big hand to Malawi project

African villagers are attempting to sustain their community by turning scrubland into a fruit farm – thanks to three generations of a Norwich family.

Chapita, near the township of Liwonde, in southern Malawi, has been planting fruit trees and developing water projects for its population of between 500 and 600 people.

And Norwich trio Frank Nantongwe, his son Martyn, 16, and father-in-law Neil Rout have recently returned from a trip to the area to find out how the project, which they gave a kick-start, is growing.

The area was home to Mr Nantongwe's late grandparents, with his cousin still living there.

And the 43-year-old, of Chalfont Walk, Eaton, said: 'What we are trying to do is empower the community because this is the best way. They are peasant farmers; they rely on what they produce on the land and if the rain fails, they have nothing.

'This so they can have other money, which can be used to support their children through school. Primary schools are free in Malawi, but the money is for uniforms, bits and pieces, books, the basic stuff that we can usually access in this country but that's so difficult for them.

'It's also for medicine if they fall ill.'

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Mr Nantongwe said people from the village were in charge of moving the project along.

He added: 'They are clearing the land themselves as the emphasis is it's a community-based project so they have got to get involved.

'We pay them for that as a little thank you but also to motivate.

'We don't own this project. It's their project. They take full responsibility in terms of moving it forward or not, as the case may be.

'We only provide the support to kick-start them. Buying the plants would be well beyond their means.'

Mr Rout said 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) had been cleared to grow plants, while plant nurseries have also been developed.

Mr Rout, a retired biologist with a strong interest in horticulture and botany, said last November the villagers planted 200 mango trees, 200 citrus trees and nearly another 200 of a variety of other plants.

He said: 'There are very few opportunities to earn. Clearing the ground – it's rough, it's undeveloped but the opportunity to earn money by clearing is appreciated.

'This year we went back and had a look and were so encouraged.'

Mr Rout said it was identified a water source was needed for the orchard – and within a matter of days digging work was well under way.

He said: 'We could have brought in a digger but that would have taken away the opportunities that we are trying to create.

'There's a pride now in the area. There's a supervisor who has three young workers that are on the payroll, although payroll in our terms would be very small but in their terms it means a living wage for them.

'Four people are being employed and we will need more as the production comes through.'

Mr Nantongwe met his wife Fran while she was working in Malawi 11 years ago. Mrs Nantongwe was copy editing for a small publishing company, while her future husband taught her the local language, Chichewa, to help her with her work.

The couple married in July 2002 and moved back to Norwich. Mrs Nantongwe adopted Martyn, who was then aged six.

She said: 'My parents have always been very close to Frank and Martyn, and very supportive of their family back in Malawi.

'We have carried out various projects over the years to support Frank's relatives in the village in which his late grandparents used to live.'

She said the first major project was to repair and maintain a borehole which provides water for the village.

Mrs Nantongwe added: 'We have also started various other projects, supported by family, and friends from church in Eaton and Wymondham.

'For example, we bought goats, bicycles, which have been adapted to carry goods and passengers, and fertiliser to improve the yields of the maize crop.

'We also have friends who send money to pay for the education of the secondary age children in the village, and provide their uniforms, shoes and school equipment.'

Are you involved in a project to help others? Call reporter Richard Wheeler on 01603 772474 or email