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Wednesday, 20th January 2021

Project Mahampy: adjusting to the new normal

By Polly Hedley

In a year like no other, the coronavirus pandemic has affected every corner of the world and sadly Madagascar has been no exception. The weaving of mahampy, a locally sourced reed that grows in nearby wetlands, is a traditional livelihood activity that has been hit hard by the economic fallout from COVID-19. This has had a disproportionate impact on women who primarily rely on the sale of mahampy woven products, such as mats and baskets, to generate household income. Whilst SEED’s Project Mahampy has been working to increase the profitability and sustainability of mahampy weaving in the south of Madagascar, the coronavirus has meant that 2020 has been a particularly difficult year for the weavers. We take a look back and reflect not only on the challenges of the past year, but also at what the women have achieved and how the project is moving forward in 2021.

Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Project Mahampy had reached two major milestones by March 2020: the establishment of the Mahampy Weavers’ Cooperative and the construction of the Mahampy Weavers’ workshop. The formation of the Cooperative united 166 women across the three hamlets in Sainte Luce to build capacity and create larger profit margins. The women also undertook training sessions to ensure that all members were able to weave the same set of products and to further understand their role within the Cooperative.

The completion of the weavers’ workshop has also been a significant development for the women, establishing a multi-purpose space for the weavers to store, sell and make their products. Whilst coronavirus restrictions limited gatherings to only ten people, the weavers all completed further training in business and finance. These sessions concentrated on how to identify new markets and tailor products to specific customers.

Big smiles: The Mahampy Weavers Cooperative back in November 2019.

To balance the taking of mahampy from the reedbeds around the village, SEED also completed a conservation report that details all current knowledge of the mahampy wetlands in Sainte Luce. With relatively little known about this environment, the team have begun monitoring the reed beds to establish sustainable wetland management practices that will protect the ecosystem and safeguard the future of mahampy weaving as a livelihood. Whilst movement and gathering restrictions delayed community conservation events, SEED plans to resume these activities this year, with the Cooperative playing a more direct role in the monitoring of the mahampy reedbeds themselves.

GPS and tape measures in tow: the team monitoring the wetlands in Sainte Luce.

However, despite the women having much to celebrate in 2020, the economic impact of the pandemic on the mahampy market has had significant consequences for the weavers. Primarily, widespread loss of income due to the coronavirus has meant that people can no longer afford to buy mahampy products. The repercussions of the virus on other livelihood activities has also meant that many women have returned to weaving as a way to generate income, saturating the remaining market for mahampy goods. This has caused the price of mahampy products, and the weavers’ income, to drop dramatically. Travel restrictions have intensified this, with sellers unable to transport products outside of Sainte Luce to their traditional markets along the south coast of Madagascar.

This could not have come at a worse time for the weavers. After three years of drought and cyclical lean seasons, extreme food shortages have caused southern Madagascar to be ‘in the grip of a human catastrophe’1. According to the UN, ‘1.5 million people- half the region’s population- are currently in need of immediate emergency food assistance’, with mostly women and children experiencing “crisis” or “emergency” hunger conditions2. The economic impact of the coronavirus on women’s livelihoods has only exacerbated this dire situation in the south. The World Food Programme projects ‘the number of children likely to suffer from acute malnutrition at more than 135,000’3. Whilst urgent action is currently required to prevent a humanitarian crisis, the consequences of both the drought and the pandemic will be felt well beyond this current lean season.

Although the situation to the south of Fort Dauphin is undeniably more urgent than in the north, the impacts of the famine have been felt into Sainte Luce and the surrounding communities. With people facing high levels of acute food insecurity, SEED have recently set up an emergency appeal to provide food relief to those who need it most.

A mahampy hat made by a young weaver

Evidently, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year for the weavers, however, a new project is set to make 2021 more promising. With project activities currently on hold, SEED has refocused its efforts into teaching the weavers how to create sustainable, low-cost menstrual hygiene products. This will not only help to address widespread period poverty and a lack of menstrual health education throughout the region, but provide greater support to the women during these uncertain times. With activities soon to begin, keep an eye out on the blog for future updates.

It’s fair to say that, for a fledgling project, 2020 has had an unprecedented impact on the mahampy women. Nevertheless, SEED’s commitment to supporting the weavers and their livelihoods remains the same. With (fingers crossed) project activities set to resume in the next few months, SEED is hopeful that 2021 will be a much brighter year for the women and their families. 



References

  1. “Southern Madagascar faces drought-driven hunger, threatening millions”, ReliefWeb, accessed January 14th 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/madagascar/southern-madagascar-faces-drought-driven-hunger-threatening-millions.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Humanitarian crisis looms in Southern Madagascar as drought and pandemic double number of hungry people”, WFP, accessed January 14th 2021, https://www.wfp.org/news/humanitarian-crisis-looms-southern-madagascar-drought-and-pandemic-double-number-hungry-people