Fri 12 Feb 2021

Going Green in Malawi: An unexpected challenge


In 2018 we held our first Malawi Impact Marathon in the remote fishing village of Nkope. Deep in the rural countryside, the race course trails stretched through fields and farmland, past majestic trees and a glittering lake - Lake Malawi, the iconic waterbed and scenic backdrop to the vastly underrated country.

Lake Malawi provides for much-needed purposes such as cleaning and fishing. The water itself, however, is not safe for consumption. The CDC recommends only drinking bottled or disinfected water in Malawi. Drinking contaminated water can cause sickness and disease, and access to drinkable water is a challenge for many who live in the country. 

Putting on a race safely requires ensuring all participants have the ability to stay sufficiently hydrated. And the challenge increases significantly when facing 35-40 degree temperatures under the blazing sun. Add to that the difficulty of access to clean water, and the 2018 Malawi Impact Marathon presented a unique challenge for us. How do we put on a safe race, while at the same time staying true to our values? We hadn’t yet launched our Green World Policy, but the principles contained within have always been part of the way we work. Minimising waste and eliminating single use plastic have been particular focus points, as these are common issues we’ve observed in the racing industry at large.

During Impact Week we have a water filter in our Athletes’ Village from which everyone fills up their own  reusable bottles brought from home. Every runner, staff member and volunteer supplies their own reusable bottle to use throughout the week. 

On Race Day, our aid stations are setup and stocked with large reusable jugs of filtered water for runners to fill up with along the course. At soaring temps and fully exposed in the sun, regular and heavy hydration is critical. For our international runners, part of the mandatory race kit is a personal hydration system such as a hydration vest or hand held water bottle. We ensure every one of our runners has this, and thus no need for plastic bottles or cups on race day. 

However, the local runners do not have running hydration vests. They also may not have reusable water bottles. Having local runner participation in our races is a big part of the week’s culmination, but how could we safely invite them to participate in our race while at the same time staying true to our values of minimising waste and protecting the environment? 

There’s no perfect solution here. We considered putting aside our green ambitions in the name of runner safety, and hand out disposable cups or bottles of water. That certainly would have been the easier solution, in some ways! But we just couldn’t concede that there wasn’t a better way. 

In 2018 we decided to give every single local runner a reusable water bottle as part of their registration. This was at cost to the race, but we felt strongly that it was the best decision - 1) preventing the need for disposable cups, 2) providing the runners with a safe and reusable personal hydration tool to use on the course, and 3) providing what would hopefully be seen as a tool with broader utility for the runners beyond the race. 

This solution was met with mixed reviews. The water bottles weren’t accepted as enthusiastically as we had hoped, and not all runners ended up taking them on the course with them which negated their primary intended purpose. The feedback that followed was that the runners didn’t see much value in the water bottles and would have much preferred a celebratory meal or some other kind of prize at the end. 

For 2019, we took this feedback to heart. Returning to Malawi and determined to find a different solution that wouldn’t compromise our values, we came to a remarkable realisation. Everywhere around us in the village we saw bottles - plastic bottles, which once carried soda or water, were cleaned and sold (and re-sold) in the markets to be used for various purposes. Single-use plastic bottles were being made multi-use. It occurred to us, we could purchase these bottles from the local markets and hand them out to the local runners to be used during the race. A low-cost solution that was locally relevant and would give the runners not only a way to fuel up on the course but also a resource that they might otherwise be buying for themselves - something with real value to them. With this lower cost solution we also added on a post-race meal and celebration for the local runners, in recognition of their feedback from the prior year. All-in-all, this year was very well received.

While we still cringe at the idea of reusing (intended) single-use plastic bottles, and are aware of the concerns about reusing these types of materials, we are proud of our approach to the challenge across both years and are constantly learning and looking for new and better ways as we go. Last year's solution was far from perfect, and maybe there isn’t a perfect solution. But we will keep going strong in the direction of a Green World and hope you will join us on this journey.

What will the solution be next year? You’ll have to come along to see ;)

Interesting source article: 

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