A fatal combination of chronic poverty, natural disasters and extremes of drought and flooding, mean that Malawi has repeatedly been affected by dire famine since 2002. It is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, with an average life expectancy of around 40 years. The country has an alarming rate of infant mortality, while thousands of children are orphaned every year due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. People often spend what little money they have on crucial medicine rather than food.

A small charity, based in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, is appealing to the baking industry to improve the lives of Malawians, as it aims to regenerate a poverty-stricken village in Mulanje. The charity, Combined Hope and Aid Relief Mission (CHARM), is asking bakers to donate bakery equipment, including ovens, provers, mixers, moulders, worktops, trolleys, trays and racks. "We’re also looking for bakers, possibly retired, to go over to Malawi for a couple of months and train the locals. This would have to be at their own expense, as we want profit to be put back into helping others," says Emily Clarke, the chairperson and founder of the charity.

The village is close to Mulanje Mountain, the highest mountain in southern central Africa. With its famous Sapitwa Peak standing over 3,000 metres above sea level, the mountain houses over 800 plant species, 250 birds and 180 butterflies, in habitats ranging from woodlands, evergreen forests and grasslands to marshes and rivers. Despite its many economical and social problems, Malawi is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and is often referred to as the warm heart of Africa.

The majority of people living in the rural areas of Malawi, however, do not have jobs and struggle to feed themselves and their families. The average family lives on less than £15 per month. CHARM aims to assist these families by creating jobs and sustainable sources of income. It provides loans and training to people, enabling them to set up their own businesses. The loans are usually paid back over six months, with 10% interest. "This puts more money back into the pot, which is meanwhile growing and growing, ensuring that CHARM can help others set up businesses," says Clarke. "It also gives the people who borrowed the money a real sense of achievement, as they don’t feel like they’re a charity case. They end up with a business and a real sense of pride, providing not only jobs, but hope for the future of the country. The people we’re currently targeting are families who support orphans, as well as their own children."

Establishing a bakery, which cost around £6,000, is the biggest challenge that CHARM has tackled so far. The money was raised by holding various events, including fairs, fun-runs, sponsored events and donations. "The community told us they wanted a bakery, as there’s not one in Mulanje. The nearest bakery is over an hour’s drive, so what tends to happen is that people will go there and buy lots of goods. They come back to Mulanje and sell bread. Sometimes it’s over a week old and mouldy, but the villagers will still buy it because it’s the only bread available."

The bakery building is almost finished. "Over there, the soil is like clay," says Clarke. "If you add water to it, mould it into shape and let it dry in the sun, that’s your brick. They’re all handmade. We’re paying builders to build the bakery, a square building with a corrugated iron roof. All we need to do now is equip it."

It is expected that the bakery will produce between 70 and 80 loaves every day, employing about five people at a time. Other than bread, cakes will be made according to demand, as well as pies and pasties. "To these people, cakes are a luxury," says Clarke. "On the other side of Mulanje, there is a hospital with a lot of white people working there. I anticipate that the cakes we make will be bought in bulk and taken to the white workers.

"The point of the bakery is to pay wages, supply the community with a much-needed bakery and use the profit to open another business, and then another business, and so on. This will continue until there’s a thriving economy out there. It’s also about creating a sense of hope. The sign saying that a bakery was coming made a lot of people very excited."

After speaking with Malawi’s Minister of Employment, Clarke says that CHARM’s ultimate goal is to re-open a jam factory, creating hundreds of jobs. This is a distant dream, as the cost of the project would exceed £1 million.

Clarke explains: "As a teenager, I really wanted to help less fortunate people in Africa. I felt I had to do something and tried all sorts of things to try and quench that feeling, such as sponsoring a child in Africa and climbing Kilimanjaro. None of this was enough. That’s when I decided to set up my own charity in 2003. I wanted to help people to help themselves, making lasting changes.

"On my first visit to Mulanje, the first loans were given out to a group of women. We held a ceremony to present them with the money. This was one of the happiest days for the women. Each lady, some of whom had never lifted a pen before, then signed a contract. They could not believe it. There was singing, dancing and drum playing. It was such a fantastic atmosphere and everybody was very happy. It was amazing.

"Once you’ve been over there, you never see things in the same way again." n

If you would like to help,

email: emilyjclarke@hotmail.com or tel 01246 203115