After getting research ethics approval from the University of Hull’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, the next step was getting research ethics clearance in Malawi. For someone studying at a foreign institution to be able to carry out research in Malawi, there are two options to follow in order to get ethics approval before collecting data. The first option is applying for and getting ethics clearance through the National Commission of Science and Technology where a relevant committee depending on your area of study looks into your application and provides feedback. On the other hand, one can also get research ethics clearance through a local research institution such as universities and organisations. I followed the second option and was attached to the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST)’s Center for Innovation and Industrial Research (CIIR). I applied for research ethics clearance from the MUST Research Ethics Committee (MUSTREC), and I got my ethics clearance approval early in January 2022. I have learnt a lot about academic and administrative processes that must be followed when conducting research in a different country from your where your institution is based.
My six months stay at MUST is memorable as I was exposed to valuable research and collaborations within the CIIR. What excited me most was that research the CIIR is skewed towards industry challenges in key sectors of the Malawian and regional economy in agriculture, health and education sectors among others. The set up at the CIIR is identical to my parent institute, the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull. The Wilberforce Institute is well known for its research on historical and contemporary slavery and in recent years, has developed interests in researching children’s exploitation, working closely with practitioners in these sectors. Apart from providing me with an office space and internet connection, I was involved in developing the academic progress monitoring system for postgraduate students under the CIIR and in reviewing MUST’s postgraduate handbook. I gained valuable skills through my involvement in these activities, and I am grateful to the staff in the CIIR and MUST at large for their support during my stay there.
After getting all the required clearance and I began talking to stakeholders on the ground to start planning field data collection trips. I first engaged with the Ministry of Labour who were so helpful and gave me contacts for district labour officers of Thyolo, Mulanje and Zomba Districts where I planned to engage the communities living around commercial tea and tobacco estates. The next stage was to visit the labour offices of each of these districts. My engagement with the labour officers was so enlightening and informed my selection of communities and other stakeholders I needed to talk to.
The highlight of this engagement with district labour officers was at Thyolo District Council. When I met the labour officer for Thyolo, I was informed and invited to the scheduled District Child Labour Committee (DCLC) meeting. To say I got valuable tips on the fight against child labour in the districts might be an understatement. The DCLC meeting drew together all stakeholders in anti-child labour programmes in the district including representatives from the district labour office, district social welfare office, district gender office, district agriculture office, the judiciary, district education office, district youth office, youth organisations, traditional leaders and the NGOs community among others. With the level and clarity of information I got from the meeting, I felt that I gained all I needed to know about child labour in the district, from programmes on the ground, and challenges and steps being taken to ensure all children are protected in the district. Coming at the start of my field data collection, the DCLC meeting energised me and re-invigorated my purpose. It reminded me why it is so important to research about the lived experiences of children, families and communities after children were banned from working in the commercial tea and tobacco estates.
From the district councils, I went straight onto the ground to meet local leaders starting with traditional authorities (T/As), then group village heads (GVH) and then village heads where potential respondents were to be drawn from. Overall, I managed to match or exceed the research targets I had set myself. I had planned to reach 120 survey respondents, I managed to reach 132. On focus group discussions, I had planned to conduct 18 and achieved 18. Finally, on interviews, I conducted 29 interviews out of the 30 I had planned.
Let me sign out by highlighting some of the challenges faced during data collection. The biggest challenge was access to research funds. Before traveling to Malawi, I had arranged with my bank to get access to my bank account while in Malawi. Unfortunately, this was not possible, and as I could not access the funds this delayed my field work as I needed the funds to pay field research assistants. The university finance department and my supervisors were so helpful in rectifying the financial hiccup. Another delay of field data collection occurred when some areas became inaccessible by road after tropical cyclone Ana brought heavy rains early in 2022. And as if these setbacks were not enough, I got sick with chicken pox and lost almost 3 weeks research time. Nevertheless, as I now go through the processing of my data, I am so happy with the volume and diversity of the data I have.