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Sport With a Purpose – How Running Is Changing Lives in Malawi

We crossed the border from Tanzania into Malawi in the back of a pickup truck and during that journey we were with probably 20 other Malawians. They couldn’t speak English, but they held their heads high and they smiled. We sang songs. It was just the most incredible welcome into a country...


By Kate Webb, Director of Orbis Expeditions, who specialize in Educational, Philanthropic, Experiential and Sustainable travel throughout Malawi. Under the banner “Sport with a Purpose”, the Orbis Trail Challenge offers runners the chance to experience the unspoiled demanding terrain of Malawi while also discovering the country’s culture and helping alleviate some of the challenges the nation faces. This is Kate’s story – from arriving with only a backpack to running with an Olympic Champion. 



We'd been through lots of different African countries, but we wanted to base ourselves in a country where tourism was really small and where two 26-year-olds could make a difference. Somewhere we could make an impact without huge amounts of money behind us. Malawi just seemed to tick all the boxes. 



Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa. And it really is. The people are so friendly. But it’s still incredibly scary arriving there with nothing but two backpacks to start a business. It wasn’t too hard to find a handful of Malawians who would help us. They worked with us. They guided us. They introduced us to the communities that we are still working with 11 years later. We chose those communities because of the people in them. They remain an incredible inspiration – really determined to empower themselves and not rely on external aid.


Trying to promote trade over aid enabled us to offer visitors a chance to have a really authentic experience. Head off the beaten track. Africa is so much more than a safari destination. Malawi might not have the wildlife of Kenya or South Africa, or the lure of the Rift Valley, but it has the most beautiful, unspoiled landscape and an incredible culture. Malawi is peaceful and welcoming, but when you explore you never know what’s coming next. It offers true adventure. 


Seven years later, with our company established in Malawi, we formed Orbis Expeditions here in the UK. We came to understand the culture, what an authentic Malawi experience looked like and the power it holds. We had built such a great local team there that we could move back to England to be nearer to family as we started our own. Empowerment and creating sustainable local roles was always the goal. But we’re certainly not finished. There are always new opportunities to share the experience of Malawi and support its incredible people. 


The Power of Sport

That’s how the Orbis Challenge came to be really. We were talking with Dame Kelly Holmes (British two-time Olympic track champion) and the idea of using sport to deepen the experience – Sport with a Purpose – was sparked by her desire to experience the environment as an athlete. 


Sport gave us an opportunity to introduce the wonder of Malawi and its people to those who might not have come otherwise. They are tempted by the rare chance to run on virgin trails alongside big headliners like Dame Kelly Holmes. 


The challenge itself is not to be underestimated. Just ask Kelly. Even the two-time gold medalist was tested to her limits. 

The trails that you're running on are not even really trails – they are tracks that people have never run on before. They have been used by either animals or villagers collecting wood. It is true Malawi – raw and unpredictable.   

Knowledge of the terrain is one of the many reasons it’s so important to us that locals are involved in the challenge as guides. The likes of ultrarunner Edson Kumwamba are like mountain goats, they just hop from rock to rock. They've grown up there. They know what they're doing. Challenge participants can complete the Mount Mulanje route in 3 hours and 45 minutes. Edson and the others can run it in just over half that time. 


During the 2019 challenge the local athletes were also training for the Blantyre marathon. They ran with us during the events in the day, and when we were all absolutely exhausted, they went back out to add on more miles. They are not just inspiring from a performance perspective either, running with them you also get to hear their stories, how they have overcome the challenges they have faced. Rather than the physical achievements or incredible sunsets, it’s more those human interactions that make the experience truly special. 


In total, 24 Malawians were running in the event and many more were part of the support crew, from guides to those at the water station and the accommodation providers. They all directly benefit economically from the event and the tourism it creates.


The Bigger Challenge

One of the key challenges Malawi faces is its dependency on foreign aid. Addressing this is the key to long-term change. That’s why driving the local economy, helping businesses and trying to provide income for people is really at the heart of what we're trying to do as a company. Trade not aid. The power of sport is bringing people to Malawi to support the local economy and local initiatives. 


We also only support existing initiatives, so we don’t create a fight for funding among people trying to achieve the same goals. We select an important cause and support them for that year.  


In 2019 the Orbis Trail Challenge runners raised over £22,000 for a local organization helping alleviate child malnutrition in the region. In 2020, we will raise awareness and funds to support reforestation and environmental education. Malawi is one of the nations that feels the direct impact of climate change, so this has never been more important. 


Participants raise the funds themselves and then get to see firsthand how that money makes an impact. It’s a powerful motivation as they're pushing through the kilometers in the heat, climbing the mountains. They are reminded why we are doing it and how lucky we are to have what we have. 


It opens people’s eyes to real global challenges. Yes, it's about raising money. But it's also about bringing that awareness back home, understanding that the world isn't a very equal place and saying, I can play a positive role. I can be a global citizen. That’s what Sport with a Purpose is all about.


The 2020 Orbis Trail Running Challenge takes place October 3–10 and applications are now open. For full details, and to apply, visit

Photography by Venetia Norrington. 

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