Malawi reaps the reward of returning to age-old, chemical-free farming

Malawi FYF

Nitrogen fixing crops such as cowpeas are good for the soil

Returning to age-old, chemical-free farming techniques is improving crop harvest for Malawian farmers

Despite the fact that Malawi looks set to produce surplus maize again this year, a Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWSNET) report recently noted that as many as half a million people in southern Malawi will need immediate humanitarian support.

Many of the poorest farming families in Phambala suffer food shortages for up to six months a year, every year. Families are forced to eat unripe green maize or even seeds that reduce their harvest in the next year, creating a cycle of chronic food insecurity.

Age old techniques

Mr Kanjanga is a farmer from Ntcheu District in Phambala. In 1975, having seen the deteriorating effect that the application of chemical fertilisers was having on his crops, he decided to return to the composting techniques he had seen used by his father in the 1930s.

His crops started to improve so significantly that he decided to set up the Lipangwe Organic Manure Demonstration Farm (LOMADEF) in 1980 so as to share his learning with fellow farmers. He decided that the most effective way to make sure that the learning reached as many people as possible would be to train community members to act as Agricultural Advisors in their communities.

LOMADEF set about carefully selecting Agricultural Advisors on the basis of their innovative approach to farming, training them in sustainable farming techniques and in communication and facilitation skills so they can pass on their learning to fellow farmers.

Innovative farmers

Eveline Msngwa an Agricultural Advisor from Bwese village has been working with LOMADEF for ten years. The land that she and her husband Charles own is a textbook in sustainable farming practices.

In one corner of the field are three heaps of harvested maize. The first heap was planted using only chemical fertilisers, the second using a basal compost top dressed with chemical fertiliser and the third using basal compost and liquid manure.

'As you can see each heap is more or less the same size. Our fellow farmers can clearly see that there is little to gain in using chemical fertiliser. In fact when you use chemical fertiliser you effectively make a loss because you spend more money on the crop!'

There are also a variety of crops in their field. Eveline and Charles have planted nitrogen-fixing crops such as soya, groundnuts, pigeon peas and cowpeas that replenish lost nutrients in the soil. And, instead of simply growing maize as their staple crop they are now growing cassava and sweet potatoes. As a result they are less vulnerable to crop failure and have a variety of produce to sell at the market.

'We have made 20,000 kwa (£185) from the sale of the cassava and the sweet potato crops. We are going to invest this profit in cultivating the additional land that we have. We have also already bought goats with some of the profits and have been using the manure in maize production. We were the first family in our village to do this.'

Agents of change

Just as Eveline and Charles’ successes serve as an example to their fellow farmers, so LOMADEF’s efforts have helped to pave the way towards a new approach to farming at a national level. After a number of years of promoting subsidised fertiliser and hybrid seeds as the best way to increase harvests, the Malawian Ministry of Agriculture, prompted by a rise in global fertiliser prices, decided that it was time to look into different ways forward.

They therefore decided to hold a national composting launch at LOMADEF and a range of government officials, NGOs, businesses and farmers made their way out to the remote farm to watch demonstrations on a range of different composting techniques.

As a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture remarked in a speech at the launch, LOMADEF has demonstrated that 'there is a need for an intensification of soil fertility management activities especially manure-making, conservation agriculture, and agro-forestry if we are going to have a hunger free nation.'

LOMADEF has been working with UK based NGO Find Your Feet since 2006. With FYF’s support LOMADEF is currently improving food security for 500 farming families living in Ntcheu District, Malawi.