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By learning skills like composting, crop diversification, organic pesticide production, seed multiplication and agro-forestry farmers in Malawi are increasing their ability to feed their families over the long term. Photo: Find Your Feet via Flickr (CC BY
By learning skills like composting, crop diversification, organic pesticide production, seed multiplication and agro-forestry farmers in Malawi are increasing their ability to feed their families over the long term. Photo: Find Your Feet via Flickr (CC BY).
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Sustainable agriculture in Malawi: a desperate struggle

Marc Crouch / Naturally Africa Volunteers

17th April 2015

Malawi, one of the Earth's poorest nations, faces a desperate struggle to feed its people without destroying the ecosystems it relies on, writes Marc Crouch. Poor agricultural practice has left the country with low crop yields and rampant food shortages, however the government and charities are fighting back.

'Over farming' is now rife, made worse thanks to poor yields. The soil becomes bare and very low in nutrients, unable to support healthy plants: a vicious cycle slowly destroying the land's ability to grow crops.

Sustainable living, or at least partially sustainable living, is fast becoming popular in the western world.

In developed nations, being more sustainable, for example by growing some of our own food, is a choice.

We can choose to 'green' our lifestyle - but if it doesn't work out, then we have the means to live without it.

But this is not the case for the poorest nations on Earth. Malawi, one the smallest African nations, is ranked as the 8th poorest country on the planet. And for the ordinary people of Malawi, sustainability is  a matter of life and death.

Millions of people in Malawi face a food shortage and potential starvation each year, and the only way to survive is by growing their own crops to provide both their main source of food, but often their only source of income.

Self-sustainability through agriculture is absolutely vital. If the crops fail, the situation becomes extremely dire. With little to no money to buy food, families rely on handouts from charitable organisation or their communities.

And if that's not forthcoming, they face starvation - a prospect made all the more likely by the worsening condition of farming in Malawi.

Unreliable rains, poor soils

Malawi's small farmers face a host of challenges. The biggest reason behind crop failure is the dry conditions and low nutrient soil.

The country's main crop is maize, a nutrient-demanding plant that needs plenty of rain to establish and thrive. A bad rainy season causes a poor yield. Irrigation can be used to water crops at other times of year, but it's an expense that few Malawians can afford.

At the end of the harvest Malawi's farmers typically burn their fields to make way for the next crop. But this also damages fragile soils, and deprives them of the organic matter they need to retain water and nutrients. Burning fields to prepare them for planting was harmless enough years ago when there was far more land to go round, but it is no longer viable.

When the country's population was smaller, land was farmed under the 'swidden' system: vegetation was cut and burned, cultivated for a few years, then left fallow for a few years allowing soils to recover under a blanket of wild growth.

However a lack of land in recent times has left areas that would have once been given time to recover in constant use. As a result, the strain on the land never stops.

Naturally, 'over farming' is now rife, made worse thanks to poor yields. The soil becomes bare and very low in nutrients, unable to support healthy plants: a vicious cycle slowly destroying the land's ability to grow crops.

It may appear that the Malawian people are simply not helping themselves by doing this, but in a country where needs are acute, food is scarce and education is scarcer, they are simply a desperate people with no knowledge of how to farm without damaging soils and ecosystems.

A hard slog under the blistering heat

If all these odds stacking against the people of Malawi wasn't enough, simply caring for the crops themselves is a challenge many struggle with. Plots are split up into family owned sections, often a great distance from their homes, miles outside their villages thanks to growing population size and lack of viable farming areas.

Increasing population has caused communities to expand homes onto the little farmland they have, so new farmland has to be created elsewhere, often in wild areas far away from the villages where farmers live.

This results in a loss of trees and plant life, and of habitat for wild animals, notably birds and primates. Also affected are bees and other pollinators the farmers themselves need for their crops. So destruction of the natural grasslands and trees in favour of farmland also reduces crops yields.

However, this creates another problem. In a country ravaged by HIV and AIDs, many are simply not healthy enough to make the journey, let alone tend to the crops in blistering heat. So close to the equator, the temperature in Malawi is always high.

When crops fail, families are often forced to desperate measures. As most families own no livestock, any and all wild animals, including those as small as mice, are hunted for their meat and pelts. The same goes for fish - rivers are often so badly overfished that they can no longer provide meaningful nourishment.

People's need to survive is causing major problems, as the people of Malawi simply do not know how to live and farm in a way that sustains the environment they are using. If nothing is done, the land will dry up, the waters will be empty and the animal populations will become all but extinct.

And then, floods

No more is the fragility of Malawian agricultural highlighted than in the recent floods. Huge swathes of the country were inundated in early January due to deadly downpours over the country's southern regions, estimated by the Department of Surveys of Malawi to have submerged 63,531 hectares of land.

These devastating floods caused fatalities and hundreds of thousands of people to loose their homes - their simple mud structures were no match for the might of the heavy rains.

But they also had a disastrous affect on the farmlands of Malawi. Rain strong enough to wash away houses also destroyed crops in moments - and at a point when agricultural growth was near its peak, with harvesting coming in April.

The result of these floods was destruction of much of the agriculture in southern Malawi, which in turn led to problems for people ocross the country. The immediate issue was, and remains, lack of food.

In a country with so little to waste, the failing of crops is a serious issue. Without the much needed food supplies the people of southern Malawi, many of whom are already malnourished, struggle to maintain a diet required to survive.

The loss of crops also means loss of income. With education scarce and job opportunity scarcer, agriculture is often the only means for ordinary people in Malawi to make a living. Without crops to sell, let alone eat, many Malawians will struggle financially in the coming year.

And with the dry season on the way, regrowth of plants cannot start until the rains return in November. The floods have caused a chain of a events that will inevitably lead more problems, including fatalities from starvation. The true death toll of these events is simply not yet realised.

The solution

Looking to the future, the government of Malawi, combined with local and international charities, are fighting back - but it is very much an uphill battle. Unsustainable agricultural practices in Malawi are severely entrenched in all communities, big and small, so combating the issues will take a long time.

Education is key to saving the country's ability to sustain itself. Teaching communities about crop rotation and good farming practices, such as the use of manure and composts to maintain healthy soils is the primary focus of the initiative.

If the soil remains full of organic matter and nutrients, crops are more resilient against adverse conditions and a lot less likely to fail. Crop rotations means crops can be grown at different times of the year.

But Rome wasn't built in a day. Although land recovery is also important in the farming process, it is not a practice that many of the local farmers are aware of, and a lack of government resources simply doesn't allow for a solution just yet.

In the future, composting will likely be used rather than simply burning the crops, but although progress towards this future is being made, it is slow. The same goes for supporting conservation.

Eventually plans will be made to educate communities on protecting the ecosystems around them, but when there are other, more immediate problems to solve, it unfortunately has to take a back seat.

Sweet potato - an agro-ecological life saver

While the government's attempts to combat the problem of food shortages could see some effect, the biggest aid to sustainability comes from charities working closely with individual communities. These close knit groups offer hands on education and assistance in producing good crop rotations.

Sweet potato is the most common focus, as it can be grown at different times of the year to maize because it is less dependant on wet weather. It is also being introduced to create a polyculture system, the process of growing multiple plants on the same lot. This is because sweet potato improves maize yields, thanks to its nitrogen rich makeup which boosts soil nutrients.

However, while this is of great help to some communities, with so many requiring help, there are simply not enough charitable groups working out there to solve the problem. The hope is that as some communities learn the practices, others will follow suit and learn from their neighbours.

Is this wishful thinking? Perhaps, but the better awareness we have of this problem, they more people we can rally to the cause and help stop the millions that face the agony of starvation. But time is very much of the essence.

With the population expanding exponentially, good practice must be learned before it is too late. Can it be done? For the sake the Malawian people, we should certainly hope so.

 


 

Marc Crouch is founder and coordinator for Naturally Africa Volunteering, has spent a lot of time in Malawi helping communities struggling with food shortages. He and his team of volunteers are at the front line of the fight against the Malawi's food crisis, but they can't do it alone.

Get involved and help the people of Malawi - visit Naturally Africa's website.

 

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