For the past three years, farming has not been good for Malawian crop farmers. First it was unprecedented flooding in 2015, which left thousands of hectares of crops washed away. Then in 2016, it was drought hitting much of the agro based economy as a result of the El Nino weather phenomenon. Now, the country has been hit by fall armyworms, which have attacked over 150,000 hectares of maize and sorghum crops, threatening food security for many families in the country.
Analysts have attributed all these calamities to climate change as a result of human destructive activities. Climate change effects are negatively affecting farmers in a way that they are not able to produce enough food for their households, while at the same time not being able to produce enough cash crops, with which they can earn money for their daily needs.
While there has been no effective solution to the fall armyworm pest attack to date, government and other stakeholders have been teaching local farmers on the climate change resilience farming methods that are starting to make some difference.
One such farming method is conservation agriculture. This is type of farming which involves non-tillage techniques of the farmland and filling the land with maize stalk. When decomposed, maize stalks add fertility to the land, while at the same time keep moisture on the ground for quite a long time, thereby enabling the crops to survive droughts.
Lillian Chipinda, a farmer in Blantyre rural, says that she has adopted conservation farming methods in 2017 after being swayed by a harvest her relative in a neighboring village had, who despite the drought was able to harvest some good amount of maize.
“At first, I was not really interested in conservation agriculture, but I was impressed with how my cousin was able to harvest despite the drought of 2016. I got interested in this type of farming. This year I have practiced it, and so far so good.” She says.
The mother of four continues to say that she finds conservation agriculture to be less demanding as there is non-tillage of the land, unlike conventional farming where land is cleared and tilled before planting.
“In conservation agriculture the soil is left untilled and in doing so, there is no disturbance to the ecosystem, which works well for farming. This also saves a great amount of time that we can use for other household chores.” Adds Chipinda.
From late last year to earlier this year, Malawi was experiencing prolonged dry spell in most parts, including Blantyre where Chipinda lives. While in most gardens, that practice conventional farming, maize was drying up due to drought, her crops survived as her field still had moisture because of the maize stalks, covering the ground. She says now that she has seen how effective conservation agriculture is, she plans to adopt it for all of her fields. This year she only applied it on one of her two maize fields.
Kenson Mulapula is a local lead farmer, who is trained in modern agriculture practices and assists fellow farmers with expertise in absence of qualified agriculture extension worker. He says that although the response from his community members was slow on the adoption conservation agriculture methods, the number has been recently increasing, owing to success of the few who adopted it already.
“We have had number of conservation agriculture methods adherents increasing from twenty farmers last farming season to fifty this season. It was mainly due to the success of the farmers in the previous year.” He says.
Mulapula says since the area is hilly, most crop fields are on the slopes and this means water retention in such fields is a challenge as the water just goes away to rivers, leaving the land dry within days, thus making crops vulnerable. To combat this, farmers have been taught how to construct swales. These are the artificial infiltration basins designed to manage water runoff, filter pollutants and increase rainwater infiltration. He says the 30 centimetres deep, 1.5 metres long pits are dug along the land’s contour with a berm on the downhill side. All points along a contour line are exactly the same height above sea level. Therefore, he explains that trenches along the contour slow water and spread it across the contour line.
“The swales also ensure that water is retained in the field. Crops can use it even when the rain does not come for many weeks, as it happened between December 2017 and January this year.” He says.
Mulapula says they were taught about the swales by a local non-governmental-organization called Foundation for Irrigation and Sustainable Development (FISD).
According to Draida Gondwe, a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist with FISD, they were contracted by Malawi Government to provide climate change resilience farming methods to local farmers, with one of them being the swales, which are essential in the modern day farming with challenges of erratic rainfall patterns.
“With the swales, farmers are at least guaranteed of some harvest even during the prolonged dry spells, which are a regular occurrence these days. As the swales can store enough moisture for crops’ growth from the little rain that we get.” She says.
Alongside conservation agriculture, farmers are encouraged to plant drought resistant crops, such as cassava and sweet potato, which they can use as food in times of maize crop failure. These two crops are known to be a good drought survivors, therefore, securing alternative food availability for a household in case of maize crop failure. Many farmers in the area have also planted potato.
One of such farmer is 43 year old Peter Jonam. He says with the unpredictability of the climate nowadays, it is essential to diversify crops to ensure food security by planting sweet potato which is drought resistant. Jonam says he has grown sweet potato and is hoping to have a crop to depend on especially with the obvious decrease in maize crop yield this year.
“I hope to harvest a good yield of sweet potatoes this year, which I can use for my household to complement my little maize yield, but also sell to others and earn money, which I can use to meet other needs.” He tells greentumble.
Through conservation agriculture practices and the growing of drought resistant crops, local subsistence farmers are hoping to salvage something out of the climate change challenges.
This is a guest post written by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima.
Deogracias Benjamin Kalima is a Malawian journalist based in Blantyre. He mostly report on environment conservation, agriculture, and rural development. His work has appeared in German (journafrica.de), American (earthisland.org) and African (ruralreporters.com) online platforms.