Smallholders seek food security: how smallholders in Malawi are turning to organic technologies in their fight for a better life.
African Farming and Food Processing, July/August 1999

Malawi's smallholders are challenged on all sides - shortage of land and fertilisers, a rising population and soil erosion all threaten to undermine their food security.  But the use of organic technologies, together with improved seeds and better access to fertilisers, can help make the future much brighter. Russ Clare reports.

Photographs (to be added)

The sun scorched plots of bare earth stretch in a wide panorama from my viewpoint high on the side of the Zomba Plateau in southern Malawi.  It is September and, in a scene repeated across the country, smallholders plots lie in an unproductive wait for the rains.  The monotonous patchwork of red-brown fields is broken only by a small patch of green, isolated in Fatima Malagira's 0.3 ha plot.  Here, she undersowed her maize with Tephrosia vogelii, with the guidance of her neighbour, Stephen Carr - agronomist, World Bank consultant and long time Zomba resident.  Tephrosia is a common enough plant in southern Africa - known locally as the fish poison plant from its use as a narcotic in pond fishing.  Under maize, it grows slowly until after harvest when it exploits the residual soil moisture to produce a good vegetation cover.  More importantly, as a legume, it fixes nitrogen so when cut and left to rot there is the prospect of higher maize yields next season.  Such green manures are one of a number of organic technologies that may offer some hope for poor smallholders in their attempts to maintain a livelihood from soils exhausted by years of maize monoculture.

Problems facing smallholder agriculture in Malawi are unique in Sub-Saharan Africa, there being no other country with such a combination of high population density and a single growing season.  Immigration over some 150 years, notably from neighbouring Mocambique, followed by rapid population growth in recent decades, has seriously limited the land available for smallholders, especially in the southern region.  In the 1960s a majority of subsistence farmers cultivated plots of 2 ha or more, but, now, only a tiny minority are so fortunate while nearly half of the nation's 1.8 million smallholder households try to manage on less than 0.5 ha.  With yields of unfertilised maize of around 1,000 kg/ha, and given a yearly  per capita maize requirement of 250 kg, it's easy to understand the smallholders' plight.  The country's poorest farmers, growing maize exclusively in a quest for their families' basic survival, find themselves trapped by perpetual food shortage - they have neither sufficient land to sustain soil fertility by traditional organic methods, nor the cash to purchase fertiliser.

The changes have been witnessed by Dr Malcolm Blackie during ten years as leader of  The Rockerfeller Foundation's Southern African Agriculture Programme based in Malawi.  In a stark assessment of the threat to food security, he says, "less than a third of smallholders produce more than their needs, and there is an annual maize deficit which in 1998 was around 300,000 tonnes.  With food demand forecast to double by 2015 as the population increases from 11 to 18 million, clearly, urgent action is essential."  The country's farmers face difficult times, but, out of such adversity, positive messages are emerging.

In common with other African countries, Malawi is adopting soil fertility restoration measures under the World Bank's 1996 Soil Fertility Initiative.  The country's leading agriculturalists, in partnership with resident expatriate colleagues and donor experts, are promoting  a range of realistic ideas, or 'best bet' options, which are discussed in several 1998 reports.  These include the Rockerfeller's Malawi: soil fertility options,  the FAO's Malawi soil fertility initiative: concept paper by Dr Guy Evers and team, and from the UK, the Natural Resources Institute's report by Dr Claire Coote and team, Recapitalisation of agriculture in Malawi through improved soil fertility.

Confidence Building
Raising the confidence of demoralised farmers is a priority, and, to this end, the 1998/99 Smallholder Agriculture Productivity Project has provided a 2.5 kg pack of hybrid seed, together with the area recommended fertiliser to all 1.8 million smallholder households.  The starter pack is sufficient for sowing 0.1 ha, yielding 1,800 kg/ha.  Compared to local maize, that's an increase of 180,000 tonnes, nationally, or an additional 100 kg of food for each household which should alleviate the worst of the next hungry season for one month.  The success of this venture is currently being measured.

In the longer term, a boost to productivity with sustainable restoration of soil fertility will not be easily achieved, there being no 'quick fixes'.  Cash crops, notably burley tobacco, might help some 20% of smallholders to buy fertiliser and seed, but the majority are unlikely to enter the market in the near future, lacking the initial cash or credit, or otherwise fearing the risks.  There is an emerging, central message - the growing numbers of these very poor farmers will need to combine organic technologies with access to fertiliser and improved seed.  While organic methods alone cannot provide the boost to productivity that is needed, neither is reliance only on fertiliser desirable, even if it were feasible.  Potentially, 0.5 ha of fertilised hybrid seed could yield nearly 2,000 kg of maize and feed a family of up to eight.  However, such intensification would not encourage crop diversity and dietary improvement.  Nor would it, necessarily, allow long-term restoration of fertility, as the declining response to fertiliser shown in recent years clearly demonstrates.  Francis Shaxson, soil science consultant and a member of the FAO's 1998 mission, explains: "an effective rooting environment - in which soil nutrients form only a part - results from a complex interaction of physical, chemical, biologic and hydric components.  The benefits of good land husbandry in maintaining that environment needs to be more widely appreciated.  Soil porosity, for instance, declines under repeated tillage and trampling so that root penetration may be restricted, while potential soil water for plant growth is lost as run-off with consequent erosion of top soil."  That complexity is also emphasised by Stephen Carr.

After I had visited Mrs Malagira's Tephrosia with Stephen, we relaxed in his garden while he told me about the more promising low input alternatives to fertiliser.  He explained: "soils in Malawi are generally deficient in nitrogen so growing legumes, both deep rooted and herbaceous, is crucial while equally important are cultural practices that reduce soil erosion, especially on marginal and sloping land."

Grain legumes are the most immediately effective 'best bet' technology, and their application throughout the country is now actively encouraged.  Soya or groundnuts, grown in rotation with maize, not only improve yields, but also provide that other essential - a crop with equivalent food or cash value.  In so far as seed supplies have allowed, the 1998/99 Productivity Project's starter packs have also included a grain legume, either soya or groundnut to substitute for maize in rotation.

Industrial soya varieties are not suitable for smallholders - to develop nitrogen fixing nodules, the roots require inoculation by bacteria followed by immediate irrigation after planting.  That's a sophisticated development from plant breeders interested in efficient, large-scale cultivation.  Naturally, soya develops root nodules from Rhizobium bacteria in soil, and it is to that 'promiscuous' property that scientists in Zambia returned in their breeding of a variety for smallholders.  Their promiscuous Magoye soya produces less grain, but that actually helps farmers because the source of manure, the haulm, retains a larger proportion of the fixed nitrogen.  In spite of this, yields are equivalent to maize, and the grain's high quality protein offers a significant improvement in child nutrition.

Soil improvement
Pigeon pea, grown as an intercrop, also has a proven record of soil improvement from the leaves that fall as it matures.  Its long roots supplement fixed nitrogen by exploiting the mineral leached deep into the soil.  However, while competition with maize is not a problem with this slow growing plant, the pigeon pea crop will be lost where livestock graze freely.

Scientists counsel a more qualified optimism for other nitrogen fixing technologies - they need more research, the benefits may be long-term, and they may not be generally applicable.

The development of green manures borrows from the practice, common among Zimbabwean tobacco farmers until the 1960s, of including sun hemp, Crotalaria juncea, in their rotations.  Such fallowing is not an option for Malawi's land starved smallholders, but the dry season 'fallow period' can be exploited by slow growing, undersown plants like Mrs Malagira's Tephrosia.  In trials, the crop improved maize yields, as did sun hemp and the velvet bean, Mucuna pruriens.  Of the three, Tephrosia is the most easily managed, and it is attracting great interest with practical management guidance arising from the Malawi Agroforestry Extension (MAFE) project's successful experience at a large number of demonstration sites.

Tephrosia is just one of several tree and shrub legumes with potential for soil improvement - as well as fixing nitrogen their deep roots return leached minerals to the surface.  However, as Dr Trent Bunderson, Director of MAFE, explains, much of the appeal of agroforestry to smallholders lies in the trees' multiple uses.  "Apart from improving the soil, water and vegetative base, trees provide shelter and an extraordinary array of products ranging from food and fuel to fibres and dyes," he says.  "Trees are also important sources of modern and traditional medicines.  Research in Malawi has identified promising agroforestry species and practices that reduce erosion and runoff, restore soil fertility, and improve crop and wood yields with lower costs.  The MAFE project is systematically evaluating these practices with farmers to determine their potential impact and demand on a national scale."

One such tree is the indigenous winter thorn, Faidherbia albida.  Its association with soil fertility has long been recognised by farmers who, traditionally, have left them in their fields.  Research has confirmed vigorous growth of maize under these magnificent, deep-rooted trees.  Their peculiar feature of shedding leaves at the onset of the rains not only limits unwelcome shading of the growing crop, but also replenishes soil nitrogen at just the right time.  Scattered among the crop, Faidherbia does not reduce maize density. However, it takes some 5-10 years to establish so its benefits are long-term.

At Makoka research station, Professor Magembe's team have shown Gliricidia sepium to improve yields when intercropped with maize.  The leaves have a high nitrogen content and it also coppices well for fuel.  On-farm trials by MAFE around Malawi have shown it to perform well on better soils in the southern region - on the lake shore, and in the lower Shire - but results are less encouraging on poorer soils in northern and central areas.  Similarly, research station trials of Sesbania sesban grown in relay with maize show increased yields of around 25%, but those benefits have proved difficult to realise on farms.  Neither tree establishes well from direct sowing so there are the additional costs of nursery management and transplanting - especially critical with Sesbania sesban as benefits are only likely with annual replanting.

Combatting erosion
Soil fertility improvement will come to nothing where land remains vulnerable to erosion.  Floods are an all too common experience during the rains - the run-off frequently thick with soil stripped from the fields.  Aligned ridges and vetiver grass effectively minimise such erosion.   Dense vetiver hedges, which are stable, drought resistant and easily established, have been used successfully throughout the tropics, in countries as far afield as Fiji, Nigeria, and India.  "Now, in Malawi," says Trent Bunderson, "to control loss of valuable top soil and water, contour ridging with strips of vetiver grass is proving extremely popular among farmers."  Smallholders are also finding, with a little instruction, that they can use a simple A frame to align the ridges in their fields.

While measures like vetiver grass and grain legumes can be successful, those messages need effective delivery.  By emphasising blanket recommendations for fertiliser and hybrid seed, a prescriptive approach to extension has fostered the idea that fertilisers are a substitute for, rather than complementary to, low input methods.  Now, to realise the benefits of good land husbandry, a new approach is required of working with farmers on their own identified problems.  Francis Shaxson also sees the need for another philosophical change as the poorest farmers' plots become ever smaller.  "A broad field mentality is still being applied where an alternative, organic and horticultural approach has much to offer.  Spread thinly over an entire farm, the limited compostable material available - mostly household refuse and wild grasses - has no appreciable effect, but applied locally to specific planting positions or mixed into beds for intensive vegetable growing in the home garden, it can improve diets, incomes, and the soil, and, in time, could spread to the farm as a whole."

Solving the immense problems facing smallholder agriculture in Malawi, requires effective administration.  Some five years ago, the Government established the Maize Productivity Task Force to provide Malawi with 'ownership' of, and direction to, its emerging food crisis.  Malcolm Blackie is cautiously optimistic about its progress.  "With the ambitious agenda of changing the way support services respond to the needs of Malawi's smallholders, the Task Force is seeking to mobilise the best talent in Malawi, and to provide a focus for donor efforts," he says.  "Despite some early problems the MPTF is steadily gaining in confidence, and providing the leadership and direction so urgently needed."  Mrs Malagira and her fellow smallholders will be very thankful for that.
Russ Clare

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Alain Charles Publishing Ltd

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