A farmer, aged 70 and counting, exemplifies why conservation agriculture could be a game changer amid chronic cries against hunger. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Come, be my follower. This is the name of Lughambo Mwalughali’s ox-cart, the newest addition to his farm transformed from a dry, sandy patch by innovative use of residues many cast off.
“I’m saying come and see what adhering to what agricultural officials say has done to me. We need new farming methods to defeat chronic food shortages,” says the lead farmer in Gumi, Karonga.
The shoreline setting has not been spared harsh effects of ever-changing weather, especially on-off rainfall. The locals lament frequent dry spells plunge many poor households into worse hunger and poverty.
“Unpredictable rains and massive loss of soil fertility culminate in worse livelihoods for those who cannot afford chemical fertiliser,” says Mwalughali.
In his village, he is a living example of why government and the civil society recently resolved to embrace conservation agriculture as a way out of the prevailing food shortage. With thousands of Karonga residents whining about looming hunger, the model farmer counts himself lucky he has full granaries “enough food come rain or sunshine”.
His yield has been on the rise since 2011, when he dug nearly 600 pits to contain run – off water on his dry farm battered by draught.
Off M1, the road to the unlikely good harvest flashes past: a mulch of maize stalks laid on thousands of pits that dot the farm today; a stretch marked with trees for improved soil fertility, fruits and fodder; an array of animals comprising chickens, pigeons, turkeys, goats, zebu cattle and a dairy cow. To the farmer, the sights surrounding his four-bedroom house with iron sheet point to “good food and money”: meat, milk, manure and more.
“All this emanates from agriculture,” Mwalughali speaks of self-sufficiency.
Unlike many elders, he no longer bothers his children, who migrated to town in search of better economic opportunities, for assistance.
During the visit, he had just sold a bull to foot medical bills for his wife who had been hospitalised for weeks.
“My children have unique problems to worry about,” he says. “When my food basket runs dry, I have a full granary to turn to. When my hands are tied, I can sell an animal or two to bail myself out.”
Most importantly, the Mwalughalis are not among 2.8 Malawians in need of urgent relief items as the country faces one of the worst food shortages in history. Recently, President Peter Mutharika asked for international intervention to reduce the impact of the impending hunger resulting from spates of floods and prolonged dry spells that hit the country this year, reducing maize production by nearly 30 bags in every 100.
The lengthy dry-outs in January and February has left many people in Karonga with inadequate yields, with many wondering what will they turn to during the leanest period spanning from the fast-approaching start of the rainy season to the next harvest.
Karonga district agricultural development officer James Chikoya urges farmers to follow Mwalughali’s path.
“Food insecurity is one of the chronic issues in the district often hit by dry spells. Encouraging pit planting, agroforestry, manure use and other forms of climate-smart agriculture can help us overcome effects of climate change,” says Chikoya.
Actually, the district has constituted a committee to combat food shortage and champion agricultural methods which lessen soil erosion while improving soil fertility, moisture retention and texture.
Termed smart agriculture, the farming technologies like those witnessed at Mwalughali’s fields, enable farmers to yield more from small pieces of land without much ado.
Zero tillage and minimum soil disturbance aside, the methods are credited with being sustainable, reducing the turning of soil and uptake of chemical fertiliser.
“Conservation agriculture is the way to go. Even under difficult conditions, farmers are able to harvest something,” says Chikoya.
The uptake remains “very low”, said the agricultural official.
“Adoption of new technologies is a learning point: slow and gradual. Nearly 15 percent of the farmers have adopted conservation agriculture, but we are working hard to scale up to 50 percent,” he said.
Closing the gap, to ensure half of the farming population migrates to sustainable methods against effects of climate change, calls for concerted efforts, says district agricultural committee chairperson Lawrence Kanjira.
In his reasoning, there is no room for duplication or laxity in the way government and its partners play their roles.
This involves ensuring that change agents are “evenly spread across the district” but also “harmonise the message that go to farmers”.
He reckons harmonised and consistent sensitisation is vital to bridging the gap created by shortage of agricultural extension officers in rural areas, one of the major drawbacks to conservation agriculture.
Conservation of agriculture remains a thorny subject in Karonga due to stray livestock that devour crops and the long wait for its hugely touted benefits, says the agricultural commentators.
The likes of Mwalughali erect a fence on the perimeter of their fields to repel the animals.
Even then, many reportedly find it hard to wait for two to three years when the favourable results of conservation farming hit a height.
However, Mwalughali says good things are worth the wait.
“With patience and adherence to extension messages, you’ll never go wrong,” he says.
Mwalughali is a shining example of a transformative initiative by Discover in partnership with Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) in Karonga.
The success stories of conservation farmers amid widespread fears of hunger could be a game changer when it comes to eliminating resistance to minimum soil disturbance technologies, says Discover official Blessings Mlowoka.
“We hope this will signal most affected farmers to embrace farming methods that guarantee them a good harvest despite the prevailing condition,” Mlowoka says.