In a rural setting of Matewele Village in Mangochi, owning a house roofed with iron sheets is a sign of opulence.
Locals in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Mponda go as far as counting the number of
people owning such houses.
They say farming-not fishing which would have been regarded as the likely source of riches in the lakeshore district-is the reason for such fortune. Fishing, to them, is no longer lucrative a business.
“Fish stocks are dwindling,” says Andwatch Mbewe. “So, most of us are abandoning fishing for farming.”
It is now four years since Mbewe stopped fishing. Looking back, all he sees are wasted years in the fresh waters of Lake Malawi.
“There were times we would come back from the lake without a catch. On a good day, we would kill a catch of K10 000. In that case, K5 000 goes to the owner of the net. And if we were five, it meant we would go home with K1 000 each,” he says.
It is only through farming that he has managed to construct a house roofed with iron sheets to stand counted as one of the 20 rich individuals in the village, he boasts.
But the village faces one of the worst food shortages in recent history following erratic rains experienced last year.
Nationwide, the hunger is expected to affect 2.8 million Malawians after adverse weather conditions affected food production by 30 percent.
“Last year was the lowest period of my farming career. I harvested half a bag from my one acre piece of land. Previously, I would harvest not less than 35 bags.
“As a result, I have already started buying maize. In fact, my family has already started rationing food. We eat twice, or sometimes, once a day. I don’t know what will happen in the coming days. Only God knows,” he says.
Looking at the vast plains sitting unfarmed close to Lake Malawi, one feels no need to pity Mbewe and the entire village of Matewele. It is a vast plain with fertile soils that would go a long way in feeding thousands of Malawians.
In 2002, government, with a $10 million (K5.5 billion) loan from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (Badea) started developing the area for irrigation farming.
It set up irrigation and drainage networks and ancillary facilities consisting of intake facilities, pumping houses, pipelines, night storage reservoirs, canals, flow control structures, drains and scheme roads.
The idea was that 1 600 hectares of land should be developed at Nkopola in Mangochi and Lweya in Nkhata Bay to benefit 4 000 smallholder farmers.
At Nkopola, farmers from eight villages-Samama, Matewele, Malunda, Mtongole, Mikongolo, Kafulumira, Makunganya and Kambuli-were said to
benefit from the project.
Today, a rusty signpost greeting visitors at Nkopola symbolises the status of the project whose first phase was earmarked for completion seven years ago.
Only 783 hectares (340 hectares and 443 hectares at Lweya and Nkopola, respectively) have been developed.
Pipes meant for the project are corroded and are being repaired on a 1 000-metre stretch while those at the intake are broken.
The canals, flow control structures and drains are also in bad shape.
Ironically, government pays between K200 000 ($326) to K800 000 ($1,304) per month to the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom).
“Government should get rid of this project. It sounds harsh, but that is the mood here. People are not happy. They feel cheated.
“We are living in poverty not because God didn’t bless us. It is because someone in government is not doing something right to improve our status,” says Wadi Usupu, committee member of Nkopola Irrigation Scheme.
People in Mangochi are passionate about the project. Only if the scheme was operational, such passion could have been harnessed to eliminate poverty and food insecurity in the area.
“Prior to the project, we visited Egypt to learn how our friends manage schemes. We also went to Zomba. During the visits, we observed that farmers use farm proceeds to buy houses and vehicles.
“Our take home message was that farming can be taken as a business to uplift lives of people. But here we are crying. We are denied that opportunity for riches,” says Usupu.
Department Irrigation and Water Development spokesperson Mercy Jalazi said the Ministry is committed to ensuring that Nkopola and Lweya Irrigation Schemes are fully completed and functional so that farmers can start realising expected benefits.
“Thus, the Ministry will ensure timely implementation of Phase II of the project. In addition, the Ministry has been engaging the contractor (HE Jackson – PLEM Joint Venture) to rectify all the
defects that have been noted and train farmers in operation and maintenance of the pumps,” she said.
When that will be done, nobody knows. n