A decade ago, Telezina Mofolo, 65, from Traditional Authority Bvumbwe in Thyolo, hardly yielded enough food to nourish her family until the next harvesting season.
But things have changed drastically for the mother-of-three, who also has four grandchildren. Her household now faces hunger just four month after harvesting.
“It’s surprising that the same land where we harvested 40 bags of maize in 2009 only produced 14 bags last year. Yet my family has grown over the years,” she says.
Her field is ranked the least rocky in Mlambuzi Village, five kilometres outside the district’s sprawling tea fields.
It typifies a common challenge faced by farmers as colonial estates have pushed locals to densely populate degraded highlands to pave the way for the production of the country’s second largest-earning cash crop after tobacco.
The falling yield from Mofolo’s field constantly worries the villagers.
“If my land was as rocky as other croplands, I would understand why maize yield keeps dwindling,” says the woman, whose maize field is located on a treeless steep slope.
Equally worried is Alice Chilembwe, 52. The mother-of-four harvested 22 bags of maize from her family plot last year, but run out of food before the planting season.
“I know that our land can yield more than that. Previously, we used to get up to 45 bags. But for the past three years, things have been worse,” she says.
Interestingly, Chilembwe seems to have an idea why she no longer gets bumper harvests: Massive soil erosion in the village has left most fields gullied and less fertile.
“Most of the soil nutrients have been washed away by rainwater running off the ground. Most of us are cultivating on land that has got nothing to offer to our crops. The worst affected are those who don’t apply fertiliser or manure to crops,” she explains.
Group village Mlambuzi is concerned with the decline in crop yields in the rural community which has depleted trees in search of fuelwood and construction material as well as opening new farmlands and settlements.
“Many people are experiencing falling harvest because their farming plots are barren due to poor farming methods and flooding. This is worsening the hunger. Even those who own huge crop fields are starving,” she says.
Ray of hope
To reverse the problem, Renew’N’Able Malawi (Renama) is working with the locals to replenish the trees on their degraded farms.
Through a six-month agroforestry project, the campaigners for clean and sustainable energy promote tree planting to restore the green cover and meet the appetite for charcoal and firewood for cooking.
So far, Renama has distributed fertliser trees and fruit trees to almost 130 farming families.
The trees, which boost soil fertility and crop productivity, include moringa, msangu and acacia. It will also provide a solar-powered irrigation pump so that farmers can produce crops in the dry season.
Luckily, Mofolo and Chilembwe will be among the beneficiaries who will grow the trees together with anual crops to improve soil fertility.
“Besides fixing soil fertility in our fields, the trees will also offer our families fuelwood, fruits and medicine,” says Mofolo.
According to Renama programmes manager Devine Matare, the initiative, funded by Germany-based Nature Fund, was trialled in T/A Bvumbwe last year.
He explains: “Renama is using lessons from the pilot stage to make this phase a success. Initially, farmers received training on agroforestry and one of the challenges they faced was lack of water for irrigating their gardens after the rainy season.
“That is why we have incorporated the solar component to complement rains and we are also going to help them to get markets for the farm produce from their fields.”
Akusainda Siska, land resources conservation officer at Thyolo District Agricultural Office, is optimistic that the agroforestry project will help heal the degraded croplands in Mlambuzi and put the community on the path to higher yields. “If the farmers use the knowledge and skills shared by agriculture extension workers in planting and taking care of trees on their farms, then all will be well and they will beat hunger,” he says.