Malawi’s diversity of insects is more valuable than many farmers believe. It is crucial for the sustainability of agriculture.
Soil, Food and Healthy Community (SFHC) encourages farmers not to use pesticides.
“Applying chemicals kills all insects, including pollinators which are very beneficial,” says Laifolo Dakishoni from SFHC.
The civil society organisation runs a research and training centre for farmers in Ekwendeni, Mzimba.
“We ensure that farmers see the ecosystem as one thing,” Dakishoni explains. “To conserve an ecosystem, one mustn’t destroy organisms that are a key part of it because crop production depends on a broad variety of pollinators.”
Through SFHC’s participatory research, the farmers, who initially laughed off the assertion that some insects are good for their crops, witnessed how pollinating insects make the difference.
When they covered pumpkin flowers with a net to keep insects away and we left other flowers accessible to insects, the covered flowers simply died, but pumpkins grew where uncovered flowers had been pollinated.
Poverty in Malawi remains widespread as crop yields keep falling.
For Dakishoni, some modern farming practices, including the application of synthetic chemicals, cause more harm than good.
Pests harm crops, so it makes sense to control those pests. However, SFHC teaches farmers to do so without using environmentally harmful pesticides now on sale.
“For too long, agricultural biodiversity has been neglected, he says. The truth is that the diversity of crops and livestock makes farms able to cope with shocks,” says Dakishoni.
Century after century, African farmers have been breeding crops closely adapted to their local environment. The so called “landraces” are marked by a great genetic diversity.
Ethiopian scholar Melaku Worede, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 1989, and other dissident scientists have argued for decades that they suit local needs.
In the past, indigenous knowledge included what traditional crops suit their circumstances best. The diversity of landraces offers locally adapted plants for all sorts of weather, soils and locations.
It is ironic that commercial breeders use genetic information from landraces to keep optimising high-yield seed.
Worede and other environment-minded scientists insist that high-tech farming is not viable without the genetic resources provided by traditional agriculture, while traditional farms do not necessarily need expensive high-tech input.
While the cultivation of hybrids supported by intensive application of agrochemicals may result in higher yields per hectare, it is not sustainable nor unaffordable for smallholder farmers.
Malawi is affected by climate change, with frequent droughts reducing crop yields and food security.
The 2021 Global Hunger Index ranks the country ranks 81st out of 116 countries.
SFHC wants to improve the situation. The organisation promotes agro-ecological farming practices to help communities increase soil fertility with an eye to sustaining nutritious and diverse diets.
The organisation encourages about 6000 farmers in over 200 villages in Northern and Central regions to grow local varieties. It also tells them to grow different crops in one field. Experts say diversity helps mitigate the effects of climate change and enhances farms’ resilience.
In Ekwendeni, these farming techniques have helped to provide a much brighter future for farmers.
Mwapi Mkandawire is one of them. She grows maize, soya and peanuts, all without using synthetic chemicals. “My household does not experience food insecurity, not even in the slightest,” she says proudly.
Moreover, smallholder farmers generate income by selling surplus crops.
Tapiwa Mkandawire states: “Not only does my family have food on the table from the crops that I grow, but I am also able to sell some of the harvest.”
Once trained, the farmers share what they have learned with their neighbours. This includes the use of compost to cut the cost of expensive fertilisers and the use of organic pesticides. The general experience is that yields improve and farm families’ incomes rise.
Other civil-society organisations are making related efforts. For example, Slow Food International has set up more than 450 school and community gardens countrywide, which use neither chemical pesticides nor fertilisers.
Nonetheless, Dakishoni says that preserving Malawi’s biodiversity is proving to be quite challenging because government and civil-society activists are working without much coordination.
“There is quite a number of organisations that are geared to preserve biodiversity in the country,” he says. If those involved knew more about what the others are doing, the impact would be greater, and policies could be implemented more effectively.—D+C Magazine