- Category: Development
- Written by ephraim nyondo
They have been hard-working farmers for close to two decades now but they have little to show for it.
Susan Damiano and her husband live in a grass- thatched, two-bedroomed house in the outskirts of Lolo Village, T/A Bvumbwe, in the southern Malawi district of Thyolo.
“It is as if we didn’t work hard in our fields, yet we do. We toil from morning to night and we grow different crops, but we do not yield much. We can’t even manage to meet all our family’s basic needs,” she complains.
What Damiano admits is a story of desperation shared by many small-scale farmers in Malawi, who use a hoe and grow the same crops over and over again on their pieces of ancestral land that is fast depleting.
No wonder, their tremendous input fails to translate into robust output. What could be wrong?
“I have observed something fundamentally missing in the way farming is done by small-scale farmers in Malawi,” says Feng Yuhui, a Chinese agricultural engineer, working at Bvumbwe Research Station.
Feng—who is under the South-South Cooperation Programme (SSCP) as part of the country’s Agricultural Sector Wide Approach (ASWAp) to boost agricultural productivity—argues that it will take time for Malawian farmers to maximise production because they still practise old agricultural methods.
“You have many people on one farm spending more hours doing work that a single person can do in a short time. In other words, the use of technology, as it is the case in most emerging economies, is virtually absent among small-scale farmers in Malawi,” he says.
Like Feng, most agricultural experts in Africa have argued that the future of Africa’s agriculture rests in mechanising the production process.
Yet others have countered that mechanisation is not feasible in a continent where most farmers are poor and own small pieces of land.
But Feng notes a fundamental problem with both sides of the debate.
“The farmers I have encountered in Malawi are small scale. As such, they do not necessarily need bigger machines or technologies to cut labour and boost their production. They need small, unsophisticated, cheap and user-friendly technologies developed from local materials they can easily identify themselves with,” he says.
In the few years he has been in the country, Feng has been busy designing and, through working with different local artisans in the village, developing these technologies.
“I have developed a number of farm technologies from very simple materials—some of which from recycled garbage. Basically, I was mostly giving instructions. It is the local artisans who have been doing the most,” he says.
Some of the technologies he has developed—the ones he showcased at Bvumbwe Research Station last week—include the fertiliser applicator, maize sheller, maize planter, fruit picker and a file stand.
He says of the maize sheller: “I made it from very simple metal objects which I bought in Limbe. It cost me less than K1 500 to have it done. If a farmer were to buy it, the cost would not be over K2 000,” he says.
The sheller is used to strip maize from a cob. You just insert the cob in the sheller and grind it.
“If you are very fast, you can manage five 50 Kg bags of maize in less than an hour. The good thing is that it is easy to use, it doesn’t consume your energy and it is durable,” says Feng.
Or consider another one; the fertiliser applicator. According to Feng, fertiliser application in Malawi is quite laborious and time consuming; it forces people to stay hours in the heat, as a result, burning their bodies.
“To save time and energy, I developed the fertiliser applicator. Through it, you don’t have to bend your back, but just squeeze the button from the carrier, while standing, and the right dosage according to how you organise it will drop to the hole. It is easy to carry, easy to use and enjoyable,” he says.
The maize planter, in terms of shape and use, is not that different from the fertiliser applicator. You just squeeze the button and the number of set seedlings will drop into the hole.
Austin Tenthani Phiri, chief agricultural research scientist at Bvumbwe Research Station, welcomed Feng’s innovations.
“These innovations will help solve the labour constraints facing most farmers in the country,” he says.
He adds that Feng has been working with a number of artisans in the country so that the technology trickles down to every farmer.
“So, these artisans have been trained to develop these technologies which they will be selling to farmers across the country. So, you can see that these technologies have also created employment,” he says.
Damiano, who wondered why Malawians had to wait for a Chinese to develop such simple but important technologies, was over the moon.
“This is unbelievable. This man has made all these things from quite ordinary things we see every day. Now, we will have enough time to engage in other income-generating activities. In fact, even our bodies will have enough time to rest. I can’t wait to buy one and use it in my field,” Damiano said.
Perhaps this might be the beginning of a new happy song for Malawian small-scale farmers.