Finding alternatives to farm input subsidies

Ruth Msukwa a student at Amalika Teacher Training College in the southern Malawi district of Thyolo has reservations with the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) because of its effects on the already staggering local economy, and how beneficiaries are identified.

This year, Malawi has set aside K40 billion for the subsidy programme up from K30 billion in 2011. The current cost is almost double the K23 billion allocated to the Transport and Public Infrastructure Ministry in the 2012/13 financial plan.

Already the subsidy allocation is 16 percent the total K300 billion plus budget passed by Parliament in June this year.

With the soaring prices of various goods due to the devaluation of the kwacha, the allocation seems useless, given that at the time estimates were done, prices of fuel were on the lower side.

“With the future of the subsidies in limbo as it is dependent on donors, Malawi should rethink ways of sustaining it or adopt other cheap means of farming. After all fertilisers dilute soil fertility unlike compost manure,” says Lewis Chiwalo, a Blantyre-based social-economic commentator.

Chiwalo says Malawi should find an exit strategy considering the economic meltdown that continues to hit Western financiers of the fertiliser subsidy such as the United Kingdom.

Fertiliser subsidy could be history

To  avert the dependence on subsidies, Msukwa advocates for a potholing system through farmers clubs being championed by Development Aid from People to People [Dapp] in its catchment areas.

Dapp started implementing the system in 2006 in Lilongwe, Chiradzulu and Zomba with funding from the US Department of Agriculture, before it took the concept to Thyolo recently.

It is not only Msukwa and other students who work on the project, but communities too. Luka Black from Madulira Village in Senior Chief Kadewere in Chiradzulu has adopted the technology.

“As farmers, we are organised into projects where we share information, peer support and facilitate resource pooling to bolster marketing and financing. Since Dapp offered us training for three years, we are able to stand on our own,” says Black.

Initially, the potholing system does not require fertilisers and rain water, but rather, irrigation of crops using rope pumps installed by farmers clubs and advocated for by other organisations.

“We dig holes 15 by 30 centimetres and 15 centimetres deep. We dig holes and encourage mulching to conserve moisture, which takes a week to dry. It also saves time in that the hole can be used three times,” states Tione Banda, one of the Dapp trained farm instructors.

In Dapp colleges, the programme has shown to be cost effective with big increases in the value of crops that farmers harvest year on year compared to the investment in the programme.

“These pumps are locally made and installed close to gardens. With this potholing system, I plant maize and any other crop during the winter and rain-fed seasons. I transfer this knowledge each time there is a school holiday,” says Msukwa.

Its cost effectiveness

She and colleagues have their own maize, beans and vegetables farms where potholing is practised. Harvests sustain the college and are an income generating activity for students.

Unlike other government training colleges which buy foodstuff, Dapp colleges rarely buy beans, maize and vegetables for the upkeep of their students.

“We dig holes and fill them with compost manure we make ourselves before planting crops. We irrigate those holes with rope-pump water to let the crops grow. Since manure is already there, we don’t worry about fertiliser,” says Msukwa.

Research by Dapp shows that since the introduction of the model through farmers clubs, which are dominated by female farmers, average production increased from 24 percent between 2006 and 2009.

Dapp country director Lisbeth Thomsen says production increased from basically non-existent to 55 kilogrammes per person in the families participating in farmers clubs. Those participating in the clubs are also asked to form cooperatives so that they are self-reliant.

“With the potholing system through farmers clubs, production has increased from 120 percent to 250 percent in the recent past. People have more food as well,”

The production corresponds to the needed consumption for the farmers and their families according to standards set by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for a diet that is sufficient with regards to calories and nutritional quality.

Future of potholing system

The farming system has already attracted Capital Hill solely because it uses low cost farming with tangible results even without the use of fertiliser.

Thomsen says they have since signed a memorandum of understanding with the Malawi Government to scale up the programme across the country depending on funding from donors.

Atupele Muluzi, Minister of Economic Planning and Development, during his visit to Dapp colleges in Thyolo and Chiradzulu, pleaded that the project be replicated in other areas.

“Could Dapp open more colleges to replicate this to other areas? With soaring prices of fertiliser, who knows compost manure could be the solution due to its cost effectiveness,” said Muluzi.

Currently, with the potholing system, 69 percent of farmers produce more than eight different crops, 89 percent of farmers are food secure and 75 percent of farmers engage in business.

With Malawi’s population hovering at 14 million and 80 percent living in rural areas, agricultural experts feel the adoption of the system would help upset the dependency on fertiliser and rainfall. This will also lead to the reduced inflation as it is food prices that push inflation either way.

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