Rice yields in Malawi keep dwindling as rainy months get fewer. For farmers surrounding the wetlands, the shrinking rainy season, with recurrent dry spells and prolonged droughts, deepen hunger and poverty.
“The rains have become so unpredictable that farming is fruitless without flooding,” says Patricia Kiyelu. “The short rainy season mean a long, penniless struggle with food shortage.”
Kiyelu is one of thousands of farmers in the rice fields along the 45-kilometre Karonga-Songwe Road along the northern tip of Lake Malawi.The largest source of the country’s famous aromatic Kilombero rice is vulnerable to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Recently, floods and drought have been occurring in quick succession—often leaving farmers with inadequate food to take them to the next harvest.
In this way, the famous rice variety imported from neighbouring Tanzania in 1971, no longer brings the desired results.
“Many people in Malawi like Kilombero because of its aroma and long, slender grain, but a farmer needs a huge land and good rains to benefit,” says Kiyelu.
There are similar concerns across the water-stressed paddies of Limphasa in Nkhata Bay, Lifuwu in Salima and Jali in Zomba. Oftentimes, the rains stop a month or so before the grain matures.
The farmers’ uncertainties have triggered rice breeders at Lifuwu Research Station in Salima to come up with high-yielding rice varieties that will mature before the rains stop. Lifuwu is home to sprawling rice fields that dried in March, denying farmers a chance to plant a second crop after two consecutive years of drought.
“In August, we will unleash three varieties known for earliest maturity and higher yield than any other rice grown in the country,” says rice breeder Elias Jeke, from Lifuwu Research Station. “One of them yields almost twice Kilombero’s harvest.”
Lifuwu was designated as a rice research centre in 2002. According to the researcher, farmers that trialled the trio ready for release were able to yield 6.5 to seven tonnes per hectare within 105 to 110 days, two weeks earlier than Kilombero, Faya and other varieties in use.
Explains Jeke: “Given the current scenario, from the research perspective, we have two solutions: We’ve to develop varieties that are tolerant to drought or those that mature before the rains stop.
“However, earliest maturity or drought escape has proved vital for farmers grappling with uncertainties of rain-fed agriculture. By the time some varieties start wilting due to terminal drought, growers of the new varieties would have harvested.”
The varieties have been two years in the making. This involved on-the-farm trials at Nazolo in Chikwawa, Domasi in Zomba and Limphasa in Nkhata Bay to test its potential to withstand the weather stress across the country.
Besides the new varieties, experiments are underway on the several crosses of Kilombero to come up with fast-maturing rice that maintains the aroma of the rice Malawians love, but yields more.
The new seed bred to overcome effects of climate change excited a team of researchers from Malawi, Kenya and Ghana who visited Lifuwu under a project building research capacity for sustainable water and food security in drylands of Sub-Saharan Africa (Breccia).
“Climate change is real,” says Professor Sosten Chiotha, executive director of Leadership for Environment and Development in Southern and Eastern Africa (Lead-Sea) in Zomba. “As farmers face problems due to water-related effects of climate change, we need a new generation of research to increase crop production and integrated water management.”
He offers flashbacks of the hardship faced by rice farmers in the marshes of Jali and other parts of the Lake Chilwa basin when the country’s second largest water body dried to cracking crust last year.
The drying of the lake disrupted livelihoods of farmers, fishers and bird hunters, forcing them to start burning trees for charcoal long blamed for putting the country’s forests up in smoke.
“Lake Chilwa has dried up a number of times. When drought occurs, it causes disruptions to farmers’ livelihoods and incomes,” he says.
Rice is the country’s second largest food crop, only surpassed by maize. According to Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, nearly 3.3 million people in the country needed urgent food aid by March this year following drought and pest attacks on maize.
Equally hit were families that rely on rice as yield dipped due to the dryness in wetlands where flooding signals higher harvests.