Discussions in various forums, exposing its declining role as the country’s leading foreign exchange earner, point to the need for the country to find an alternative to tobacco.
The picture looks dimmer when you factor in the challenges associated with its production—destruction of the environment, poor prices, child labour which has attracted the attention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the anti-smoking lobby led by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Options aplenty have been discussed. But what is the best way forward? Should the country stay within the agriculture sector or look beyond?
Meet Jafali Saweta of Gunduze Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kachere in Dedza. He has grown tobacco before. Now he is growing soya beans and he believes it is the best replacement for tobacco.
By December 11 last year, he had finished planting his soya beans on four hectares. Like other areas nationwide, his field was hit by the El Niño weather pattern. He lost hope for both his soya beans and maize.
“It was like a miracle. When the rains returned after a two-week dry spell, the soya bean crop picked up. And it continued to grow with vigour such that I have harvested 256 bags each weighing 50 kilogrammes [kg],” says Saweta.
He had spent about K340 000 on seed, and with market prices having jumped to between K330 and K350 from K150 in April, he expects to realise about K4 million.
Such expectations are what is compelling Saweta to quit tobacco farming.
“Tobacco farming is a gamble. You are never sure of what you will get from the market. With soya beans, at least, there is some surety that you can even negotiate for a better price if you produce larger quantities.
“So, to say I may think of going into tobacco farming would be too risky for me. I will continue with soya beans and I expect to increase the farm size this coming season,” he says.
Previously, the only hitch for Saweta would have been the quality of seed he uses. But the situation is different this time around with the presence of International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Through the Feed-the-Future Malawi Improved Seed Systems and Technologies (MISST) project, IITA is promoting the use of improved soya bean seed varieties among farmers. The project seeks to maximise what the farmers harvest from the field.
Dr Bgenga Akinwale, a plant breeder and MISST programme manager responsible for the soya bean component, says the idea to start the project stemmed from failure by farmers to realise potential from soya beans because of recycling seed.
“Malawi has the potential to be a hub of soya bean production in this part of the world. However, our farmers are not doing some things right. So, we are promoting farming technologies for soya beans which have been proven to substantially increase soya bean yield per hectare,” he says.
Akinwale says among the technologies is adoption of improved soya bean varieties Makwacha, Nasoko and Tikolore which are early maturing and high yielding. He says the project is also promoting use of inoculants in soya bean farming, double-row planting and use of fertiliser.
Joseph Mhango, MISST seed production and technology dissemination specialist, says inoculants promote good plant health and allow the soya bean plant to fix nitrogen in the soil by promoting formulation of nodules on the soybean roots.
“This means that a piece of land previously grown with soya beans is suitable for cereals like maize which require a lot of nitrogen. In so doing therefore, we also promote soil conservation and food availability,” he says.
“Use of fertiliser in soya beans, a crop which Malawians have traditionally grown without fertiliser, is to improve soil fertility which has dwindled. Although farmers can harvest soya beans without applying fertiliser, it would not be up to the optimum crop yields.”
Mhango says farmers are encouraged to use double-row planting—a line each on either side of the ridge with seeds planted at 20-30 centimetres apart—to increase the crop population in the field.
He says if the recommendations are followed, a farmer can obtain between 400 000 and 500 000 plants per hectare, adding that this can translate to a harvest of up to three metric tonnes.
Group Village Head (GVH) Mbere of T/A Chikweo in Machinga agrees with Mhango on the optimum soya bean productivity when double-row planting and fertiliser are used.
The MISST project is implemented in Machinga, Mchinji, Dedza, Lilongwe, Ntcheu, Balaka, Mangochi and Blantyre.
“Soya bean is also cheaper to produce. All you need is your land, cost of labour, seed, inoculants and fertiliser. Sometimes even without fertiliser, you can still harvest something,” says GVH Mbere.
With such mouth-watering soya bean prices, it would be proper to speculate that the future is bright.