Outgrowing changing times

A Malawian farmer worried about unpredictable rains and spates of dry spells has asked governments to invest in strategies that ramp up crop yield without harming soil as climate change hits harder.

Ellen Matupi, 62, owns a 32-acre farm at Kafukule in Mzimba West, but only uses five acres because she cannot afford farm inputs.

For over a decade, her maize, groundnuts and beans harvests have been falling due to inadequate rain and worsening soil degradation.

However, the mother-of-six, who applies manure to restore soil fertility, says the drop in yields is remarkably steep in neighbouring fields mostly nourished by subsidised chemical fertilisers.

Last week, she released her innermost fears in a talk at the global climate conference underway in Madrid, Spain, where President Peter Mutharika described the impact of climate-related weather shocks on Least Developed Countries as worse than war.

She explains: “Farming is almost everything for many farmers in Malawi. It means food on my table and cash for basic needs and vital assets.  When yields fall, life becomes hard.

“Unfortunately, this has become a common experience. We are enduring untold misery because the soils are bleached and have become too hard to till. We aren’t getting enough rain. We don’t know when the rainy season will begin and most often it stops before the crops are ready for harvesting.”

For five years, Matupi has been grappling with a new enemy worsening hunger and poverty among farmers across the country—fall armyworms. At the start of the pest attack, she hoped it would vanish in no time, but it keeps destroying her crop, further reducing the waning harvest.

“The effects of climate change are getting inescapable as maize has a new pest and drugs are too expensive for rural farmers and unhealthy for the environment. As farmers we cannot continue doing business as usual. We need to find new ways of increasing yields and restoring soil health,” she says.

For Matupi, planting indigenous crops with first rains and using manure is proving beneficial amid devastating effects of erratic rains in areas where hybrid varieties seldom yield much despite perennial use  of chemical fertiliser. She finds indigenous crops tasty, nutritious, drought-resistant and high-yielding.

 “Our areas already have favourable conditions for the crops we used to grow before we adopted hybrids, which are prone to weather shocks. We need to increase manure use to fix soil fertility, texture and moisture retention. Chemical fertiliser only nourishes the crops need, but leaving the soil as barren as it were—even worse,” she says.

Matupi questions the 10-year-old National Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) in which farmers receive hybrid maize seed and chemical fertliser, saying it scorches the soils degraded by massive loss of trees, chronic burning of crop residues and unsustainable farming methods.

“Government is just helping deplete the soil. The main winners are transporters, multinational seed manufacturers and agro-dealers, not the needy farmers.  Those who rely on subsidy are slowly destroying their fields,” she says.

Ironically, the farmers the subsidy is meant to lift out of hunger and poverty require perennial food aid. Just in August, Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee announced that slightly over one million people are on the cusp of hunger, three times the population affected by the chronic food crisis last year when government distributed subsidised farm inputs worth K41 billion.

The cost has since slumped to K35.5 billion amid mixed reactions.

“If you have K100 only, can you spend K120?” asks Principal Secretary for Agriculture Grey Nyandule Phiri. “The money allocated to me can only accommodate 900 people, simple.”

But legislator Ulemu Chilapondwa, vice-chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, finds it “inconsistent” that the number of beneficiaries is falling when the count of farming families is rising.

On his part, Vitumbiko Chinoko, regional advocacy adviser for climate change in southern Africa at Care, backs the rising calls for climate smart agriculture, including manure use.

He also urges government to reshape Fisp to help beneficiaries shed hunger and stand on their own.

However, he asked for greater investment in research and development of farming strategies that help farmers yield more from a small piece of land amid weather shocks linked with climate change.

“We can no longer talk about agriculture without mentioning climate change,” says Chinoko. “The country needs new farming methods that can be transmitted to farmers haunted by low yield due to climate change. However, research isn’t being funded optimally. We can do better.”

For Matupi, who campaigns for women’s empowerment as well as rights to land and food in partnership with ActionAid and Oxfam, farmers cannot wait idly while yield dwindle.

She says: “We need to plant trees on the farm, insist on fast-maturing varieties and embrace new farming methods that conserve our soils and increase crop harvests.”

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