Most Malawians shun local maize varieties in preference for high-yielding one. However, some farmers continue growing the disappearing crops, especially in far-flung areas.
“A cob under a kitchen roof is worth much more than a bag in a shop,” says Mzenga resident Donis Manda, 50, pointing at a sooty bunch of unpeeled maize hanging nearly two metres over a boiling pot of beans.
Typically, a narrow path to her home is paved with numerous sights of cobs and legumes hanging under kitchen roofs. The heat waves and soot emanating from the fireplace smoke weevils and other pests out of the carryovers earmarked for seed, say the locals.
The spectacle subtly confirms the closest is the dearest. However, visitors do not have to dig deeper why low-income farmers in the hard-to-reach setting in Nkhata Bay West literary live by the familiar saying when it comes to access to seed.
“Many survive this way,” says Manda. “Most villagers cannot afford hybrids. Even the well-to-do pay an extra cost as access to modern seeds entails a long walk to trading centres where the shops.”
The constrained locals, who consider local maize as part of their cultural heritage, still rely on the so-called ‘good ole crops’, saying extinction of local crops could catalyse untold poverty and hunger among poor households who are usually worst hit by unpredictable rain patterns and other harsh effects of climate change.
They there are issues of planting with early rains to beat pests and disease attacks as well as to increase the chances of a good harvest as rains tend to start late and stop “shortly after maize tussle”.
“Hybrids are expensive and not easily accessible. Every farmer wants to plant as soon as the rains begin, but most of us find ourselves empty handed when it does. This is where the cobs in the kitchen become handy.”
The farmers, however, seem to agree the storage method is unreliable. Some confess to facing a bleak future after rodents, weevils and other pests destroyed the smoky seed and others narrated how they lost them to thieves since the kitchens are largely made of grass thatches suspended on poles with no walls. Yet others recounted how they have bee yielding less and less as they keep recycle maize seed year after year. The worst hit are those who recycle hybrid varieties, they say.
Dwindling yield is the reason researchers warn against reusing maize seed. Yet the population with unmet demand for affordable seed say: “The harvest may be getting down lower and lower, but local seed is better than none.”
Find Your Feet (FYF), a non-governmental organisation striving for rural empowerment, is working with communities in the area as well as Mbalachanda in Mzimba to modernise the way they keep seeds of a variety of indigenous crops.
The encounters with maize seed in the kitchen reflects one of numerous reasons local crops should not vanish.
In an interview, Soko explained: “We are not saying farmers should abandon hybrid seed. Hybrids are good and high-yielding. But we need to safeguard local varieties as well.
“What will happen to the poorest of the poor if local varieties disappear? Will they get seed for early planting as rains are becoming more and more elusive? Will our children and future generations know the vanishing crops we grew up eating? What about some crops of cultural importance such as millet which the Ngonis use for brewing beer when they have royal ceremonies?”
Many are the questions, but it is beyond question that the remote localities are dominated by people struggling to overcome poverty. The latest census shows nearly 80 in 100 Malawians live in rural areas where about three in every four of them are poor with their livelihoods hinging on hand-to-mouth agriculture.
Banking endangered varieties
Since December 2012, construction of a seed bank has been underway to improve preservation of seed of local varieties credited with being tastier and more nutritious than hybrids, resistant to most pest and diseases as well as suitable to prevailing weather and terrain.
The sky was cloudy during the visit to the building under construction.
Outside, mounds of sand and bricks not only attest to work in progress but also community contribution to the initiative to save what they consider their natural inheritance.
Inside, smells of paint and newly treated planks in the air usher visitors into three rooms.
John Msichili, who chairs a 10-strong seed bank committee elected by Mzenga Area Development Committee (ADC), gave a glimpse of the partitions.
“The first room will be used to record user names as well as the type and quantities of seed deposited here. The second will be used for safekeeping of the seed. The third will serve as a library for visitors, including learners and researchers, searching for more insights into the rare crops in store,” said
This is part of a K340 million (US$755 556) initiative bankrolled by the Big Lottery of UK and Development Fund of Norway. Soko and Company prefer calling “Empowering the Rural poor in Malawi”—for it was conceived to enhance food security and economic status of the target populations.
“We envision uplifting those who can only afford one meal a day to be able to have three and those living in leaky huts to upgrade to decent housing,” says Soko.
In this regard, Msichili thanked Find Your Feet for training the committee steering local involvement, lead farmers and selected villagers from Faraji, Mtuwa, Chingoli and Nyimba.
The eye-opener included a trip to Nkombezi Seed Bank, one the 14 established during FYF’s eight-year inroads in Rumphi., he said
“It’s a wake-up call,” he says. “We cannot sit idle while our unique varieties are dying. That’s why many were eager to take part by molding bricks and collecting sand for the seed bank.”
Local involvement in form of building materials and money accounted for almost half the cost of the seed bank earmarked for official opening by June 1, estimates show.
“We are happy to participate not just because the structure is the first of its kind in the area. It guarantees conservation of the crops our grandparents grew up eating,” says group village Faraji.
Not all is lost
His counterpart, Village Head Saulosi Nyirenda, did not have to think long and hard when asked about local varieties that have become endangered since his parents migrated from Rumphi where he was born on January 1 1939.
The litany includes mawere, nkhundi, napwiri, mgowapusi, njuyu, viyau and ntchunga. The list comprises millet, an array of beans and peas as well as yams—except the near-octogenarian was eulogising the varieties that have become almost extinct as hybrids become widespread.
“We are losing our livelihood and history,” laments the traditional leader.
He paused for a minute, seemingly lost for words. Meanwhile, conservationists are promoting agro-diversity and Soko fears breeders of hybrid seed will have nowhere to tap genes responsible for a desired taste and resistance to diseases and pests the annihilation of local varieties goes unchecked.
Agreeingly, Nyirenda sighed: “Not all is lost. Only if we start keeping the remaining seed properly.”
The seed bank is built to close the gap threatening crops passed on from one generation to another.
In its background are plots where some of the seed in storage will be multiplied for distribution to interested growers via lead farmers.
Costa Nkhata is one of the selected locals who exemplify modern farming methods amid massive shortage of agricultural extension officers in remote settings.
She credits FYF for lessening poverty in the area citing the seed bank—notwithstanding the skills, goats, pigs, dairy cows and chicken they have been distributing since 2012.
“This is a great improvement for some of us who have grown up keeping seed in baskets and pots as well as under kitchen roofs. We cannot continue keeping seed at home when it is usually destroyed by pests, children and thieves,” said Nkhata.