On the foot of Chambe Peak on Mulanje Mountain stretches a slope upon which a half-hectare garden lies thriving with maize crops under the scorching September sun.
Less than 100 metres away from the garden flows Nankhono River descending from the massif. From a nearby pool emerges a woman, a watering can weighing her down. She trots towards the garden, her body still tilted over one side, perspiration shining on her face.
Her name is Sheila Mapila, 27. She is from Mkanda Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkanda in Mulanje District. She owns the garden.
Mapila’ household was facing chronic food shortages. With little money, she could not afford enough fertiliser for her farm.
“I could only afford two bags; NPK and Urea which were inadequate. At least four bags would be sufficient,” she narrates.
A bag of NPK fertiliser sells at K21 000 while that of Urea costs K19 900. As such, people like Mapila could not afford more than two bags.
With erratic rains, sometimes she could get less than 10 bags. For three people—Mapila and her two children—the maize would finish before December. And this has been her lot for many years.
Her turning point came in 2016 when Oxfam identified her to undergo smart agriculture training. At this time her life had sunk to a new low following the 2014/15 floods that swept away her crops.
“But a natural disaster struck again the following season, 2015/16. This time, it was dry spells,” she recalls.
Oxfam taught Sheila and others how to make mbeya fertiliser.
The procedure involves mixing poultry dung, ashes, maize chaff and a 5 kg of fertiliser with water. This can produce enough for a half-hectare garden.
“Mbeya fertiliser is cheap because we use locally available resources to make it. Most of us can’t afford bags from the shop,” she explains.
Now Mapila grows maize twice a year during the dry season. She can harvest between 15 to 20 bags or double if she cultivates twice.
“Since rain-fed farming is prone to droughts and fall armyworms, irrigation is the only way to go for us to harvest enough maize,” she explains.
Fanny Nakali, 34, is another woman from Hapeni Village in T/A Mkanda who is all smiles, courtesy of mbeya fertiliser.
“Through the use of mbeya, I harvested maize which I sold and got capital for my mandasi business,” says Nakali.
From the maize sales she is able to pay fees for her five children in secondary school and has bought two goats she is taming.
Just about 35 kilometres (km) from T/A Mkanda is Malakamu Village in sub-T/A Ndanga where Austin Kapalamula is also touting the wonders of mbeya.
Kapalamula grows onions and maize.
“I was rewarded handsomely when I realised K350 000 from the sales. I am building a house and have bought two goats,” he says.
All these farmers grew maize during the 2017/18 growing season using smart agriculture technologies. They applied mbeya fertilisers and anticipated a bumper harvest but such expectations were dashed following dry spells and fall armyworms.
The 2018 Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) Report projected that at least 3.3 million Malawians will be food insecure this year. And a Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development report says the country has recorded a 22.1 percent drop in maize production this year.
Mulanje District, where Sheila and her colleagues come from, falls under Blantyre Agricultural Development Division (ADD) which has recorded a 45 percent maize crop deficit.
That is why Oxfam is implementing a project dubbed breaking the cycle of humanitarian assistance through enhancing resilience and shock-responsive capacity.
Oxfam humanitarian programme officer Josephine Magombo Mame says the project is in two districts of Mulanje and Phalombe, reaching 2 653 households.
“Among others, we teach people conservation agriculture, making of swalleys and contour ridges to harvest water and minimise soil erosion and making Mbeya fertiliser,” she says.
Mame says this response was based on the 2017 Mvac recommendation for a lean season food security in some parts of the country.
“Currently, there are 22 schemes in Phalombe and 14 in Mulanje covering a total hectarage of 36.8. Members of the schemes harvest not less than 22 000 of 50kg bags of maize,” she explains.
For the project’s sustainability, Oxfam has trained the communities on emergency preparedness called Participatory Scenario Planning (PSP).
“The training was done to build capacity of project key stakeholders to enable effective district-level adaptation in decision making during disasters,” Mame explains.
While some people in Mapila’s village who also failed to harvest due to drought and fall armyworms are waiting for food relief, she and her colleagues are singing joyful songs of mbeya.