What breaks farmers backs?


Since he  ventured into farming in 2012, Brian Kumwenda has never used any other tool, except a hand hoe he inherited from his parents. The 35-year-old feels weary of the traditional way of farming.

“Farming using a hoe is back-breaking,” he says. “It takes a month to till and make ridges in our crop field.”

Kumwenda and his wife own a two-acre plot in Chimsolera Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Jalavikuba in Mzimba. The father of three inherited the land from his parents when he failed to make it to college.

“We begin at 6am and take a break at 9am. We resume work at 3pm and call it a day around 5pm. We make up to 100 ridges each day. “But hoeing is never easy,” he explains.

Kumwenda is one of millions of farmers in the country who rely on hoes as did their ancestors.


The sights of farmers using hoes are rampant in Mzimba where many households own cattle as a source of income and a symbol of status.

“Not many farmers use ploughs and ridgers. Such equipment would reduce the time spent on farming, but I don’t have money to buy or hire one,” he says.

At Hora in the district, Fynes Tembo, 46, cultivates less than half of her maize field the size of a football ground.

“It is almost impossible to farm the whole plot with a hoe,” says the widowed mother of four.

Tembo, who perceives farming as business, blames the hoe for slowing her struggle to beat hunger and poverty.

“Since my husband died eight years, I do farm work singlehandedly. With a hoe, I can’t ultilise the whole crop field,” she says.

To her, the hoe symbolises stagnation in the agricultural sector on which nearly 80 percent of the country’s population subsists. The sector accounts for 65 percent of jobs and  67 percent of export earnings.

Environmentalist McPherson Nthara says it is almost impossible to commercialise agriculture when most farmers are stuck with the hoe.

“The traditional means of cultivation is outdated and labour intensive. It exerts unnecessary pressure on farming communities and  limits the hectarage one can cultivate,” he says.

According to the National Agriculture Investment Plan, handheld tools repel the youth from farming—leaving the vital sector to the elderly who are less energetic.

The blueprint, which expires in 2023, recommends a swift shift towards mechanisation to wean the majority of farmers who continue to use rudimentary hand tools from land preparation to harvesting.

It reads in part: “This is highly inefficient and burdens millions of households, making agriculture unattractive, particularly to the youth.

“Mechanisation reduces hard labour, relieves labour shortages, improves productivity and timeliness of operations, and contributes to mitigating climate-related hazards.”

But the desired shift has been slow and  neglected though government promises to increase the use of machinery in farming and agro-processing activities by 50 percent by the deadline of the investment plan.

“The outcome of the plan is to have improved access to and use of mechanisation services by farmers, strengthen knowledge and skills of providers and users of mechanisation services and enhance availability and quality of mechanisation equipment and services,” it reads.

In line with such policies, government borrowed over K20 billion from Exim Bank of India to buy agricultural equipment for smallholder farmers, but dubiously sold the equipment at a loss to top government officials and their cronies—leaving the taxpayer to clear the loan and the interest.

Each of Mzuzu Agricultural Development Division (Mzadd) main districts—Mzimba, Rumphi and Nkhata Bay—has two or three tractors which farmers hire.

The tractors, complete with accessories for ridging, ploughing and harrowing, go at K45 000 per hectare using government fuel. Farmers pay K21 000 using their fuel. He said harrowing is pegged at K11 000 while ridging is pegged at K18 000 using client fuel.

“We have enough equipment to satisfy the demand. There is no day we have failed to provide the service to our clients. The service is for everyone who can afford it, whether they are commercial farmers or smallholder growers,” says Mzadd programme manager Wellington Phewa.

District agriculture officer Youngs Nyirenda says the uptake of tractor services is high in tobacco estates of Rumphi and Mzimba North.

“In districts like Nkhata Bay, land is fragmented and farmers have less than a hectare. One requires a minimum of five hectares for one to hire a tractor,” he says.

According to Nthara, the high costs and hectarage imposed on the State-funded tractors discriminate against smallholder farmers.

He calls for simple technologies that smallholder farmers can afford and operate with ease to break away from hoes.

“Our colleagues in China have come up with simple equipment farmers can use to make their work easier.

“For instance, rice farmers in Karonga are still harvesting using a sickle. It takes them a long time to harvest a small piece of land. But Indians come up with simple innovations farmers can use when harvesting rice,” Nthara said.s n


NEXT: Lessons from Karonga’s cattle-herding communities

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