The flooding of cities and towns with farm produce such as beans, soya, groundnuts and rice from the revamped Bwanje Valley Irrigation Scheme in Dedza bears testimony to the importance of dry land farming.
Communities surrounding the scheme have also witnessed growth in food production and business opportunities as opposed to the past when crop production largely depended on weather.
Bad weather would lead to poor harvests, resulting in hunger despite there being rivers and fertile land.
But the scheme has improved the agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers in Mtakataka, Dedza. Through the project, irrigation and drainage facilities were constructed, post harvest facilities installed and access to trunk roads was improved.
This has allowed farmers to have easy access to markets for their agricultural products.
Chrissie Mpasu and Arnold Finiyasi who sell products from the irrigation scheme for a living, testify that their business has improved since the revamping of the scheme.
“I get my products from there and they are of high quality. Of course, transport is somewhat expensive, but business is there,” says Mpasu, who sells beans, rice, groundnuts and other vegetables.
The mother of four says the Lakeshore Road that passes through Bwanje Valley enables one to transact business easily.
Finiyasi, an Irish potato seller, agrees.
Bwanje scheme also supplies its produce to various supermarkets in the country. But the journey has not been easy.
During its development stage, the original project was scheduled for construction between 1997 and 1999, with government being the sole funder. But the plan was not successful due to financial hiccups.
However, the Japanese Government came in to fund a study entitled ‘Bwanje Valley Smallholder Irrigation Development Project’, which the Malawi Government was involved in planning.
Malawi Government then requested the Japanese Government for a Grant Aid in order to carry out the project considering that irrigation was meant to revitalise the economy through mass production of food.
Based on the viability of the project, the Japanese Government through its International Co-operation Agency (Jica) channelled close to K3 billion to rehabilitate the project.
The scheme, besides registering 2 067 farmers so far, has become a job creator for people who are in charge of its finances, farms and premises. It is now a fully fledged farmer organisation.
“The project has exploited land and water resources for irrigation purposes, introduced farming techniques, strengthened farmer organisations and improved primary rural infrastructures,” Shigenobu Kobayashi, deputy head of mission at the Japanese Embassy said in an interview.
Kobayashi says the cooperative buys, processes, and sells rice whose proceeds are used to run the organisation.
“Since the establishment, farmers have been trained in leadership, business management, record and book keeping plus maintenance of equipment,” he says.
Apart from proceeds from the rice milling component, the scheme raises money through membership fees.
The Bwanje, Limphasa, Kasinthula and Shire Valley irrigation schemes are part of the Green Belt Initiative introduced by the late president Bingu wa Mutharika. To underline the significance of the schemes, government allocated money towards all irrigation schemes which, government says, are critical to the economy. Most of the schemes grow maize, beans, rice and sugar.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that Malawi has 200 000 hectares of land with potential for small to medium scale irrigation development. Currently, less than 40 percent of the land is being used for irrigation.
To this effect World Bank and Malawi Government last year signed a K2 billion (about $5.8m) concession loan agreement towards rehabilitation of all government-funded schemes and develop small-scale schemes in 12 districts where 197 000 families are to benefit from the project.
However, Minister of Agriculture Peter Mwanza says government has a policy to allow investors use 100 000 hectares of land to revamp the agro-based economy with numerous crops to boost export business.
He says government wants to manage irrigation facilities and promote agricultural research and improvement in areas of distribution, stock breeding and agricultural processing.
“Malawi is endowed with plentiful water. However, it seems ironical that crop failure due to drought has become almost annual episodes in the recent years yet the country has potential land for irrigation,” says Mwanza, adding they want to upset that. Ideally, Malawi is panicking to end poverty and hunger by 2015 in line with Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) through such projects.
But experts argue that the major challenge will be for government to sustain such irrigations schemes and ensure that the economy is vibrant, thereby ensuring food security.