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Building resilient communities through traditional farming practices

In a township that is constantly reinventing itself, Mponela has unlimited potentials on offer from agriculture to skills development not to mention its entertaining bars and open roast meat kiosks.

As an agricultural hub, the area is making headlines for its bold step to move away from the conventional agricultural practices where farmers, addicted to factory fabricated inputs, are gradually transiting back to the traditional farming fashion using micro-organisms to enrich soil and manage pests through natural practices.

Cuddled east of the township, is Kamwana Village, home to Bolingo Dzimbiri, 51, a father of six children.

Dzimbiri has over the years been struggling to make ends meet, despite selling his produce to profit-oriented multinational companies in agribusiness, fertilizer, agrochemical and biotech.

The corporations have for decades implemented aggressive marketing strategies that enticed farmers through their governments (under public-private partnership) into purchasing agricultural inputs – far beyond an ordinary grower’s annual earnings.

“It reached a point where I could no longer afford a bag of fertilizer,” says Dzimbiri, pointing out farm inputs require significant investments.

He says, for instance, that, to harvest enough, he maize garden requires 50kilogramme (Kg) bags selling at K19, 000 (US$41) each while for tobacco the price is K24, 000 (US$52) and D Compound is pegged at K20, 000 (US$43) for one bag of fertiliser. The inputs have to be bought every season.

Two years ago, when Dzimbiri abandoned the conventional and corporate-driven agricultural system and retraced his footprint to traditional farming practices which provide labour-saving agricultural solutions to local problems, his annual income has risen from an average K15, 000 (US$33) per year to K80, 000 (US$174) per year.

“I am no longer dependent on external inputs that undermine the resilience of crops and the environment, mostly due to climate change,” says Dzimbiri.

As climate change takes its toll in Africa, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) says the total bill for adapting to the phenomenon by 2050 would hover around US$350 billion by 2070.

This is the hard reality that Malawian farmers have to take into consideration alongside the environmentally devastating effects of the toxic chemicals shoved by powerful companies into the agricultural production chain. In the wake of these transactions, the poor farmer is left poorer than before.

“Something somewhere must be wrong. The companies that sell these inputs are in the business of making profits at the expense of us, the poor farmers who consider farming as a way of life.”

Helping to put the farmers back on the track is the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC) which has introduced a project called ‘Empowering smallholder farmers key to ensuring food security in Malawi’. The project is funded by the Economic Justice Network (EJN), a programme under the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa (Foccisa).

MCC programmes Officer, Joel Kumwenda, says the project was designed to dispel misconceptions farmers had on the principles of conservation agriculture.

“Throughout the implementation of the project, farmers were acquainted with the underlying ecological, organic and human philosophies behind conservation agriculture, environmental management, post harvest management, market access and financing,” explains Kumwenda.

The officer observes that one of the ways through which the country can achieve sustainable food security is by empowering smallholder farmers with knowledge and skills on sustainable farming practices.

“Such methods as conservation agriculture do not only help farmers produce good yields but also protect the environment from effects of climate change,” he says.

However, Kumwenda says the road has not been smooth.

“One thing we have learnt is that community members require patience, understanding and careful explanation to have them on board,” he says adding; “It takes time for community members to overcome prejudices and negative perceptions.”

Kumwenda also says MCC has realised the importance of involving government extension workers who help in monitoring activities.

The farmers have been receiving technical guidance on planting standards, controlling weeds, mulching and rotating crops from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Irrigation through its extension services.

Agriculture Extension Development Officer for Mponela

Extension Planning Area, Geoffrey Kuphanga, says through conservation agriculture farmers are encouraged to take advantage of natural ecological processes to conserve moisture, enhance soil fertility, improve soil structure and to reduce soil erosion and the presence of diseases and pests.

“As a matter of fact, conservation agriculture is low cost and low labour involvement and it involves very little disturbance of the soil in order to allow naturally occurring soil flora and fauna to flourish thereby improving soil structure. And as a result ensuring high soil fertility, high yield, high earnings and high food nutrition,” says Kuphanga.

Nutritional experts have charged that most of the food processed by the industrial system has led to chronic health problems as diets tend to be artificial as well as sugar and fat concentrated.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development believes that conservation agriculture promotes a cost effective and resource efficient way of guiding sustainable production and consumption choices.

“Governments that put green growth at the heart of development can achieve sustainable economic growth and social stability, safeguard the environment and conserve resources for future generation,” says OECD report.

The African Development Bank agrees that conservation agriculture protects livelihoods, improves water, energy and food security, promotes sustainable use of natural resources and spurs innovation, job creation and economic development.

It is yet to be seen if Malawian policy makers will be bold enough to shrug off the underhanded multinationals and embrace the sustainable solutions before the soils are exhausted.

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