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Fishing ‘crops’ from Lake Malawi

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KHOFIYA—Fishing has failed to turnaround our livelihoods

At the tip of Kamwisa Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kachindamoto’s area in Dedza District, 76 subsistence farmers have grouped to exploit the waters of Lake Malawi to produce food and improve nutrition while ensuring income security beyond fishing.

They are among dozens of farmers that were heavily affected by the 2018/18 Tropical Cyclone Idai in the district. Weather experts estimate that the long-lived storm caused one of the most catastrophic damages and a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, leaving more than 1, 300 dead and many more missing.

The 76 farmers, in an effort to recover from the crisis, have set their eyes on the free-flow waters of Lake Malawi to fast-track the attainment of their social and economic aspirations.

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“Following the disaster that hit this area, we came together and agreed to form Dzalanyama Irrigation Scheme, which is under Ntakataka EPA [Extension Planning Area]. Then using hoes and bare hands, we dug a canal to take water from the lake to the fields to irrigate our crops,” Esther Khofiya explained.

Malawi has between 480, 000 and 620, 000 hectares of potential irrigable land area, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.

However, the land that has been developed for irrigation is about 97,000 hectares, accounting for between 16 percent and 20 percent of the irrigation potential.

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Ironically, Malawi’s economy remains fragile, highly subsistent, uncompetitive and highly dependent on donations, over five decades after attaining self-rule, with vast irrigable land still lying idle.

Apart from suffering from a negative Balance of Payment owing to poor trade performance, the country is faced with a heavy debt burden.

Additionally, Malawians continue to suffer food and non-food production shortfalls, which are predominantly offset by aid and imports.

According to United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (Fao), the volume of imports and food aid reached an all-time high in 1992 and 1993 following the 1992 drought.

The declining agricultural productivity has resulted in increased importation of food items, including maize flour, Irish potatoes and rice [being sold in major supermarkets such as Shoprite].

This is compounded by a lack of local manufacturing of important inputs such as fertilizer, feed and agricultural chemicals.

The bulk of Malawi’s agricultural exports are non-food crops such as tobacco, tea and cotton.

The value of exports peaked in 1998 and has since fallen back and a closer inspection of the trends shows that, despite several attempts, there has only been a slight diversification away from these traditional exports.

On the other hand, the balance on food trade alone has evolved rather differently, moving from a surplus in the late 1980s to a deficit from the 1990s to late.

This [food deficit], coupled with many other challenges, has led to the widening of income gap between and among individuals.

The Centre for Social Concern (CfSC), a faith-based organisation working to transform the unjust structures through research and advocacy to ensure sustained change in policies for the betterment of all in line with their human dignity, believes the widening income gap between individuals coupled with rising inflation implies a worsening situation of food insecurity in a country.

CfSC Executive Director James Ngahy is, however, quick to state that the country could have spared this scenario if the government developed the irrigation industry to increase crop productivity and production, for food security for both domestic and export markets.

Ngahy said as an agro-based economy, Malawi needs to seriously invest in irrigation farming, saying failure to do so is similar to denying the engine of its necessary fuel for its movement.

He pointed out that irrigation farming could play a crucial role in eradicating extreme poverty and increasing food security, thereby stimulating the national economy.

“We’ve noted how low and uncertain agricultural productivity and production under rain-fed conditions have [over the past years] owing to unreliable rainfall and natural disasters such as erratic rains, dry spells, pests and diseases, droughts and floods. This, therefore, calls for concerted efforts in developing the irrigation industry if we are to revitalise our economy,” he explained.

A study of the country’s potential for irrigation carried out recently identified 57 potential irrigation projects in the country.

Of these, seven are in the Northern Region, 12 in the Central Region and 38 in the South.

Out of the 38 potential sites for irrigation in the Southern Region, 25 are in the Lower Shire Valley.

The report said most of this land lies in the plains along the shores of Lake Malawi; Karonga, Nkhotakota, Salima, the Lake Chilwa Plain, the Lower Shire Valley and the flood plain of Limphasa River in Nkhata Bay.

Dedza is one of the districts that lies along the large body of water – Lake Malawi – and boasts of fertile and alluvial soils and adequate water resources for the development of irrigated agriculture.

The district, according to the District Irrigation Officer Gift Moloko, has over 6, 000 hectares of potential irrigable land, but only 4, 500 hectares of the land is being utilized, leaving huge volumes of water to flow to waste.

But with the intervention of the Farmers Union of Malawi (Fum), this status quo is poised to change. With funding from the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (Ati), Fum is implementing a Rebuilding Smallholder Farmers’ Livelihoods through Agriculture Recovery Project in Golomoti and Ntakataka EPAs of Dedza District.

The project was designed to respond to the impact of the floods that resulted from the Tropical Cyclone Idai and affected the livelihoods of more than one million households in the country.

The floods also damaged irrigation infrastructure in the affected districts.

Fum has therefore renovated Mgundu Gravity Irrigation Scheme in Golomoti EPA and has constructed a new solar-powered irrigation scheme (Dzalanyama Irrigation Scheme) in Ntakataka EPA.

Fum has also established a Farm Inputs Revolving Fund for the two schemes to enable farmers to access productivity enhancing agricultural inputs in a sustainable manner.

Fum Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Specialist, Derek Kapolo, said the goal of the project is to improve food, nutrition and income security of the flood affected households in the district.

“The union is quite impressed with the progress the schemes are making towards achieving that goal. We are particularly impressed that the farmers are self-motivated and working very hard to enhance and increase the capacity of their schemes,” Kapolo said.

The seemingly optimistic Khofiya commends FUM for the support, saying with solar-powered irrigation, the scheme is going to triple its production and productivity.

“We have used this lake for fishing for a long time without improving our social and economic status. Now, it is time to use the waters to produce crops that will not only give us adequate food and nutrition, but also sustainable income,” she emphasized.

On the other hand, the Mgundu Gravity Irrigation Scheme chairperson, Pierre Katola, said as an agro-based economy, Malawi needs to seriously invest in irrigation farming, saying failure to do so is similar to denying the engine of its necessary fuel for its movement.

Katola stated that irrigation farming could play a crucial role in eradicating extreme poverty and increasing food security, thereby stimulating the national economy.

“We’ve noted how low and uncertain agricultural productivity and production under rain-fed conditions have [over the past years] owing to unreliable rainfall and natural disasters such as erratic rains, dry spells, pests and diseases, droughts and floods. This, therefore, calls for concerted efforts in developing the irrigation industry if we are to revitalise our economy,” he explained.

But Ngahy challenged that optimal utilisation of irrigable land would be fruitless if the government does not address the poor transport infrastructure, stressing that it is one of the limiting factors to the growth of irrigation in the country, besides poor financing.

He observed that the poor road network limits farmers to access competitive markets.

“Poor transport infrastructure limits market access for irrigation farmers. Good road network is critical to intensifying irrigation farming,” he explains. “Poor transport infrastructure limits market access for irrigation farmers. Good road network is critical to intensifying irrigation farming,” he explained, adding transportation costs account for more than 25 percent of the total value of her produce at times.

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