Hail or sunshine, Nsondole stands tall
Climate change has knocked the world off its pace and no one has felt the blunt of its effects more than subsistence farmers in rural Malawi. CHACHACHA MUNTHALI writes about hope and resilience in communities in Zomba in the face of climate change.
The weather in November 2021 was unforgiving. Leaves withered under the unrelenting glare of the sun while dry twigs swayed joylessly to the cracking rhythm of howling wind, which churned pillars of dust with the fury of a scorned season.
It was never like this, however. Decades ago, November was the month of joy, of promises of an unending carpet of greenlaid out across the country’s landscape to as far as the eye could see.
A sweeping rain in October 2021 had raised expectations of an early planting season, but it turned out to be a false dawn. Malawi was not to experience rains again until late December.
When the rains fell, they did so with a vengeance of a kind, leaving a trail in their wake of grieving community members for lives lost, properties damaged or crops swept away as the raging torrents tore through the country.
Climate change has knocked the world off its pace and no one has felt the blunt of its effects more than subsistence farmers in most of poor rural communities across Malawi. Every year, the rains are either too little or too much.
Many people in rural areas of Malawi depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, hence a lack of rain (or too much of it) leaves them incapable of producing enough crops for domestic consumption or for sale.
The area of Traditional Authority Kuntumanji in Zomba is no exception to this dreary state of affairs.
To cushion people in the area against the ravages of nature, the Hunger Project Malawi (HPM) has, since September 2018 to December 2021, been implementing some initiatives in the area to help people become self-reliant.
The organisation has, with support from BMZ (the German Foreign Ministry), been implementing a project in the area to address challenges brought about by climate change.
Mary Makumba is manager for the BMZ project and she explains that it was designed to improve food and nutritional security as well as build and increase resilience to climate change in communities.
“We aimed to realise three outcomes, which are friendly agricultural farming practices, technology and innovations, and livelihoods and nutrition. Under all these outcomes, we had specific activities which were carried out in order to achieve the objectives of the project,” Makumba says.
HPM implemented the project in 30 villages under Group Village Heads (GVH) Bimbi, Kumbwani and Namadingo, all under Traditional Authority Kuntumanji. In these areas, the project trained 30 lead farmers, who were targeted to fill the gap in disseminating agricultural extension information to follower farmers due to shortage of extension workers.
“These lead farmers helped us to reach the follower farmers easily as they live together in the same villages,” Makumba explains.
Among other activities, the project provided 300 follower farmers with access to improved agro-inputs, while a further 90 benefited from an animal (goats) pass-on scheme, where initial beneficiary farmers passed on kids to other farmers within the area as one way of building their resilience.
The crown in the jewel of the project, however, was two five-acre solar irrigation schemes at Bimbi and Chilambe to help the respective communities grow irrigated crops throughout the year.
The solar irrigation schemes are managed by local farmers themselves and, according to Kinosi Makayika, chairperson of the Chilambe Irrigation Scheme, they have enabled communities in the area to be food secure.
“We would previously grow our crops once during the rainy season, but we can now do that throughout the year due to the solar powered irrigation scheme. As it is, we didn’t harvest enough maize during the 2020/21 rainy season, but we were able to supplement it with what we harvested from the scheme,” Makayika explains.
Each scheme benefits 50 smallholder farmers, 39 of whom are men while the majority, 61, are women, in a deliberate move to empower them as they face the burden of hunger in most households.
“Most of the problems encountered in households are faced by women. If we involve a lot of them, we may achieve the goal of ending hunger and poverty,” Makumba says.
Mariam Taimu, who comes from Kumbwani Village, is one of the female members of Chilambe Irrigation Scheme. She normally grows tomatoes, maize, rice and groundnuts, but she chose to plant tomatoes on her small piece of land on the scheme because of the margin of profit she realises from the crop.
“Most farmers opted to grow maize, but I chose tomatoes because of the benefits I realise from them. I harvested my crop in October and November last year and I made a lot of money due to the demand on the market.
“I managed to pay off arrears of school fees for my children. I also used the proceeds as part payment for solar equipment for my house,” Taimu says.
The efforts that HPM and other partners have put in the area of T/A Kuntumanji over the years to increase agricultural productivity and ensure food security for communities, however, have meant excess maize gets produced, with many farmers not having adequate and appropriate storage facilities to store it.
To manage this problem, HPM had previously constructed, at its Nsondole Epicentre, a maize storage facility, which could store up to 1,000 bags of maize. But more maize produced meant more storage space was needed.
As one of the goals of the project was to encourage local people to store food for a rainy day, the BMZ project expanded the facility to accommodate more bags of maize (2,000).
This maize is sold back to the communities during lean times and the earnings are used to purchase fertilisers, which is in turn loaned to the farmers as a form of a revolving fund.
Regarding the revolving fund, Shadrach Jali, who is secretary of the Nsondole Epicentre food security committee, says the committee lends two bags of Urea and NPK fertiliser to farmers who repay it with nine 50 kilogramme bags of maize. The maize, he says, is sold back to the local communities with the aim of ensuring food security.
“Since we introduced the revolving fund, people harvest a lot of maize. They repay the maize to the initiative, keep enough for household use and sell the surplus. Some of the farmers who were beneficiaries of the loan have since graduated,” Jali says.
John Gray, who comes from Chilambe Village in GVH Kumbwani, used to be one of the beneficiaries of the revolving fund but he has since become independent.
He grows maize and rice, as well as raises sheep, chickens and cattle, among other livestock. He weaned himself from the fertiliser loan initiative when he decided he had made enough over the years to become independent.
“In the first years, I borrowed two bags of fertiliser and realised 38 bags of maize. I repaid the loan of nine bags of maize. I saw the benefits. Later, I stopped taking the loan because I could make enough money from my harvest with which I could buy fertiliser without relying on the loan,” Gray says.
With the implementation of the BMZ project completing on December 31, 2021, there is genuine fear that its benefits would also disappear. But Makumba and Makayika are optimistic people in the area of T/A Kuntumanji would continue reaping the benefits of the project for years to come, come hail or sunshine.
“We provided the people with enough skills to stand on their own feet. We also collaborated with government officials; we have a board of trustees which oversees development activities in the area, in addition to our staff at the epicentre. The end of the project does not mean Hunger Project has also left,” Makumba reassures.
Makayika concurs: “BMZ has given us skills and took us to various areas to appreciate how our colleagues are thriving after the end of project.”