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Harnessing sun-heat to boost food security

IDEAL—An irrigation pipe in a beans field

By Watipaso Mzungu:

JOHN—This is different from drip technology

Every morning before the stinging heat of Mangochi District reaches its climax, Simon John and his wife take their solar-powered water pump to their garden – some 400 metres from their house – to irrigate beans and maize.

John and his wife, who live in Group Village Head (GVH) Nkupa in Traditional Authority (T/A) Nankumba, are some of the farmers under Chiwole Irrigation Scheme in Mbwadzulu Extension Planning Area (EPA) who recently adopted drip irrigation technology to break free from dependence on rain-fed agriculture.

The United States Aid for International Development (USaid)-funded Feed The Future Malawi Agriculture Diversification Activity (AgDiv) is promoting transformative production technologies, which enhance agricultural productivity, reduce shock vulnerability, improve nutrition and build capacities for smallholder as well as commercial farmers.

AgDiv is a five-year initiative funded by USaid to reduce levels and cases of poverty and hunger among 150,000 smallholder farmers in Malawi by building robust market linkages and improved agricultural productivity.

Through the initiative, AgDiv has introduced and is scaling up drip irrigation in selected districts by working with strategic partners across the agriculture sector to leverage farmer networks and expertise.

Currently, the project is being implemented in Balaka, Blanyre Rural, Dedza, Lilongwe Rural, Machinga, Mangochi, Mchinji and Ntcheu districts where drip irrigation kids for plots ranging from 30 square metres to one hectare have been piloted.

AgDiv has also partners in drip irrigation suppliers who provide large scale solutions to commercial farms.

John says, for decades, they have relied on rain-fed agriculture or watering cans and treadle pumps when they want to increase production through irrigation farming.

“But with climate change taking the toll on almost every sector, including agriculture, we have no choice but to embrace other modern agriculture technologies, including irrigation, if we are to stay afloat,” he narrates.

He admits that his attempts at irrigation using watering cans before embracing treadle pumps did not yield the desired results.

John states that both the watering cans and treadle pumps are labour intensive; requiring a lot of energy for a farmer to irrigate his crops.

“This is different from the drip technology, which relies on the solar-powered pump to propel water directly to the roots of crops,” he explains.

Drip irrigation is a type of micro-irrigation system that has the potential to save water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either from above the soil surface or buried below the surface.

The technology entails applying water to individual plants in small, frequent quantities through a network of perforated plastic pipes and emitters.

In other areas, the technology is called trickle irrigation and involves dripping water onto the soil at very low rates (2-20 litres/hour) from a system of small diameter plastic pipes fitted with outlets called emitters or drippers.

Fifty-four-year-old Daud Anussa embraced irrigation farming some decades ago. However, he has not realised anything to date.

Anussa – who is also the incumbent GVH Nkupa – has been watering cans to irrigate beans, maize and vegetables on his sizeable piece of land.

And, recently, he transitioned engine pumps. However, Anussa says the engine pump did not provide the relief he needed.

“I spend K120,000 to purchase fuel for the engine to produce K200,000 worth of yield per season. And that is before I deduct the money I used to buy inputs such as fertiliser and seeds. In short, I am operating at a loss,” he says.

The AgDiv Director of Strategic Partnerships, Jeremy Venable, says drip irrigation is a necessary and most effective technology for Malawian farmers who want to realise higher yields while ensuring that less water is used for producing crops.

Venable further states that, over the last two decades, smallholder farmers in developing and transition economies have begun using drip irrigation, often adapting and changing to better suit their conditions and needs.

“So, even if this farmer was irrigating here with a treadle pump or watering cans, the drip irrigation system will use less than half the water of those earlier methods. And if you look at the season, early September, this farmer has a nice crop, which is usually difficult to achieve [with other methods],” he explains.

Venable, therefore, challenges smallholder farmers in Malawi to embrace the technology if they are serious about boosting production and productivity to a level where some of the profits can be re-invested for further growth.

He emphasises that drip irrigation allows the farmers use less labour and water to produce more yield on their respective pieces of farmland.

Sebastiano Sandram – a lead farmer in Gome Village in T/A Kaphuka in Dedza District– says, by using less labour on the field, the technology allows them tend or perform other equally important activities at the farm while the pipes are emitting water to the plants.

“Unlike other technologies such as watering cans and treadle pumps, drip irrigation gives us time to weed and/ or thin our plants or indeed prepare more land to increase production. This is incredible and we are very excited about this technology,” Sandram says.

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