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Hope in potatoes

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MAKING IT BIG—Mpani in his potato field

By Vincent Khonje:

Tobacco, touted as Malawi’s green gold, is facing challenges.

Some farmers are opting for other crops to boost incomes heavily affected by the leaf’s low prices and dwindling demand.

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They no longer find the tobacco industry, the country’s largest forex earner, attractive.

“I had several workers from 2011 to 2015 but never made profits. The returns from my tobacco venture ended up in the pockets of tenants,” Chimwemwe Mhango, from Matemanga Village, in Traditional Authority (TA) Mnyaluwanga, Nkhata Bay says.

It is not a different story to that of Jack Mpani, 35, from Chisazima, T/A Kaomba, in Kasungu who has also dumped tobacco.

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He used to grow the crop in a contract arrangement with tobacco buying companies that apparently just ripped him off.

“The money I made was used to repay inputs loans I obtained from the companies. It was a vicious cycle that got me entangled in a loss-making deal,” Mpani says.

To improve their incomes, some farmers are opting for crops that are attractive on the market.

Mhango is one of them. He is into Irish potato farming which, he boasts, is proving a profitable substitute for tobacco.

He started with ordinary varieties of Irish potatoes in 2015 when he quit tobacco farming and switched to improved varieties in 2019.

After starting to grow improved varieties of Irish potato, he has become one of the three farmers in Chikwina Extension Planning Area (EPA) multiplying improved seed for the benefit of other farmers.

“The very first time I planted the improved varieties, the yield rose significantly,” Mhango says.

He uses proceeds of his Irish potato business to send his children to school. He has also constructed a modern house, by village standards.

On his part, after year-after-year losses with tobacco, Mpani found hope in orange fleshed sweet potatoes.

He multiplies vines for other farmers and sells the tubers, apart from eating them with his family. He rues the time he spent growing tobacco which brought him nothing but misery.

“I have bought a car, a card and two donkeys and now have grocery shop. On top of that, I feed my family well apart from sending children to school,” Mpani says.

Most farmers in the country are now growing improved Irish potatoes and orange fleshed sweet potato varieties thanks to International Potato Centre (CIP), a research for development organisation focusing on potato, sweet potato and Andean roots and tubers.

Through several projects, the organisation has partnered stakeholders to deliver sustainable solutions to issues of hunger and climate change, among others.

Improved orange fleshed sweet potato and Irish potato varieties have been introduced and released to farmers like Mhango and Mpani.

In a project called ‘Root and Tuber Crops for Agricultural Transformation in Malawi’ (RTC-Action), CIP is working with the Department of Agricultural Research Services (Dars).

There are several trials of improved potato and fleshed sweet potatoes being conducted by Dars and some have already been released.

Dars roots and tubers research scientist Kennedy Masamba says the department is conducting research into roots and tuber crops to improve the quality and nutritional aspect.

“We are encouraging research of these important crops because that is where we are going to increase production and quality. We are also talking of the nutritional value people will get after consuming the crops,” Masamba says.

Under another project called ‘Transforming Agriculture in Malawi (Kulima), CIP is supporting farmers to learn technologies which they transfer to other farmers in their communities.

CIP’s research technician, David Nthobwa, says properly developed technologies sometimes never reach farmers at the lowest levels.

“We are giving technical advice to the farmers and extension service providers. We have new varieties that have been released and we want all of them to be available to farmers across the country,” Nthobwa says.

The same efforts are also being promoted at Kasungu’s Lisasadzi Residential Training Centre (RTC) where several potato technologies are being tried.

RTC Principal Fyson Chitowe says the centre, under Kulima Project, trains master trainers who are transferring potato technologies to farmers.

“There are technologies that are being tried here and are also replicated by the farmers in the outreach fields called farmers field school,” Chitowe says.

Nutritionally, one medium-size orange fleshed sweet potato each day is enough to provide Vitamin A needed by an adult and a meal of Irish potatoes every day helps curb inflammation in the body, boosts immunity and improves blood circulation.—Mana

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