The dirt road stretching into Amini Village, Traditional Authority Mbela, in Balaka is bordered by arid crop fields draped in brown dust.
As cars cruise into the location, they kick up bowls of more and more dirt and leave it in their trail to waft into the fields and onto houses’ roofs.
But in low-lying spots between small hills in the otherwise typically dry area, crops are growing in abundance, resisting Balaka’s searing weather.
For smallholder farmer Ethel Vikitala, little sprinkles from a small stream that flows through her village are keeping her dream of always harvesting enough for her family alive.
“In spite of the hot weather and droughts that are common here, my field is always damp because I use manure that traps moisture. It has also helped me treble my family’s yield,” Vikitala says.
Even the rise in fertiliser prices is not bothering the mother-of-three who admits that before three years ago, farming was a very thankless activity.
She says her family stuck to crop growing as a traditional act that they had grown up doing despite that they knew what came out of the venture paled in comparison with what went into it.
“Now, our toil is paying dividends. We are growing all manner of crops to improve the food and nutrition situation in our family.
“We sell the surplus to others who need it. This is the first time we are doing this. In the past, our family was being perennially hit by hunger,” Vikitala says while strolling in her verdant tomato field while her husband helps with watering the flowering crop.
The stream and wells from which they fetch water for their crops used to quickly dry up after the rainy season due to what they describe as overuse.
Today, less than a quarter of water that went into the gardens is being drawn because the manure is keeping the moisture and, in the process, lengthening the time the crops can stay without being irrigated.
Vikitala’s husband Maulidi Yusuf waxes lyrical about his wife’s skills that are helping the family harvest up to four times more from the same fields that used to give out too little not long ago.
“She was incorporated into a group that was trained by Find Your Feet where they are equipped with skills for improving yields. She transferred the skills to me and we are doing everything together,” Yusuf says.
The organic fertiliser that is improving crop production for Yusuf’s home is called Mbeya.
It is made by mixing 20 kilogrammes (kg) of ashes, 10kg of dung and 10kg of maize bran and five litres of water. The process, that produces a 50kg bag, is completed with either 10kg of Urea or 10kg of NPK.
“This means from a 50kg bag of fertiliser, we produce up to five bags of Mbeya manure. This makes a big difference especially now that organic fertiliser is out of the reach of most of us smallholder farmers,” Vikitala says.
Thaulo Osman, who is Agriculture Extension Development Officer responsible for Matalikachawo Section in Balaka’s Bazale Extension Planning Area— under which Vikitala’s Amini Village is—says through farmer field schools (FFS), Vikitala and others have also been equipped with modern farming techniques to beat effects of climate change.
He has observed a gradual rise in yields among households that were incorporated in the initiative supported by United States Agency for International Development through the World Food Programme (WFP).
Find Your Feet is implementing the project in Balaka.
Osman says the knowledge that households have gained in making the organic manure is being transferred to others in the FFS concept.
“These people are becoming more and more resilient to impacts of climate change. Even when droughts or dry spells hit this area, there is moisture in the fields and crops flourish,” he says.
Find Your Feet Project Officer Leonard Mtalama is also content with the resilience that households in one of Malawi’s most drought-prone locations have built.
He says fields where Mbeya Organic Fertiliser is being applied have become the centre of attention among other farmers striving to unshackle themselves from the chains of hunger.
“The knowledge is spreading across villages. Eventually, every farmer will start making this fertiliser. Then Balaka will no longer be the same,” Mtalama says.
He is confident that the impacts of the intervention will continue being seen across locations such as Vikitala’s as the farmers have “completely embraced them”.
“At first, the farmers used to get a cash incentive for practising the farming techniques that we teach them. Now, even without the incentives, they are doing everything possible to increase their yields. It is for their livelihoods,” Mtalama says.
And a few kilometres from Vikitala’s gardens of lush tomatoes, onions, beans and carrots, another farmer Idana Mawecha is rising in his occupation with the organic fertiliser and improved farming methods.
In his newly constructed iron-roof house lie bags of maize and heaps of tomatoes.
“From my two-acre piece of land, I used to harvest less than 50 bags of maize each weighing 50kg. Now, with Mbeya manure, the yield has tripled, yet the investment has significantly declined,” Mawecha states.
He has challenged himself to keep pushing until he owns a car, expands the land where he grows crops and builds four houses at Balaka Town.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje