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Making decisions about crops to grow next season

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Tobacco and cotton have been Malawi’s traditional commercial crops for many years and even smallholder farmers have been able to easily grow them. Sugar and tea are usually cultivated by large-scale farmers and estates because of their various complications.

Grains such as maize and rice are largely grown as food crops mostly by subsistent farmers while groundnuts, beans, soya, pigeon peas, sunflower, cowpeas and others are produced as both food and cash crops but on rather very small scale.

Malawians will always grow maize for food but producing it as a commercial crop will always remain tricky as surplus production automatically leads to depressed prices unless the government decides to open up exports of the grain.

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With problems that have affected the tobacco market this season, growers will have to make decisions about cultivating the crop this year. Cotton is likely to be a hot crop next year as ginners may demand more to make up for idle times they have experienced this year following dry spells that significantly reduced volumes of the crop.

Cotton is, therefore, one of the crops commercial farmers can consider to grow in the coming rainy season.

Other crops business-oriented farmers can consider growing next season are rice, beans, soya, pigeon peas, sunflower and groundnuts as they continue to be on demand on the local and international markets due to challenges of food facing the globe.

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In the next few weeks, we will take a look at a few selected crops that have potential in Malawi and share information that can help farmers make decisions. Let us start today with pigeon peas.

Pigeon pea is the most common pulse in Malawi and the country is now the largest pigeon pea producer in the eastern and southern African region, with an estimated area of cultivation being in excess of 200,000 hectares every year.

Smallholder farmers grow pigeon peas largely as an intercrop with maize and cotton. The quality is, therefore, irregular and requires standardisation. So far, there are very few large-scale farmers in pigeon pea production. These smallholder producers sell the produce to local traders, who in turn sell to middlemen and processing companies.

This crop can play an important role in preventing soil erosion through its extensive root system and provides a nutrition organic coverage with its fallen leaves. Because of its deep rooting system, the pigeon pea does not compete for nutrients with other crops and is, therefore, valuable for intercropping with cereals such as maize.

This process is called ‘nitrogen fixation’ and is a form of free nitrogen fertiliser for pigeon pea which means that it can grow prolifically on poor soils.

The crop is also drought-resistant as it can stand environmental stress for longer periods of time.

Malawi’s pigeon peas industry has efficient decorticators and cleaning and drying machines, capable of meeting the quality standards required by the international markets.

Foreign currency problems in Malawi have led to the entry of several non-conventional players who are exporting pigeon peas to India, primarily to gain access to foreign currency. This has opened up the market for export.

The main by-product of pigeon peas is the split pulse, known as dal in India or chipele in Malawi. In some cases, it is also grown to manage nitrogen for young coffee trees, tree seedling nurseries and vegetable gardens.

The largest producer of pigeon peas is India, with close to 70 percent of global production, followed by Myanmar, producing more than 20 percent of global production.

Africa accounts for the majority of the remaining production, with the largest production coming from Malawi at six percent, followed by Kenya at two percent, Uganda at two percent and then Tanzania 0.8 percent. Mozambique is also emerging as a major producer of the crop.

Production of pigeon peas in Malawi has registered an average growth of 11 percent annually since 2000. Despite dry spells that affected agricultural production this year, Malawi is estimated to have produced 336,000 metric tonnes of pigeon peas, up from 335,000 last year.

Fortunately for Malawi, production of pigeon peas in India has stagnated over the last decade, with some downtrend shown in recent years despite increased demand for the same.

Malawian farmers can, therefore, take advantage of the situation in India and produce more pigeon peas for export into the country.

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