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New agri-tech excites local farmers

Fifty-five year old Yeremiya Jamisoni of Chekerani village, T/A Kalolo in Lilongwe, does not just walk but he swings his arms with pride. Every step that carries him around his well-swept compound and along the leafy footpath leading to his lettuce garden is propped in elegance.

He may not have everything one may desire in life but, in this village, he is gentleman worthy of due respect.

From stacks of 50 kg bags of maize, soya beans and groundnut piled high in his food store; Jamisoni has all the reason to walk around the village with his head held high.

“I don’t beg for food,” he says matter-of-factly and, with a pronounced chuckle, he adds, “I have surplus harvest to sell and pay for my children’s school fees.”

It is such a rare story of abundance coming at a time when the common tale elsewhere is the tragic decline of farm yields resulting from shrinking landholding and declining soil fertility.

“For me,” he explains, “it is not only how much land I have; but also how I use it.”

People of Chekerani Village, like many others in the countryside, are subsistence farmers. They eke their living out of the soil, growing crops for both cash and food. However, as fate would have it, they have had to endure the brunt end of climate change which has exposed them to too little rains and resultant perennial food crises and poverty.

Little did they know that with just a little creativity and the introduction of new farming techniques by the United States – funded Feed the Future Malawi-Integrating Nutrition in Value Chains Project, the same bits and pieces of land could produce a miracle yield and enough to sell.

No wonder, therefore, the excitement was unmistakable when one afternoon three years ago [2012] an agricultural advisor from one of the local farmers’ organisations, Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM) pushed his motorbike into the little village and proclaimed a new gospel that was soon to transform life in the community.

Chileka EPA in Lilongwe, where Jamisoni has become a model farmer, is one of the target areas where Feed The Future Malawi: Integrating Nutrition In Value Chains (INVC), with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), is promoting the growing of nutritious foods such as soyabeans and groundnuts in an innovative effort to improve nutrition and reduce poverty at household level.

The project does this by strengthening the competitiveness of the soyabean and groundnut value chains including marketing, improving the nutritional status of pregnant and lactating women and children under-five through behaviour change and building the capacity of Malawian agriculture and nutrition organisations such as Farmer’s Union of Malawi (FUM), Cadecom, Nkhoma Hospital, Pakechere Institute of Health and Development Communication, among others.

This four and half year project is part of United States Government’s global hunger and food security initiative by President Barack Obama and aims to use country-owned plans to sustainably reduce rural poverty and improve nutrition.

And the impact has been phenomenal with many beneficiary households embracing the new technologies, resulting in bumper yield and improved nutritional levels. In 2014, INVC reached more than 286,000 rural households with agriculture and nutrition interventions across the country.

It promoted legume production, marketing, and household consumption, assisting nearly 100,000 smallholder farmers to plant soya and helping connect them to growing domestic and regional markets for this high-demand commodity, while also teaching household processing of nutritious soya-based foods. In 2014, total production of soy in the target districts was 57 percent higher than the 2012 baseline.

INVC further assisted nearly 100,000 groundnut farmers to access certified seed and training in improved crop and land management, control of aflatoxin contamination, collective marketing, market access, and household processing and increased consumption of groundnuts.

Figures from the organisation indicate that groundnut production in the target districts was 19 percent higher than in 2012. The organisation also helped unlock US$6.3 million in agriculture financing through the Agricultural Commodity Exchange for Africa (ACE). This includes bridging finance, a warehouse receipt system, and forward contracts. Moreover, INVC leveraged US$1.47 million in private sector investment in agriculture, largely in storage infrastructure.

Jamisoni, a lead farmer for his 100-member cluster and father of 14 children from two wives, is just one of the beneficiaries spread across the districts of Lilongwe, Mchinji, Dedza, Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka and Ntcheu. The former primary school leaver embraced the new technology and planted 5.5 kgs of soy bean on a quarter acre piece of land, reduced space of his ridges from around 100 cm to 75 cm and planted in double rolls. To his surprise, he managed to produce seven 50 kg bags and as able to locally sell 5.5 bags at K215 per kg.

After selling the soya, Jamisoni sat with his wives and agreed to buy she goats, clothes for his family and household utensils – a thing that was once a perpetual impossibility. What more, he has been able to send all his children of school-going age to school.

“My plans are to increase my farming area and intensify the technologies that I have learnt; one day you will find a modern house here,” exclaims the man who for 30 years could only contend with a meager yield.

Feed the Future Malawi Agriculture Value Chains Specialist, Henry Gaga, says by doubling the rows, the farmers increase the population of plants per station thereby increasing yields. Also, by reducing the space between ridges and between planting stations, the farmers create more plant units per area.

As a result of the new technologies which also involve innoculation of the seeds to boost fixation of nitrogen in the soil, many areas which used to harvest 1.5 tons/hectare now produce as much as three tonnes/hectare which is a rare occurrence in Malawi.

“But this works best if the farmers are using improved varieties and not recycled seed as is often the case with many farmers,” Gaga says.

With landholding still a problem in Malawi and soil productivity a challenge to sustain, the new technologies could prove important for soy bean growers in Malawi.

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