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On the saddle: Talking farming

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Welcome readers to this new column which replaces The Thumb effective today. Unlike The Thumb, which dwelled on general issues of public concern, On the Saddle will focus on matters that affect farming in Malawi.

The issues will range from government policies, the economy, business, trade, finance, agriculture marketing, inputs supply, weather and climate change to everything that affects rural farmers in the country.

The name has been derived from the bicycle saddle because of the importance of the bicycle to the majority of the farmers in Malawi.

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The saddle, or the seat, is one of three contact points on an upright bicycle, the others being the pedals and the handlebars, and has been known as such since the bicycle evolved from its forerunner the draisine.

It performs a similar role as a horse’s saddle and – together with the pedals and handlebar, bear all the weight of the rider.

It is also while on the saddle, cycling to buy farm inputs or sell farm produce, that the farmer is confronted with thoughts on where to find inputs and markets for his or her produce as well as prices to pay for the materials or earn when selling the produce.

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Being largely rural based, Malawi’s population predominantly depends on farming for it’s livelihoods. Focusing national policies and programmes on uplifting farmers’ lives therefore has enormous potential to transform not only the living standards of the majority of the people in this country but also the entire economy.

It is estimated that 84 percent of Malawians live in rural areas where about 11 million are engaged in smallholder subsistence farming, although only one-third of the land is suitable for cultivation because of mountains, forests and rough pastures.

Despite that, agriculture accounts for more than one-third of economic production and 90 percent of exports. Smallholder farmers contribute 75 percent of food consumed and cultivate some 5.3 million hectares of arable land.

Maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, rice, sorghum, groundnuts and pulses are important food crops. However, most farmers have less than a hectare on which to grow crops. In combination with declining soil fertility and limited access to credit and extension services, this has seriously limited smallholder productivity.

To boost maize production and food security, the government has been subsidising improved seed varieties and fertiliser since 2005, following several years of underproduction among farmers due to, among other things, sharprises in the prices of the inputs.

The programme worked well and successive years of bumper harvests resulted into surplus maize production. It has, however, of late been questioned by various commentators, with many of them arguing that with donors reducing support due to poor governance, the government cannot afford to continue subsidising inputs at the expense of other national critical needs in agriculture such as irrigation farming.

Another key issue affecting farmers in Malawi is that of unsustainable farming practices. With high population growth, pressure is high on natural resources and many farmers are cultivating on steep hillsides and other marginal lands, often with inadequate soil and water conservation.

As more land is opened up to production, problems such as soil erosion and the resultant siltation of rivers and lakes are worsening, exacerbated by high levels of deforestation.

According to the National Forestry programme, the demand for forestry products is double what is estimated to be sustainable, with charcoal production and burning of bricks adding to the pressure on forests from agricultural expansion.

Coffee, cotton, tea, sugar and tobacco are the principal cash crops. Tobacco alone is estimated to account for 60- 70 percent of the country’s exports and takes up four percent of farmland. But overproduction of burley tobacco, poor leaf quality and anti-smoking campaigns have caused market prices to drop, substantially, reducing foreign exchange earnings since the late 1990s.

Malawi is now pressed with the need to develop alternatives to tobacco as an export crop and production of crops such as ground nuts, soya, pigeon peas and others is now being promoted.

One of the challenges facing these crops, however, is that of marketing, with f armers being prohibited by the exploitative means of trading through vendors, a problem which has left farmers poor for so many years.

Malawi as a country also hardly benefits from the crops as they are largely exported informally, disappearing across the borders without trace and without a chance for value addition and further job creation.

Join me On the Saddle every week as we meet head-on with all these and other issues to help promote the welfare of the farmer as a key means of improving farming and the country’s economy.

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