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Plant legumes, heal the soil

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The tremendous shortfall of crop production because of El Nino has left most Malawian smallholder farmers, especially those who relied on cash crop like tobacco, destitute.

However, despite this adverse weather condition, farmers who planted legume crops can afford a smile and have good stories to tell.

Due to El Nino weather condition, harvest in the 2015/16 season has left over 6.5 million in dire need of food.

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Harrison Kazembe, a farmer from Linthipe Extension Planning Area (EPA) in Dedza does not regret abandoning tobacco farming to concentrate on legume farming.

“After so many years of tobacco farming, nothing changed in my life. But after three years of soybean farming, I have managed to roof my house with iron sheets. Tobacco farming is too involving and requires a lot of money to sustain it,” he explains.

Although, soybeans do not require fertilizer to grow, scientists have introduced inoculants to boost its yield.

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Kazembe is one of the farmers who are using inoculants in his field. He says the use of inoculants in soybeans was the secret to his bumper harvest for the past three years.

He says the method is cheap for the rural and small scale farmers and significantly increases the potential yield of legumes like soybeans.

Legumes can be the best replacement of tobacco which is currently facing marketing challenges.

The newly introduced soybeans technology has the potential to revamp the agro-based Malawi economy.

The government has been asking farmers, to embrace new farming methods such as proper site selection, recommended ridge and seed spacing, use of certified seed (early maturing, and can withstand the climate change), timely planting, use of inoculants and manure, proper seed rate, timely pest (weed, insect pests and diseases) control and post-harvest management.

Agricultural scientists are optimistic that the new and advanced farming technologies would propel and ensure sustained food security and household development for smallholder farmers.

They argue, the changing weather patterns have negative impact on the soil and it is therefore, required to practise intercropping especially with maize and legumes because the latter have the ability to return nitrogen to the soil thereby increasing fertility.

Farmers like Kazembe have their life changed since accepting agriculture intervention brought by different organisations that are helping farmers understand and adopt new technologies.

The increase in the number of people growing legume crops in Linthipe and other parts of the country confirms the positive impact these organisations have on people’s livelihood.

One such organisation is the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) which runs a project called N2Africa in Malawi. This is a large scale, science-based “research-in-development” project which focuses on nitrogen fixing for smallholder farmers who are growing legumes in Africa.

N2Africa started its work in Malawi in 2010 and has so far reached out to over 30,000 farmers in Kasungu, Mchinji, Dowa, Dedza, Salima, Lilongwe and Ntcheu.

The project is supporting farmers with new legume growing technologies and training them on how they can fix nitrogen to the soil.

“The coming in of N2Africa in our area has enabled me to double my soybeans production. I plant soybeans on double rows on single ridge and also realised that I can increase my production by applying inoculants. These help to return fertility to the soil and this was evidenced when I planted maize in the soybean field the following year. Maize production increased” says Kazembe.

Kazembe says IITA has also introduced a number of improved soybeans varieties like Tikolore, Makwacha and Nasoko as some early maturing varieties with good potential yield.

According to the project’s National Coordinator, Lloyd Phiphira, they are impressed with the response it is getting from farmers.

He says there has been a huge economic transformation among farmers they have been working with.

“Because of the climate change, legumes like improved varieties of soybeans, groundnuts, beans, cowpea and others should be adopted as nitrogen fixing, nutrition and cash crop in Malawi. Our project would like to achieve high crop and livestock production, human nutrition, and farm income as well as soil fertility” says Phiphira.

N2Africa is also building capacity of the local inoculants producing company (Agri- Input Suppliers Limited (AISL) to make sure that the inoculants are available to farmers. Recently, it sent two technicians to Nigeria to learn more on how to produce high quality inoculants. Currently, Malawi imports inoculants from Kenya, Zimbabwe and other countries.

However, AISL has started producing the soybeans seed inoculants, Nitro fix, supported by the Department of Agriculture Research Services (DARS)

“As a research institute, we have run trials in different fields in Malawi to see the effectiveness of different types of inoculants on soybeans. The results are overwhelming. We have experienced higher yields up to 40 percent in those soybeans where inoculants were applied,” explains Phiphira.

He says AISL, with technical and financial support from IITA, DARS, MOST and GIZ, is trending towards sustainable production and supply of quality Nitrofix inoculants to make it accessible by many farmers across the country through agro-dealers.

He says Biofix is another brand of inoculants that will from this year start being imported into Malawi from Kenya.

Apart from helping farmers with how to plant and take care of their soybeans, N2Africa, which is operating in 11 African countries, is also teaching farmers on how to preserve the soil in retaining nitrogen.

The land becomes infertile with continuous use of one crop hence the need for farmers to practice inter cropping with any other legumes.

IITA is a research institute that produces improved varieties of different crops and distributing them to farmers for adoption apart from promoting processing and utilisation.

Malawi has a population of about 15 million people of which 80 percent rely on agriculture as cash crop.

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