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Securing food through agroforestry

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Retired senior messenger for the Ministry of Education Bester Kamoto surprised people in his village when he started planting trees in his maize garden, claiming the trees were a good substitute for fertiliser.

“People could not believe their eyes and thought I had run mad. Some said I should be taken to mental hospital for treatment,” recalls the boisterous Kamoto, now settled at his home, Chitambuli Village, in Chief Likoswe’s area in Chiradzulu District.

He told this reporter in an interview at his base: “people in my village could not understand how any one in his right mind could plant maize together with trees and expect a good yield.”

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That was in 2010, ten years after retiring from the civil service, when he discovered that he could no longer afford fertiliser after exhausting his K200,000 retirement package.

Kamoto says for the past eight years of full time farming, his family had remained in abject poverty and food insufficient because the landscape of his area was rocky since it is at the foot of Pirimiti Hill, hence making the soil prone to erosion problems.

In Malawi, smallholder agriculture accounts for 80 percent of Malawi’s food population and 65 percent of agriculture’s contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

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Overall, agriculture makes up nearly 40 percent of Malawi’s GDP earnings and is by far the country’s largest employer. But because soil fertility has been compromised due to high population density and population growth rates, smallholder agriculture could be at risk and so would be the rest of Malawi’s agro-based economy.

Indeed, severe soil erosion problems badly limit food production around the area. Because of that, many farmers have been unable to harvest more than one tone of maize, and if no control was taken to control the soil erosion through conservation, many households could not produce enough maize without application of chemical fertilisers.

On the other hand Chiradzulu a district which covers an area of 787 km and with a population of over 236,050, is one of the districts persistently being affected by food insecurity due to climatic hazards and the most serious ones have been dry spells and seasonal droughts among others.

Malawi, which has a high rural population, is faced with a deforestation rate of over 2.8 percent per year since the vast majority of Malawians rely on wood and charcoal for cooking.

Furthermore, the impact of degradation also leads to soil erosion according to research information released by Centre for Research in Agro- Forestry (ICRAF).

The magnititude of nutrient depletion in Africa’s agricultural soils is enormous according to the research. It estimates that on average, 660 kg nitrogen, 75kg phosphorous and 450 kg potassium have been lost per hectare during the last 45 years.

And in Kasungu alone, official records show that in 1994, the district and other surrounding areas under Kasungu agricultural division lost 5 million tonnes of top soil due to erosion.

And against a backdrop of Malawi’s population of over 16 million – 90 percent of whom live in rural areas – it is vital that the country finds alternatives to fertiliser if she is to be food secure.

Kamoto, who was now penniless, leant that there was a new technology called agroforestry that could be used in the absence of fertiliser and was just as effective, if not better. He gave it a try.

However, when Kamoto first tried the concept after receiving training from Chiradzulu agroforestry and food security scientists, he expected quick results, but that was not to be. He almost gave up in despair.

Remembers Kamoto’s wife, Naomi: “After being taught how to plant and look after the trees, we planted the first shrubs in 2009. We expected a good harvest the following year, but saw no change and my husband got so disappointed; he nearly uprooted the Gliricida trees.”

It was until 2008, after having been urged on by scientists that the family began to see the benefits of agroforestry. This is a lesson from the farmer that the benefits of agroforestry technologies are not immediate, but with time the impact is enormous.

Today, 13 years after Kamoto and his wife Naomi embraced the new technology, the couple is grateful for their madness. They are now harvesting bumper yields year after year. Thanks to the potency of the indigenous Jerejere and Gliricida trees planted in their garden.

Their households, never short of food, has suddenly become the envy of their village and surrounding areas. Farmers who branded them mad are now flocking to them to learn. He, since then, has been training fellow farmers on agroforestry technology as well as providing “starter seeds” from his own trees.

Says a happy Kamoto: “there was a dramatic improvement in the yield in 2014. We harvested over 100 bags of maize save for the food crops, a testimony that the trees had began to enrich the soil. Since then, we have known nothing but bumper maize yields.”

Kamoto is one of thousands of smallholder farmers in Malawi who have adopted the concept of agroforestry to improve soil fertility in place of inorganic fertiliser, whose prices are increasingly becoming unaffordable to the majority of rural farmers.

Agroforestry is the science and art of combining trees with crops in an arrangement that can increase productivity to the farmer. It offers a number of options for improving soil fertility and boosts crop production.

According to research findings by world Agroforestry centre in Lilongwe, Agroforestry with trees such as Sebsban sesban can reduce dependency on chemical fertilisers by 75 percent. It suggests that the value of the nitrogen fertiliser fixed by trees such as Sesban would amount to K626 million per year. And that the government would reduce such huge expenses on chemical fertilisers if emphasis would be on agroforestry.

It says trees including Sesbania Sesban grown along with crops, would fix nitrogen equivalent to 200 kg per annum, and nearly 20,000 tonnes of biomass nitrogen fertiliser. This again, is equivalent to 29,000 metric tonnes of urea fertiliser.

Another advantage agroforestry has over inorganic fertiliser alone is that the adoption of woodlots in gardening could drastically reduce the problem of shortage of firewood as deforestation is high in the country.

“Sesbania Sesban may live up to ten years depending on moisture availability. The plant grows in a wide variety of soils ranging from loose sand to soils with fine textured, highly acidic saline and alkaline,” it points out.

The research, which says the height varies from less than 1 metre to 4 metres or more, adds that there are over 33 species of Sesbania sesban in Africa which produces abundant bunches of thin, pale brown pods up to 20 centimetres long with separated sections. And that one kilogram contains 80,000 seeds of Sesban.

ICRAF which encourages farmers to use trees that replenish the soil with the much-needed nutrients to increase food production in the country, says Sesbania Sesban is a nitrogen fixer and, has many advavantages to the households, the village, and to plant yields. Being a perennial plant it binds the soils and allows free circulation of air and enhances its capacity to retain moisture in the soil. It also serves as a windbreak for vegetable crops, banana’s, and other fruit orchards.

In the village, it says, Sesbania Sesban increases food security especially where the plant is used in a fallow system. In this practice, a farmer plants the trees for two growing seasons and she/he may in third seasons, fell the trees and all the leaves and incorporate the degradable litter into the soil during land preparation.

Such a piece of land gives maize grain yields of 3 to 5 metric tonnes per hectare. High yields of course may depend on good rainfall, use of imported maize varieties, and good farm management.

Another option is the biomass transfer practice which involves cultivation of tree species whose leaf biomass is used as mulch for high value crops planted at a separate location. The species produce five to eight tones of leaf biomass per hectare. Plots where Sesbania Sesban is planted for fallow system accumulates 100-250 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare in the leaf biomass and the leaves of Sesban can supply protein –rich fodder for livestock.

In relay cropping with Sesbania Sesban, the tree species is planted two weeks after the maize germinates. The trees are left to grow after the maize harvest and are cut down when they are 10 months old. Sesban fixes substantial amounts of fertiliser in the soil and in a mixed cropping; agroforestry three species are intercropped with maize. Soil nutrient are added to the soil through either nitrogen fixation or incorporation of tree pruning to the soil.

Another economic benefit of Sesban trees is that they provide a farmer with firework, construction and staking materials. However, the effects of relay cropping with Sesbania sesban, or Jephrosia or improved fallow with both species can be seen after one or two years.

“ We have been conducting research for more than a decade now in Malawi on ways of improving soil fertility, especially using trees species such as Gliricida Sepium and Sesbania sesban locally known as jerejere and Tephrosia vogelili (wombwe) with encouraging results.

To achieve this, farmers are offered options such as mixed cropping and improved fallow agroforestry tree species,” said Dr Festus Akinnifesi, leader of the ICRAF-Malawi project located at Makoka Research Station in Zomba.

Felix Jumbe, an agriculturalist, observes that conventional agriculture technologies practiced by subsistence farmers are steadily depleting soil fertility, thereby reducing the potential yield on arable land.

“The use of fertilisers is slowly degrading the land. I believe there is a need to intensify the growing of trees for climate change mitigation and soil fertility boost,” he says in an interview.

For the successfulness of the practice, Jumbe says there is need to intensify awareness campaign on agroforestry by government and non-governmental organisations to ensure the practice is not only on a trial basis.

“To ensure farmers establish tree seeds, government should see to it that fertiliser and agroforestry go together,” Jumbe poses, adding that the combination of soil conservation, and agroforestry technologies and other initiatives can only act as a pathway to sustainable food security if well practiced.

Secretary for Agriculture Dr Erica Maganga says agroforestry technologies are really proving beneficial to farmers and as a result, the Ministry of Agriculture is now taking the lead in ensuring that the practice reaches many farmers in the next years.

But according to Maganga, this policy support from the government was lacking in the past and was one of the constraints to the adoption of agroforestry. “Things have now changed; policy intervention is now strong with the Ministry of Agriculture taking a proactive lead.”

According to reports published by ICRAF, over 4,000,000 small scale farmers had benefitted from agroforestry innovations by the year 2006 and two million by the year 2010.

As Kamoto observes, agroforestry might be the answer, provided the government continues to support the concept and farmers embrace it. ”Give me enough rainfall and you can rest assured the Gliricidia trees in my garden will do all the tricks to starve off hunger in my home,” concludes Kamoto.

If Malawi continues with this impressive interest in agroforestry, the country will not only become a major food producer in the region, but a model for other countries where the practice is taking place.

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