From a distance, Kanjedza Irrigation Scheme in Phalombe East looks like an abandoned, barren field which has endured decades of inactivity.
Lying on a treeless 70.1-hectare stretch that draws out into Nthowa and Mbeza villages, the scheme was once a lifeline of hundreds of households which, in desperate search of land to cultivate, flocked there with all hope that they would reap something from their sweat.
Today, a closer gaze at the piece of land, dominantly covered with dry brown grass, brings to light several activities taking place there.
And there is more that the farmers, who are once again augmenting their hope in what became a desolate project, expect to rise from the ruins.
“With time, water became scarce and by 2015, we could only manage to cultivate half of the land that we used to when the scheme started 10 years earlier,” says Village Head Mbeza whose subjects are among those that heavily relied on the scheme.
Here and there, sparse vegetable gardens are taking shape as confidence springs again among the 360 members of the Water Users Group (WUG) who have found optimism in the Agriculture Commercialisation (Agcom) Project which is rehabilitating the scheme after it was routed by Tropical Cyclone Idai in the 2018/19 rainy season.
“I expect that more people will join our group that benefits from the scheme because water scarcity will be history. There should be confidence in this land once again,” Mbeza adds with self-assurance.
As deep well drilling machines rumble on the field extracting water from hundreds of metres below the ground, Mbeza and other farmers like Lucy Pinifolo quietly mumble prayers that everything should be done quickly for their destitute families to smile again from their irrigation farms.
Pinifolo particularly glories in the feeling that she will be able to increase up to fivefold the plots on which she used to grow crops such as rice, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, onions and even maize.
“I now have a clear vision in my farming endeavours,” says the mother of five who believes that in their now-organised group she will be able to ward off vendors who often rush to rural areas like her village to rip farmers off.
When the little shallow wells on the field succumbed to the scorching heat of the Lake Chilwa Plain, Pinifolo thought that situation would recur for eternity—and even get to the point where no drop would be available.
“But the water is already flowing in abundance right now,” she says, pointing at the gush from where a machine is drilling a well which is one of the 13 points to supply water for the scheme.
Agcom Project’s Contingency Emergency Response Component (Cerc) is where the rehabilitation of the solar pump-based scheme by Fisd Limited Company, pegged at K529.5 million, is getting the funding.
After October, Pinifolo and other locals in villages surrounding the project are expected to start irrigating their crops with the water extracted from the boreholes that will be pumped into a reservoir before being directed into underground pipelines to the thirsty crops.
“Since we are also organised as a group, I am confident that it will be easy to find markets for the abundant harvests we will be realising,” Pinifolo says as she stares at the lush vegetables on a small plot that she expects to expand after the waters begins to surge all over the place.
She painfully recalls that vendors often took advantage of the fragmented farming communities to offer prices which they chose.
It is a situation Agcom National Coordinator Teddie Nakhumwa also says with conviction will be sufficiently tucked away into the mists of time.
“We want these farmers to be united in cooperatives so that they can approach the markets as a group. In such a way, it becomes easy for them to bargain for better prices,” Nakhumwa says.
For years, commercialising agriculture at the levels of small-and medium-scale farmers has failed to produce sustainable results and Nakhumwa believes that finally a solution has been found.
He reckons that the model of farmers being in organised groups and having formal agreements with buyers of their produce has worked in Latin American countries that implemented it.
“That is why the government of Malawi asked for a $95-million loan from the World Bank to commercialise agriculture from the very basic level.
“The rehabilitation of schemes follows the declaration of a state of disaster by the President after the 2018/19 Cyclone Idai and a subsequent request from the World Bank that part of the money should be channelled to raising the damaged schemes,” Nakhumwa says.
Kanjedza Irrigation Scheme is among the 20 badly damaged similar projects set to be revived after the devastating floods that dumped silt on the fields.
Nakhumwa’s persistent plea to the farmers that are set to benefit from the rehabilitations is that they should own the projects.
“They should be more organised than before. Posterity must judge them fairly for utilising the loan in a productive way. Our children and grandchildren will be repaying the loan and they must see its fruits,” he says.
And to facilitate the transportation of farm inputs and produce to and from the revamped crop fields, Agcom is also repairing the schemes’ 6.3-kilometre access road which was ruined by the tropical cyclone.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje