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Sweetening up maize failure with potatoes

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The general situation on maize production has degenerated in the country over the past few years, worse this year and Joyce Matumbo of Kachikuni Village in the area of Traditional Authority (TA) Sawali in Balaka bears testimony to this.

“I normally harvest more than 15 bags of maize from my garden but this year I managed to get just three bags which have already been finished as I have a big family,” said Matumbo, 48.

Matumbo and millions of small scale farmers in Malawi and the Sub-Saharan region have fallen victim to the impact of weather.

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The 2015/16 El Niño condition, for instance, has been classified by experts as the strongest in years. Because of it, communities in most parts of the country experienced poor rains in the just-ended growing season resulting in failure of crops particularly maize, Malawi’s staple grain.

Yet, for Matumbo, not all is lost. She has a thriving half-acre of orange-flesh sweet potato (OFSP). She planted the crop as soon as it dawned on her that her maize crop would fail due to the erratic rains this year. Now, even without maize, she is able to hope.

“I expect to harvest more than seven bags of the sweet potato. It will be ready for harvesting and selling by end of June. I will use the proceeds to buy maize,” she said.

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The OFSP farming which Matumbo is practising was a direct response to the El Niño effects of a multi-year food security project called Njira (Pathways) which Project Concern International (PCI) is implementing in partnership with Emmanuel International (EI) and Agricane.

Wiscot Sapply, PCI agriculture coordinator, says the food security situation of most farmers participating in Njira Project was affected in the last cultivation season primarily by the El Niño weather conditions.

El Niño is a well-known phenomenon affecting weather around the world and in Southern Africa, including Southern Region of Malawi, it caused severe drought that led to failure of many crops.

PCI reacted to this condition.

“We mobilised resources and acted quickly to assist the farming households to take advantage of the residual moisture following the heavy rains received towards the end of the rainy season and OFSP was the most suitable crop as it is a short maturing crop that provides reliable yield under a variety of growing conditions,” Sapply said.

He said OFSP is significantly more drought-tolerant than traditional maize. It has more flexible planting and harvesting times than that of grain crops.

In addition, it requires minimal inputs, which saves the farmers from cost of farm inputs in the wake of a diminishing buying power of the kwacha.

Ajibu Mustafa, 53, from Maliwata Village in TA Sawali, harvested almost nothing from his maize field this year.

“The heavens have been very hard on us this year but I have about a half-acre of OFSP from where I expect to harvest more than 10 bags. And since a bag is going at K7500 now, [by] the time I start harvesting it will surely have gone up and I will surely smile all the way to Admarc to buy maize,” said the father of seven.

Joanna Chigwede, PCI agriculture and livestock facilitator, said OFSP is rich in micronutrients particularly vitamin A.

“We distributed maize seed but drought wiped out the crop so we came in with OFSP as its leaves are rich in vitamins A and B as well as iron and protein. They can be cooked green in stews or used as livestock fodder and can also be mixed with other vegetables in home gardens,” Chigwede said.

She said potatoes have the potential to yield more food per hectare than rice or maize with root yields of up to 25 tonnes per hectare or more under good growing conditions in Malawi while a good maize yield in Balaka or Machinga would be three tonnes per hectare.

Thus, OFSP is staking its claim as an important food and cash crop for many Malawians in these districts.

According to the International Potato Center (CIP), OFSP can combat vitamin A deficiency in children and that only one-half cup of OFSP provides the vitamin-A requirement for a single child.

It says sweet potato in general is the third most important food crop in seven Eastern and Central African countries. It outranks cassava and maize and ranks 4th in importance in six Southern African countries.

For its production, it requires fewer inputs and less labour than other staple crops. It tolerates marginal growing conditions, such as dry spells or poor soil.

Sweet potato provides more edible energy per hectare per day than wheat, rice, or cassava, it says.

“Its ability to produce better yields in poor conditions with less labour makes sweet potato particularly suitable as a crop for households threatened by civil disorder, migration, or diseases such as Aids,” says IPC.

The organisation observes however that despite its high potential, sweet potato has remained largely untapped in the Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Average yields are 10 times lower among small-scale farmers than those seen among commercial growers with access to irrigation, fertilisers, and credit,” it says.

Victor Jaideni, 35, a lead farmer who supervises over 165 farmers in Maliwata Village, says many people in the area now appreciate the importance of OFSP such that they have grown over three hectares of sweet potato in dambos to avert hunger resulting from failure of maize crop.

Overall, the Njira Project has assisted 7,520 families with orange-fleshed sweet potato to reduce their risk of hunger and food insecurity.

The support consisted of 22,560 bundles of vines, with a mass of four kilogrammes each. Each household was getting three bundles, covering an estimated total of 1,128 hectares of land with a monetary value of K112 million (US$160,000).

It is estimated that the vines will yield about 22,560 metric tonnes of sweet potatoes.

Njira is a 5-year, USAID-funded project on improved food security and livelihoods. It is being implemented in Balaka and Machinga targeting 11 traditional authorities.

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