Aleya Mikayele has always struggled with low yields from her one-acre garden which lies astride a narrow footpath cutting through Chamgomo Village, Traditional Authority Bvumbwe in Thyolo.
Over the years, the harvest has been dwindling—a constant reminder to the 56-year-old farmer that she needed to do something to retain her farming’s lost glory.
“With the passing of years, the soil lost its fertility and the fertiliser that we have been applying to our crops has done little to improve the yield,” Mikayele says.
Much of Bvumbwe’s relatively craggy and bare stretches have crop fields that fail to produce to their maximum potential.
Agriculture production experts attribute the situation to changes in weather conditions, soil degradation and the prevalence of pests and diseases which were once atypical of the place.
Additionally, the experts posit that when trees and shrubs are cleared from a site, soil is further exposed to sunlight and the eroding effects of wind and water.
“It is important that new farming methods that address longstanding and emerging challenges to crop production are identified and deployed according to specific soil types,” agriculture extension expert Frazer Chirambo says.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN) cites soil and nutrients loss as being among the major impediments to a stable and sustained agricultural development in Malawi.
“They have historically affected the country but the high population growth, rapid deforestation, overgrazing and ploughing, combined with the impacts of climate change, such as temperature increases and changing precipitation patterns, are increasing the impact of these events that harm agricultural growth,” the UN agency says.
But for Mikayele, there is hope for better harvest beyond the current growing season because she is now practising modern methods of farming which trap water longer and keep gardens moist even during extended spells of sunlight.
She is also spreading maize stalks across her field which later decompose and provide manure for the next production.
“I have heard a lot about this kind of farming but I lacked the skills to employ it in my fields. I am also now collecting chicken droppings and applying them to my garden to improve the yield when combined with inorganic fertiliser,” the mother-of-six says.
She is among more than 5,000 farmers in Dwale Extension Planning Area (EPA), which covers Bvumbwe, who are moving from traditional agriculture production to modern methods which are billed to significantly improve their yields.
The farmers have been equipped with the skills through a private extension initiative facilitated by the African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (Afap) with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra).
A private extension officer linked by Afap to agro-dealer Agromix reaches out to them with practices that will allow them to reap more from what were all along being taken as very small crop fields.
To reach more farmers at once, the officer uses local extension personnel called Community Agribusiness Advisors (CAAs) who work with smaller groups of farmers.
“This ensures the extension services reach more people. We also drill the farmers in saving money for buying farm inputs and link them with Agromix so that there is a steady partnership and they have the inputs handy whenever they need them,” a private extension officer for Dwale EPA Chikumbutso Simbi, who works with 50 CAAs, says.
Most of the farmers in his jurisdiction charge that their crop harvests will never be the same.
In their groups, where they also save and lend money, they inspire each other to put in place all measures of ensuring they are ready for the rainy season.
“For instance, five groups of 20 farmers each which I work with have managed to mobilise up to K21 million which they intend to use for acquiring farm inputs,” a CAA in the EPA Eneles Kambwiri says.
Kambwiri is one of the 1,280 CAAs supported by Afap in the private extension model which also includes 22 agro-dealers working with 35 private extension workers, and three offtakers across the country.
Afap Malawi Programmes and Business Development Officer, Fiskani Nyondo, says the independent non-profit organisation strengthens the capacity of, coaches and mentors, agro-dealers for the adoption of the private extension and CAA model.
“Private extension officers, in turn, strengthen the capacity of CAAs and mentor them to create demand of inputs for agro-dealers and mobilise farmers to aggregate their produce for off-takers at a fee. There is structured coordination,” Nyondo says.
With farmers she works with vowing to push for improved yields, Kambwiri hopes her fee from their aggregation will also be higher.
In the meantime, she wants a structured market or an organised off-taker that will ensure the farmers are not ripped off.
“It is refreshing to hear from Agra officials that moving forward, they will be looking at how all farmers supported through their programmes and others have markets for their produce,” Kambwiri says.
She touts the private extension and CAA model as crucial in taking better farming practices to every part of the country and prays it should be scaled up to reach the majority of approximately 3.1 million smallholder farming families in Malawi.
Agra Malawi Country Manager Sophie Chitedze agrees that structured markets are crucial if farmers are to reap from their toil.
“At the end, when they sell their produce, they are able to acquire other household needs and continue participating in the village loans and savings associations,” Chitedze says.
She stresses that farming is business and that therefore farmers must benefit from their ventures.
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. Follow him on Twitter @aponje