Stanley Gawanani may be the first smallholder farmer in his village to reap fourfold from his half-hectare groundnut plot squeezed between extensive maize and tobacco fields.
But he will not be the last.
This is the second time he has grown groundnuts on the plot which, he recalls, only managed to give his family of nine less than 400 kilogrammes of the legume rich in healthful fats, protein and fibre.
The previous growing season, the yield increased fourfold.
And his small field has become the centre of attention among other farmers who are searching for ways of getting the most out of declining farmland.
“It is interesting how much we still seem not to know about farming—something we have been doing all our lives,” Gawanani says as he pulls up small weeds from his garden in Bokosa Village, Traditional Authority Chakhaza in Dowa.
The small-scale farmer, whose family’s production has largely been subsistent with low input and output levels, brags that his life is taking a progressing turn since he adopted new practices on his small groundnut field.
“Last year, from the yield, we made enough money to pay for our children’s schools fees. We also bought goats and pigs which we are rearing,” Gawanani narrates as his wife, standing on the edge of the field, nods in agreement.
The plot, which is along one of the numerous footpaths cutting through his verdant village, has quietly become a demonstration centre for several farmers.
They stop by, admire the crops with their blossoming golden yellow flowers, and ask him a few questions if they find him tending the legumes whose mild nutty flavour can be rather scrumptious.
“Traditionally, we plant in one row per ridge. In this new approach, we are advised to plant in two rows. We are also applying fertiliser, inoculants and chemicals.
“Such care has always looked very secondary in groundnut production. But now, the results are there for all to see,” Gawanani explains.
He is among at least 6,000 farmers, who are working on over 5,000 hectares of land in the research project of groundnuts and soybean which Pyxus Agriculture Malawi is undertaking.
This year, the farmers, supported with inputs to improve their production, hope to produce 6,000 tonnes of groundnuts before scaling up to 50,000 in five years.
“We have to ensure that we give farmers good seed and they follow the right agronomic practices. Pyxus Agriculture does not want to be a commodity trader but to get into value addition, so the journey is long,” said the firm’s Managing Director Ronald Ngwira during a tour of groundnut and soybean demonstration fields at Mpale in Madisi Extension Planning Area.
Ngwira sees Malawi turning into one of the largest producers of groundnut seed on the continent once value chain investments, which include a multibillion kwacha legume processing plant, are completed.
Such investments, Ngwira says, will ensure the research that is currently being conducted on how to optimally produce the legumes, is worthwhile and reforms groundnut production.
“Groundnuts are high-value crops but for you to get the product you are looking for, you need to ensure farmers produce the right quality and quantity. We are working on that,” he explains.
The potential that Gawanani’s groundnuts field has already shown is encouraging Ngwira and experts at the Department of Agriculture Research Services who envision a nation, whose exploration of alternative crops in the face of threats to tobacco production, make sense.
Ngwira is particularly enthralled by the prospect of farmers utilising the small pieces of land at their disposal to maximise production.
“We need to look at potentially high-yielding crops since land is a limiting factor for smallholder farmers. They should move from one tonne a hectare to three or four tonnes a hectare. They should be able to make decent money,” he says.
Minister of Agriculture, Lobin Lowe, holds with the production system.
He finds the extensive engagement of farmers and the test of various varieties in different climates across the country an advanced venture.
“It is not easy for a commercial investor like Pyxus Agriculture to invest in research. What they are doing is essentially what my ministry was supposed to be doing. As such, it is a huge relief to us,” Lowe says.
He is confident that if smallholder farmers sufficiently get the right assistance in their production, agriculture would significantly turn around their household economies.
“On our part, we will be exploring ways of ensuring that these productive ventures are supported. Farmers often fail to make profits due to lack of markets. Now that the varieties that are being tried are said to have available markets, the farmer will obviously benefit,” Lowe states.
Candida Nakhumwa, Executive Director of Agricultural Transformation Initiative (Malawi), a firm that supports alternatives to over-reliance on tobacco production, also backs the switch from old legume varieties to improved ones.
Nakhumwa feels bad seed should be thrust to the periphery as Malawi seeks to diversify and increase agriculture production.
“Even if farmers follow the right agriculture practices, bad varieties and seed cannot produce good yields. Now, these trials will eventually give farmers wide choices,” she says.
The agriculture economics expert further looks at the link between what farmers produce and what buyers seek as an important element in marketing.
She has seen farmers pulling out all the stops in their crop production only to have their harvests rejected by buyers who are looking for something else.
At least, the varieties that Pyxus Agriculture is trying are those desired by foreign importers, according to Ngwira.
Gawanani finds a lot of confidence in such sentiments and is already seeking more farmland on which he intends to grow more groundnuts—a crop also said to be an excellent plant-based source of protein and high in vitamins and minerals.
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