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Winter cropping and conservation agriculture : a solution to drought in Malawi

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It is a known fact that climate change has brought undesirable effects on human life than was anticipated. The agriculture sector is heavily affected just as it has also contributed to the change. According to Climate Institute climate change has resulted in a variety of impacts on agriculture such as: a shift in climate and agricultural zones towards the poles; change in production patterns due to higher temperatures; in some cases, a boost in agricultural productivity due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; changing precipitation patterns; and increased vulnerability of the landless and the poor.

Malawi is not spared from these effects. Changing precipitation patterns and production patterns due to higher temperatures have become common in recent years. Farmers relying on rain-fed agriculture, both large and small-scale, are no longer yielding the required quantities from their fields despite providing all the necessary inputs for their crops. Dependence on rainfall has become unreliable.

While there are such challenges with production, the demand for food continues to increase every passing year. There is need to produce more. The population continues to grow, increasing the demand for food and other resources. In 2014, the Malawi population was at around 17 million and the world population pegged at around 7.2 billion in the same year from around 6.1 billion in the year 2000 (World Bank). The growth is significant.

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Such rise in population is a concern for the world. Change in rainfall patterns makes it even difficult to plan for and produce the required food quantities especially among smallholder farmers. With focus on smallholder farmers, who produce about 80 percent of Malawi’s food and 20 percent of agricultural exports, the need for climate change adaptation measures has become more necessary to ensure farmers continue to produce for their own food security and that of the growing population.

Winter cropping

One such adaptation measure is use of residual moisture and irrigation (winter cropping) coupled with ground cover methods. With focus on the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association (Nasfam), the largest smallholder farmers organisation in Malawi, winter cropping together with soil cover has proved to be a viable solution to smallholder farmers. The methods have empowered farmers to become more resilient to climatic shocks.

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In 2015, a year in which most parts of the country were affected by floods and dry spells, some of the Nasfam members were equally affected by these climatic shocks and it threatened their livelihood and productivity. Some farmers however, rose above the shocks. They immediately engaged into winter cropping the moment they noticed poor performance of crops in their rain-fed gardens.

Mulanje, Zomba, Balaka, Ntcheu, Mangochi, Lilongwe, Ntchisi, Mchinji, Nkhota-kota, Rumphi and Karonga were some of the districts affected by drought and floods in the last season.

Jonathan Nyirenda of Rumphi district is one of the farmers who lost his rain-fed crop field to drought in February 2015. He lost his 1.5 acres of maize field to drought after applying all the necessary inputs including the expensive chemical fertilizer.

Said Jonathan, “My entire field wilted after a prolonged drought in February. I lost hope, but thanks to winter cropping initiative by Nasfam, my household was saved.

“After noticing the drought, Nasfam urged us to immediately turn our attention to irrigation knowing that we would not get anything from the rain-fed fields. The crops had dried up at a critical stage.

“We then organised ourselves into groups and we received a start-up capital of maize seed, a pump, and tobacco manure pellets with which I started my winter cropping along Mhuju River.”

With the initiative, Jonathan and his household were saved from the hunger which affected many Malawians from 2015 through early 2016. He managed to yield at least 18 bags of maize. According to Nyirenda, the harvest became handy as it enabled him feed a household of 10 and other relations as he waited for the 2015/16 harvest.

“Without this intervention it would be difficult to feed such a family. My household is food secure for now until the next harvest. Looking at the benefits I got from the practice, I have already started preparations for 2016 winter cropping,” added Jonathan.

With the recent price range for maize (K15, 000 and above), irrigation farming has helped Jonathan save about K270, 000 which he needed to spend on maize purchase alone for the 18 bags without which his family could starve.

Many other farmers from Namwera, Lilongwe, Balaka, Ntchisi and others also got notable harvest ranging from 5-12 bags through winter cropping to sustain them during the lean period.

The outcome from the initiative has shown that winter cropping plus ground cover can be a reliable solution to food shortages that Malawi continues to experience yearly in recent times. The initiative did not only help the individual farmers, but it also contributed the much needed maize to the national food basket reducing the burden by government to import food for its citizens.

Conservation agriculture

According to a Nasfam website, the onset of first rains in Malawi has generally become late in recent years, the distribution of rainfall within the year has also become erratic and the frequency of drought occurrence has increased. This increased variability and unpredictability of rainfall is making adaptation and mitigation a growing challenge from year to year, and is impacting on smallholder productivity and yields.

As part of the solution to the problem, the organisation is also promoting use of Conservation Agriculture methods. Given the increasing impact of climate change and environmental degradation on smallholder farming, Nasfam is promoting the use of conservation agriculture approaches as sustainable and organic ways to increase productivity. It involves use of minimum tillage, maximum soil cover, crop rotation and multi-cropping to prevent water and nutrient loss.

According to the website, production and use of organic compost from crop and vegetable waste helps to bind the soil, reducing soil erosion, and reduces dependence on expensive inorganic fertiliser. Conservation Agriculture techniques being promoted are low-cost and low-input, making them both accessible and appropriate to all smallholders, and in particular vulnerable households and those directly impacted by HIV and Aids as they are the most affected in times of drought and hunger.

With focus on ground cover method of conservation farming, the practice helps control water loss through evaporation and run-off, thereby allowing the crop to utilize the available water fully. In addition, the practice helps control weed germination and growth, giving farmers more time to attend to other important economic activities as opposed to weeding. More importantly, continuous use of the method in the same field helps improve soil fertility and soil texture as residues decompose.

Conclusion

With the current recurring drought effects and hunger situation in some parts of the country, coupled with lack of mechanised irrigation equipment, this is the right time for farmers, close to water sources, to consider engaging into winter cropping using the available simple irrigation tools and adopt one of the sustainable conservation agriculture techniques to ensure they produce enough for food and business.

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