Saidi taking care of the seedlings in the nursery/Photo by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

Malawi: Rural Farmers Embrace Winter Cropping Along River And Stream To Improve Crop Yield

In Malawi, winter cropping along river and stream has tremendously improved lives of many rural farmers by making their household food secure while at the same time enabling them to earn money from their business.

By Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

Amin Saidi, 37, is a smallholder farmer from Makata area in Blantyre of rural Malawi where smallholder agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s food basket and makes about 60 percent contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

During the rainy season, Saidi grows various crops like maize and legumes, which are for his household consumption. In the winter season, he takes advantage of a small-scale irrigation farming along Mudi stream, which passes through his village. On these plots along the stream, he grows vegetables like tomatoes, onions, cabbages, and pepper, which he mostly sells to earn money. The extra income he earns from the sales is invested in the upkeep of his family and to meet other needs in his business.

“Since I did not go far with my education, I cannot find a well-paying job in town, so I ventured into farming to earn a living for myself and my family. I grow maize and other crops like sorghum, pigeon peas and groundnuts during the rainy season, which is mostly for household use, but in the winter season, I grow mostly vegetables which are largely sold to earn some money,” said Saidi.

He explained that he has managed to buy iron sheets to roof his previous grass-thatched house, a thing he could not have managed if he was not doing winter cropping. He hopes to buy a motorcycle after selling his vegetables during the next farming season. A motorcycle would enable him to gain access to markets beyond his village.

“I want to buy a motorcycle so that it addresses the mobility challenges for me and my family since it costs money to travel to and from town,” he explained.

Saidi is just one of many farmers in rural Malawi who put a lot of energy into winter and irrigated farming along various rivers and streams in the country in order to fight hunger and poverty.

Many interventions by government and non-state actors promote small-scale irrigation among rural farmers. According to recent statistics, irrigation farming now accounts for 10 percent of Malawi staple food annual production with irrigation taking 104,000 hectares. Most of it is used to cultivate maize, a staple food crop.

Almost all areas along rivers and streams in Malawi are being used for small-scale irrigation farming. Farmers who clear vegetation cover along river banks in order to make room for crop fields end up cutting down trees and shrubs, remove rocks and stones etc. Saidi says after clearing the land, they dig up a shallow well in the river, which is used as a water source for irrigation farming.

“Our rivers no longer have water throughout the year, so in order to find water, we dig up shallow wells of about two meters deep. Once this is done, we are assured of water availability throughout the winter cropping season, which lasts four months,” said Saidi.

While farmers like Saidi make money from irrigation farming, the backlash of this practice is that during raining season streams and rivers carry the debris and silt into Malawi’s biggest river, the Shire. The Shire is a source of potable water for the country’s two cities of Blantyre and Zomba and about 90 percent of Malawi’s electricity is generated on dams constructed along this river. With the increasing problem of siltation in the recent years, the river has been drying up, drastically affecting the generation of electricity.

Although Saidi lives in a rural area where he does not have electricity access, the problem of power outages also affects him. Sometimes his wife finds it difficult to get maize milled into flour, which is used to prepare Malawi’ s favorite dish of Nsima.

“Due to prolonged power outages, sometimes we are unable to cook our favorite dish of Nsima as we are unable to mill our maize into flour at the nearby maize mill because of power outages. This means if we don’t have alternative food at home, we are forced to buy rice from the shop, which is a bit expensive for my household of six people,” Saidi explained.

Asked if knows that the problem is being exacerbated by the tendency of farmers like him who cultivates along the river banks, he says he knows that he is part of the problem and would wish if he had an alternative source of income.

“Our Agriculture Extension Advisor has been teaching us on the negative effects of cultivating along river banks especially in the wake of climate change, but then we do not have any alternative source of income apart from farming, so we are forced to continue with this farming,” he said.

“In the absence of coordinated efforts by stakeholders, there are very few people who, on their own, are trying to replenish the depleted forest cover, and I’m such people,” he said.

Saidi hopes authorities will do more to assist local farmers with expertise and materials in order for them to fight negative effects of climate change in line with Sustainable Development Goal 15, which calls for signatory countries to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial, ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and therefore stopping biodiversity.

Deogracias Benjamin Kalima is a Malawian independent professional journalist. He dedicates most of his reporting on rural livelihoods and development. His works have been published by German online magazines Eufrika (www.eufrika.org ) and JournAfrica! (www.journafrica.de/en).

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