This is the first in a series of monthly updates from Chikumbutso Patson Kayira, a small-scale farmer in Malawi, documenting his experiences and the challenges he faces as he farms and harvests his land.
Introducing Mr Kayira
Please let me introduce myself. My name is Chikumbutso Patson Kayira. I am a man of 39 years of age. I have a wife, son and daughter. I am a small-scale farmer at my home near Zombwe, in Mzimba District in the northern region of Malawi. I hold a piece of land approximately two hectares.
I am also employed as a full-time housekeeper and cook at the Ministry of Agriculture guesthouse in Lunyangwa, about 30 miles away. Since my monthly gross salary is below 20,000 Malawi Kwacha ($60), I cannot fully support my family with this job. As a result, I farm each growing season.
In my field, I grow maize for my family and groundnuts for consumption and tobacco to sell. I rotate these crops to try to avoid pest and disease problems; the groundnuts help to improve the soil's fertility.
I usually finish preparing my field by October or November. I use a hand hoe to cut the weeds and gather these weeds and maize stalks into heaps and burn them. Because I don't earn enough to employ labourers, my wife, son, and I usually complete the work. Whenever I employ labourers then I have to pay them maize from last year's harvest, but this sometimes creates problems for my family by depleting our supply of food before harvesting time.
The 2008-2009 growing season was a good year to me. Our area had good rains and I grew high-yielding hybrid maize in a large part of my garden. Compared to local varieties, hybrid maize requires much fertiliser and good rain to succeed, and in this season a certain company issued us with a fertiliser loan.
As a result, I had enough maize to support my family throughout the year. I also had good yield of groundnuts. Some of the groundnuts and maize I had to sell for money, partly to repay my loan. Although I applied very little fertiliser, I had four bales of tobacco which were sold at the auction floors. This revenue allowed me to purchase some fertiliser for the next growing season. At that time a 50kg bag of fertiliser was being sold at MWK4,000 ($12), a price which many would have considered affordable.
Farming is a journey. Don't expect it to move smoothly! There are hills and rivers. Some of the current problems and challenges that I face include:
a) High cost of fertiliser: These costs of fertiliser are unpredictable and unaffordable to most of us Malawian farmers. A 50kg fertiliser bag was sold at MWK 5,000 ($15) in 2010. The same bag was available for MWK 7,500 ($23) in 2011. In November 2012, the same bag cost MWK 15,000 ($46). How can a farmer with a low income level withstand these changes? No doubt these changes are to lead many small-scale Malawian farmers into miserable poverty.
b) Climate change: In recent years we have received inadequate rains compared to the past three decades. Sometimes we experience very short period of rains. As a result streams and rivers quickly dry up. On the other hand, very heavy rains sometimes destroy crops, properties and lives.
c) Low prices for tobacco at the auction floors: The 2009-2010 growing season was a terrible year in terms of tobacco prices. 1kg of tobacco could fall below $0.05. Just imagine a farmer using all their resources to no avail. Because I lost my capital, these prices encouraged me not to grow tobacco in the 2010-2011 growing season.
Moving to modern methods
The high cost of fertiliser that I can't afford, and loss of fertility in the field due to erosion from heavy rains and leaching encouraged me to adopt more modern farming methods this year. The new practices, developed after sharing knowledge with my friend, are as follows:
a) Cropping system: I will intercrop maize with tephrosia since it can improve soil fertility. I plan to grow sorghum, finger millet and cassava in addition to my usual maize in case of inadequate rains. I will mix pigeon peas and bush beans with the sorghum and millet in order to improve soil nitrogen. I also plan to grow pumpkins amongst my crops to help protect the soil from erosion, and sunflowers for their nutritious seeds.
b) Tillage: On the flattest areas of my land, I will make permanent beds instead of preparing ridges. This will save labour in future years, and will increase the area of land that is cropped by reducing the area of land that is pathway.
c) Rotation: I will continue to rotate my crops to protect against pests and diseases, though these rotations will now be different due to the use of additional crops.
d) Other crops: I plan to plant some Msango msango trees through my fields which, in the long run, will improve the fertility of my soil. I will also plant these and vetiver grass along the river bank at the bottom of my field to try to prevent the soil eroding.
The rains are approaching and soon I will plant my field. Over this growing season I will write again to provide news on how my crops develop.
Zikomo kwambili, thank you for reading!
Chikumbutso Patson Kayira is a full-time housekeeper and cook at Malawi's Ministry of Agriculture guest house, and a small-scale farmer in the Mzimba district of northern Malawi.