20 September 2013

Malawi: A Small-Scale Farmer's Story in Malawi - Harvesting the Crops and Looking Ahead

This is the third and final in a series of posts 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.

The harvest of my three major crops - maize, tobacco and groundnuts - is complete. I grew rice for the first time this season and that harvest has also just finished. The maize harvest weighs 1,500 kg, compared to over 2,000 kg last season. My Groundnuts harvest this year is 250 kg and tobacco almost 400 kg.

We also harvested just under 200 kg of pumpkins, which grow among the maize crop. The lower maize yield this year is both due to the weather and to a lack of resources; there was a prolonged dry spell of almost a month and I had inadequate fertiliser, because of its very high price. In addition we had insufficient labour to maximise the yield on the area cultivated.

The dry spell caused much less damage where we used compost manure. Next season I plan to significantly expand the use of compost manure, as I think this will make the yields more reliable and less susceptible to drought. In addition, next season I will not burn my maize stover (the leaves and stalks of the maize) but will place it in the furrows.

I am preparing a nursery of "msangusangu" trees (Faidherbia albida), commonly known as fertiliser trees. Last season, my friend helped me financially to buy the fertiliser, but this one coming I will be relying on just my own resources, including income from this season's tobacco sales.

Tobacco Economics

Tobacco farming begins in the nursery, where seedlings are looked after for two months, before being transplanted outside. Once in the field, the tobacco requires careful weeding and large amounts of fertiliser, particularly if the soil is not rich. I grow burley tobacco, which means that after harvest it is air-dried in a shed.

After drying, I grade the tobacco according to leaf length and colour, paying attention to broken leaves as they are less desirable. The leaves are then put into bundles, called "ndidi", with around 20 leaves per bundle and then tied with the leaf of a local plant.

Finally, the tobacco is weighed and taken for baling. A normal bale of tobacco should weigh 100 kg. Ideally each bale will be made up of the same type and quality of tobacco.

Every bale should show the grower's registration number, and once at the auction floors the bales are given a sale date. The highest price this season is less than US$ 3 per kg and bad leaves could sell for below US$ 0.90 per kg. Some farmers end up losing money, due to the labour intensive and costly process of tobacco production.

This year, economic reforms have meant that tobacco growers have the opportunity to receive any earnings from their crop in US dollars. Unfortunately, as tobacco sales rose during the auction period, the value of the Malawi Kwacha (MWK) fell in comparison to the dollar, so farmers who accepted dollars have ended up with less MWK than they'd hoped for.

There have been improved relations between buyers and the government this year. This improved relationship helped set a minimum price, although, in my experience this minimum price is not taken seriously.

I produced just less than two bales of medium quality tobacco, meaning they fetched just over two dollars per kg. Even after selling my tobacco I do not feel financially stable.

The price of goods in shops and of farming resources are double what they were before the devaluation of the Kwacha. My daughter's school fees remain a big challenge. I had hoped to have enough money to pay for my son James to get a passport and travel to South Africa to find work, but this will be difficult.

Difficulties of subsistence farming

I cultivated some rice fields in Karonga district in the north of Malawi for the first time this year and the crop has been a success, partly because rice doesn't need as much fertiliser or labour as tobacco.

The land I grew my rice on are my uncle's fields and rent was MWK 7000 (US$ 20) in total. The combined cost of ploughing and planting was MWK 7000, hand weeding MWK 3000 and fertiliser MWK 6400. My wife did the harvesting with help from casual labourers, costing MWK 3000.

The whole process set us back MWK 26400 (US$ 80) and we harvested 300 kg. I will sell three quarters of the rice and hope to earn around MWK 90,000 (US$ 275) from it, which I will invest in next season's rice crop.

Living as a subsistence farming household is difficult; it is stressful and I worry about my family's future. This season's maize will only just be enough for my immediate family. However, according to our custom, families should receive visitors; in the process of visiting or receiving visitors (and indeed during many other communal activities) much maize is consumed. To be unable to provide ample maize is shameful.

Future Prospects

My great ambition is to further both my daughter's and my own education, as I see this as a way out of poverty. My biggest obstacle is, of course, the cost of education. I am 40 years old now, but last year I managed to pay the exam fees and gain my Secondary School Certificate of Education.

I am proud of passing this and now I pray to almighty God for opportunities to keep advancing further. My wife's ambition is to start a business trading in agricultural produce, such as maize, beans, groundnuts and rice, but she is also hampered by a lack of start-up funds.

I thank you for reading my blog and for taking an interest in the life of my family and I. My friend Edward Joy can forward to me any comments or questions that you may wish to write on the website. And please know that you are always most welcome to visit us in our village. We live near Ekwendeni, 20 km from Mzuzu. May God bless you.

Chikumbutso was speaking to Edward Joy. If you have any questions you would like Chikumbutso to answer, please comment below the article, let us know on twitter @thinkafricafeed, or contact editor@thinkafricapress.com.

Chikumbutso Patson Kayira is a full-time housekeeper and cook at a Ministry of Agriculture guesthouse outside Mzuzu in northern Malawi, and a small-scale farmer in nearby Mzimba district.

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