Independent Appeal: Malawi strikes organic gold

Peasant farmers are breaking the cycle of poverty by using ancient methods that could court Western supermarkets, says Basildon Peta

Poverty and penury often push people in Africa into innovation. So it was with Jailos Kanyanga. The story began when government agents arrived at Mr Kanyanga's compound in this central region of Malawi, and demanded that he immediately repay money he owed under a fertiliser credit scheme – with "no further excuses".

The sum involved was 3,750 kwacha (about £17) – an amount that it was unimaginable the poor subsistence farmer would have to hand. If he couldn't pay, the agents said, they would seize his 11 pigs – livestock Mr Kanyanga saw as ensuring the survival of his family of eight. He was lucky. The local pastor lent him the money. But it was then that Mr Kanyanga resolved he could not allow himself to fall into such peril again.

"I decided the only way out was to resort to the methods of growing crops using the composts that we were taught in the old days, when we didn't know fertilisers," he says. He gave up expensive chemicals and went back to the organic ways of his father and grandfather.

He began to produce several types of traditional compost. First he dug a pit a metre wide and two metres long. He filled it with the bits of plants left over after harvest, layered with manure and ashes from different types of wood. He then covered the lot, as his forefathers had done, with soil dug from ant-hills. He watered the pit repeatedly until it became a thick rich humus suitable for use in the fields. Then he made a liquid fertiliser by mixing fresh animal dung with water and covering it with a sack.

What had started as a last-throw strategy has turned into an extraordinary success. So much so that hundreds of farmers in the area have now copied his approach.

A self-help club which Mr Kanyanga formed with 17 local families on about half an acre of land has burgeoned into the Lupangwe Organic Manure Demonstration Farm and is providing training in organic farming to more than 700 peasant farmers. It has become partner of a wider Malawi Organic Growers Association (Moga), which is supported by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

One of those now under Mr Kanyanga's tutelage is Grayston Bvundikilane, a 61-year-old with six children. Like many local farmers, Mr Bvundikilane is now achieving a greater yield. "Last year I got eight bags of maize from my half-acre plot, compared to the three bags I harvested the year before," he said. He has kept four bags for food, so his family are eating better than before. But he also had four bags for sale.

Another of the organic farmers, Heinrich Chitengo, 38, says organic farming has transformed his life and those of his three children. He now owns a bed, a television set and a bicycle from the proceeds of organic farming. "I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I could own these assets," he says.

Sixty-year-old Gladys Kadzive was widowed 14 years ago and left with eight children to look after. Because she couldn't afford chemical fertilisers her only option, she thought, was to hire herself out to work on other people's fields. She earned such a pittance that her children were at risk of severe malnutrition and she was forced to pick just the four brightest to go on to secondary school. Organic farming has changed her life dramatically. "I get increased yields and enough food for both subsistence and for sale," she says.

Now the Lupangwe group has expanded from organic fertiliser into manufacturing natural pesticides. Leaves from two species of local tree are dried and pounded into a powder. This is applied to harvested maize to kill weevils and other pests which attack maize in storage silos.

And Mr Kanyanga has expanded his circle of influence, providing training over the years to a further 157 agricultural clubs in Malawi, each with about 20 to 30 members. It is with the next stage that the expertise of outside organisations such as VSO is vital. The organisation is supporting Moga with technical support, including production and marketing advice.

The project also illustrates one of the big changes in VSO's skill-share programme in recent years. VSO was originally devised to give young British school-leavers experience of working with grassroots communities in the developing world. In recent years it has shifted its emphasis so that the average age of its volunteers is now 42, and only those with specific skills are sent out. A quarter of its volunteers do not come from the UK but are sent from one developing country to another to share particular expertise.

Fred Kugonza is one such. The 35-year-old VSO volunteer is from Uganda. He has been seconded to Moga to help it meet international standards for organic farming so that its products can find a market in wealthy countries. "Organic farming is sustainable and preserves nature," he told me. "It's cheap, it ensures recycling and sustainable development. I wish donors would pour resources into organic farming."

Today there are around 20,000 organic farmers in Malawi. Yet this is a modest figure in a country of 12 million people, 85 per cent of whom are engaged in subsistence farming on plots with an average size of half an acre per typical family of six. Many of these farmers still rely on artificial fertilisers, available under a government scheme which provides a subsidy for 92 per cent of the price. This government fertiliser programme is aimed at transforming Malawi's agricultural economy, and some politicians claim it has allowed the country to become a net exporter of maize over the past few years.

However Stanley Chidaya, of Moga, is highly sceptical of all such statistics. "We are not food-sufficient yet, but maybe just secure," he says. "There is still hunger in many other regions of this country." And even though the farmer is required to pay only around 200 kwacha (about £1) for a 50kg bag of fertiliser, that is more than many can afford in a country where most people live on less than 70 pence a day.

There are other problems with the national fertiliser scheme. It is targeted at fewer than half the families in Malawi. It has also been riddled with corruption, with government officials responsible for distribution, at times creating villages where none exist in order to pocket the proceeds.

Steve Morris, VSO's food security programme manager in Malawi, warns that since fertiliser prices have tripled, donor nations are becoming increasingly lethargic about funding the subsidy programme.

The last word should go to that pioneer Jailos Kanyanga. He has seen how organic farming has transformed lives in those communities in which it is practised. And he believes that success can be spread throughout his nation so that collectives of peasant farmers there can end up selling to international retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury.

That way, he says, Malawi – that small country known as the heart of the continent – could with time be transformed "into the Switzerland of Africa".

Suggested Topics
News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes