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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future