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".

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