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Natural high: How permaculture is rescuing farmers from poverty in Malawi

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This May, Ed Ayton from organic grocers Abel & Cole, saw first-hand how a lesson in organic farming is improving the lives of some of the poorest farmers in Africa, when he volunteered with the Kusamala Institute in Malawi.

Ed Ayton 22 July 2019

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It’s 8am Monday morning, and I’m quietly promising myself I’ll start every day like this when I get back to the UK. It seems the entire village of Mulanda has come out to greet us with songs, smiles and waves, and as we step off the bus and straight into the legendary warm greeting Africa is famed for, I suddenly realise why, despite my best efforts, no-one had ever told me I was good at dancing. 

Arriving in Malawi in the middle of May, we were here to spend time with the Kusamala Institute, a Malawian-run NGO that establishes food security in some of the poorest rural communities in Africa. 

As well as a permaculture-training site and box scheme in the capital Lilongwe, Kusamala runs organic farming projects across Malawi, teaching farmers how to look after soil health, conserve water and diversify crops. 

Kusamala Institute in Malawi

Up to 86% of Malawi’s workforce work in the agricultural sector

With a history of famine, failed dictatorships and nefarious corporate interests, Malawi is a country still struggling to break out of developing status, and rapid population growth and an HIV epidemic are just some of the obstacles to progress. Synthetic fertilisers, hybrid seeds and the tobacco industry might have once played important roles in the green revolution that has fed Malawi since independence, but in the face of a rapidly changing climate and declining soil health its people are now looking to organic farming, permaculture and agroforestry as sustainable alternatives, with promising results. 

However, putting people back on their feet takes a holistic approach and the Mwana Alirenji Organic Farming Project not only aims to increase income and food security, it also assists with broader issues such as HIV, nutrition and hygiene. The project, which started in 2015, is funded entirely by the Hull-based family business which owns Abel & Cole, the William Jackson Food Group. Having worked for Abel & Cole for three years, I’ve heard a lot about the project and was keen to see for myself what the impact had been.

permaculture farming in Malawi
“​Out of a population of 19 million, 11 million Malawians are ‘subsistence’ farmers, who grow to feed their families but do not produce enough to trade”

Considering the rainy season had not long come to an end, it was surprising to see rivers and ponds almost dried up, and although the trees and ditches we passed were still relatively green, the surrounding fields were already just a sea of withering stalks. As we drove across the country it struck me just how much of the land was devoted to agriculture, particularly maize, a non-native plant that has become the most important staple crop in Africa. 

Out of a population of 19 million, 11 million Malawians are ‘subsistence’ farmers, who grow to feed their families but do not produce enough to trade. In some respects this makes them an ideal target for agribusiness to market high-yielding hybrids and cheap mineral fertilisers, but farmers attracted to the promise of bigger harvests have over time found their traditionally poor soils in worse shape than ever. Furthermore, without commercial revenue to buy new seeds or the increasing amounts of fertiliser required every year, farmers find themselves continually trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. It quickly became clear to me that the efforts of Kusamala couldn’t have come at a better time for Malawi.

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A familiar plant to many, comfrey has been liberally planted around the site as a green manure

Walking around Kusamala’s permaculture farm in Lilongwe, the first thing you notice is the sheer abundance of everything. In contrast to the silent rows of monoculture just the other side of the fence, the tumble of greenery inside is home to a multitude of insects, birds, and mammals, and the benefits they bring are obvious. From the bees and beetles busy pollinating the crops to the ants carrying off caterpillars to their nests, biodiversity is clearly welcome here. By night, the trees sing with crickets and the bushbabies stalking them. 

It’s easy to forget this is a functioning farm which the institute uses to teach farmers techniques such as how to make and use compost, or attract biological pest control, or select the best crops and save the seeds for next year. Keyhole-shaped beds spill over with legumes, gourds and mustard greens, and banana trees, grown by water points to stop pooling and mosquitoes, are heavy with fruit. The farm is so productive throughout the year that as well as selling honey and fruit trees, they run their own box scheme, delivering weekly boxes of fresh produce to the capital’s residents. The site is a shining example of what can be achieved in Malawi, in a relatively short time.

There have been many international efforts to help the country over the years, from the IMF’s project to plant eucalyptus trees to the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Each has left its mark, but positive, lasting impact has yet to be seen – eucalyptus trees are typically used for draining land, hardly suitable for sub-Saharan Africa, while the G8 initiatives have seen huge areas of land handed over to commercial investment, leaving the average subsistence farmer with less than half an acre. These failed efforts, and the corruption they tend to attract, might have led to a distrust of promises of development in Malawi, but as one of the new wave of home-grown initiatives popping up in poor communities around the world, Kusamala has been able to help thousands of farmers over the last decade. 

As we dug the canals, sealed the pipes and cemented the valves of a new irrigation system under the instruction of their project officers, I was amazed by the dedication and integrity of everyone involved. When Arthur Kondowe, the head of the Mwana Alirenji Project, took us to meet Emily, a farmer who trained with them two years ago, I also saw the results, and the very definition of sustainability, of their grassroots approach.

Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life. Empower his wife, and you involve his children too.

As she proudly showed us her pigs, Emily explained that until two years ago their manure was considered so worthless it was burned or buried. Once the project showed her the nutrients it provides to crops, bridging a gap in the knowledge that was once passed down through generations of farmers, she stopped using synthetic fertilisers. Now, after two years of establishing good composting, mulching and rotation systems, yields are beginning to outstrip even the best she could expect before going organic. Instead of relying on one annual harvest of maize, Emily now grows everything from cucumbers to roselle flowers, and, coupled with the nutrition advice she received, her family now eat a balanced diet. 

Where she once had to keep buying modern hybrid seeds, Emily can now save enough to grow year on year, establishing a breeding line perfectly suited for her land. Perhaps the most poignant example she recounted was when the project gave her three chickens. Within a year she had 47, selling some to buy rabbits and pigeons, diversifying her source of manure, nutrition and income. Two years later, and her children are flourishing in school. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life. Empower his wife, and you involve his children too.

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An example of soil before the Kusamala Project’s influence, where years monoculture have left agricultural land with a hard-pan surface that increases flooding

Although the areas we visited were not majorly affected by Cyclone Idai in March, this year nonetheless saw a heavier rainfall across the country than expected, which for many can be just as disastrous as no rains. A farming population like Malawi’s relies on predictable weather, and Emily was quick to point out how quickly things are changing. 

Up to 40% of Malawi’s budget is foreign aid, propping up fertiliser and seed subsidies for farmers – for a fraction of that cost Kusamala can train and equip those same farmers for a life of self-sufficiency. Malawi’s Green Revolution might have been a long time in the making, but as agricultural development in other African countries has yet to help many of the people it promised to, the grassroots approach of Kusamala might be the model that finally alleviates their poverty. 

As we returned to our irrigation project after visiting Emily, we heard the villagers in a chorus of celebration around the newly dug system, and working our way to the middle of the dancing found the cause of the festivities. The water was finally flowing, first just a creep, then a steady stream working its way through the network of canals. I remarked to Arthur how satisfying it must be to watch this process. He smiled. 

“It is the genesis of life,” he answered.

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