I’ve just returned from a brief trip to Malawi (which is why the previous post was late onto the site) to visit some of the communities being supported by my part-time corporate employer (WJFG) through a development project partnering with two in-country NGOs (one of which is headquartered in the UK, and one in Malawi). It was as fascinating as you might imagine to see at first hand small-holder farmers operating in very hard conditions. I could write about it at great length, but I’ll be leaving that for another place and time (see below). The communities are poor and have little or no access to resources beyond their own muscle-power. The contrast in practices with the large-scale mechanised farming we’re used to seeing in Europe is striking.
In common with much of southern Africa, low rainfall is a significant limiting factor for many crops, and Malawi has suffered major food shortages in the past. That is exacerbated by recent rapid population growth and a decline in soil fertility. The country has suffered from widespread deforestation over the past few decades, which doesn’t help the situation in the rainy season. When rain does fall it tends to be heavy and soil run-off is a problem on slopes. Another impact of deforestation is a notable lack of birdlife in the countryside. The presence of birdsong in those areas where trees are still prevalent in the landscape serves as a stark reminder of the absence of birds elsewhere; there are other factors, but habitat looks to be very important. I was also surprised by the absence of wild flowers in the countryside, even though I was there at probably the best time of year for them. What impact that might have on pollinator populations was unclear from so short a visit, so I’m going to investigate further.
The project aims to give member farmers the necessary skills to operate a permaculture regime on their land, sparing the need to part with what little money they have to buy expensive inputs. Maize is a popular crop in the country, to the exclusion of much else, and it can be seen growing in small plots in the middle of the capital city as well as throughout rural areas. A key strand of the activity in the project is to introduce nitrogen-fixing crops and compost to help recover soil fertility. Although the farming practices are different in detail, at a top-line level there is much commonality with the challenges facing farmers and growers in the UK. Soil fertility, land-use change, water management and access to knowledge & funding are challenges for smallholder and broad-acre farms alike. I’ll be exploring this in more detail in a future paper, so watch this space for a link to wherever it gets published.
In case you’re wondering, I’m making a donation to the World Land Trust to offset the 4.3 tons of carbon from the flights!