Is Malawi's 'green revolution' a model for Africa?

woman selling fruit at market Food is plentiful at Ekwendeni's street market

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The road side market in Ekwendeni, in Malawi's northern region, is bustling.

Piles of mangos, sacks of maize flour and large pots of peas and beans glisten in the afternoon sun. But six years ago it was a very different scene.

"When we had acute hunger, you wouldn't have found people selling peacefully like this. It shows that people are food secure. Supply has overtaken demand," says Edgar Bayani, a local agriculturalist who remembers when Malawi suffered severe food shortages.

He attributes today's bountiful food supply to a combination of good rains and the government subsidy programme.

'Ruining the soil'

The poorest farmers get 40% off the cost of fertilisers and seeds, as part of a scheme that has turned Malawi from begging bowl to bread basket.

Case study: Enoch Chione, farmer

Enoch Chione

I've improved my soil and my family is healthier. At the beginning our soil wasn't rich enough but since we've started planting legumes we grow a number of crops and we can grow maize without fertiliser. Before the project, people were running out of food in September after harvest in May. But now I can go for more than a year without having to buy food.

The problem with government subsidies is that you have 40 people in the village but the government only gives you 16 coupons. So there's nothing you can do. With this project everyone gets seeds and it doesn't cost you anything.

In 2005 Malawi had experienced six successive years of food shortages, but since subsidies were introduced in 2006, they have had back-to-back food surpluses.

But is it sustainable? Mr Bayani says not.

"The fertiliser itself ruins the soil fertility and soil structure. It changes the chemical constitution. And economically we can't sustain it because it's funded by donors."

Down the road from the market is Ekwendeni's hospital where Canadian researchers started a project called Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) to help local farmers grow more diverse crops, including legumes like soya, pigeon-pea and groundnut, a much-needed source of protein.

Natural fertilisation

In Malawi, the staple crop is maize. Traditionally the maize-flour dish, nsima, is eaten at every meal, so children lack sufficient protein.

The project distributes legume seeds and teaches farmers to plant them in between rows of maize and other grains like sorghum. The system is called intercropping.

After harvest, farmers eat, or sell, the legume peas and beans and put the excess leaves back into the soil as compost.

Case study: Deena Kapeeza

Deena Kapeeza

I run a shop selling farm inputs like fertiliser and seeds and I also do output marketing after the crops have been harvested. The poorest farmers are still relying on fertilisers, but a lot of people have started growing legumes as well to get manure.

What worries us most is the dependency syndrome. There'll be a time when the government says "Sorry there's no more money".

But Malawian agriculture has got potential because we have crops like soya beans and groundnuts that don't need fertiliser. I can see a bright future. I'd rather be marketing people's excess crop than selling fertiliser.

Intercropping offers an alternative and free source of fertilisation. Farmers still use chemical fertilisers, but only as a top-up and they return twice as much seed to the seed bank as they were given at the start of the season, so the project reaches more farmers every year.

Enoch Chione was one of the first farmers to start intercropping in Ekwendeni. He says it has liberated him from relying on government subsidies.

"I've got maize, millet, bananas and I'm keeping pigs now. I have enough for food and some to sell for the school fees. I have 11 children, four are at school."

Mr Chione is the village chief and says the biggest advantage of the system is that it reaches everyone, whereas government subsidies only reach the poorest half.

"All it needs is you to work hard and follow the project. I'm sure if it was spread around Malawi, Malawi can change."

Holistic approach

But major challenges persist.

Start Quote

I always argue that it will be a matter of generations - for those of us who live in urban areas our kids are asking for rice and Irish potatoes rather than nsima”

End Quote Professor Ephraim Chirwa University of Malawi

The road to Mr Chione's village is impassable in anything other than a 4x4. The heavy rainy-season showers have reduced it to a pot-holed track and it is 7km from the main road.

So Mr Chione is forced to sell his surplus maize to buyers - who come to his gate offering prices of up to 50% less than what he could get at market.

And the market for legumes is limited because of the Malawian preference for maize - a lot of people don't know how to cook anything else.

"A true Malawian who has been brought up the Malawian way says he hasn't eaten until he's had nsima. People's attitudes need to change so that they at least appreciate that when they eat rice or banana or anything, it's still food in the body," agriculturalist Edgar Bayani says.

So will farmers ever sacrifice maize in favour of intercropping legumes? Back in 2008 the Malawian government called on farmers to adopt intercropping - but when will it happen on a national scale?

"We need to find markets for legumes to provide an incentive," says Professor Ephraim Chirwa from the University of Malawi who is reviewing the subsidy programme.

"I always argue that it will be a matter of generations. For those of us who live in urban areas, our kids are asking for rice and Irish potatoes rather than nsima."

He also argues that Malawian farmers need to learn how to process their raw materials in order to be able to sell them at a higher price.

"It needs to be looked at holistically. That move away from maize has to go with industrial and infrastructure development."

You can hear a special edition of Radio 4's The World Tonight: Can Africa feed itself and feed the world? at 2200GMT on Friday 31st December or afterwards via iPlayer at the above link.

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