Food security has always been difficult in Malawi, with floods and deforestation and an increasing population on a limited amount of sub-Saharan land. This last year has been increasingly difficult, however. Oil prices have increased three times and flour prices are double, so in the last few months the price of bread has increased by 30% and there are limits to how much sugar someone can buy at the store at any given time. Everyone knows that the price will go up by the time they go to buy more. And as we drive by fields this harvest season, we can see that the maize crops will not be great this year. There were less rains in December, and many people lost any crops planted in November. They had to replant in January, but then the rains stopped in April. So the maize we see now is dry and the cobs are few. We know that this does not bode well for the multitude of the population which is subsistence farmers.
But even with all this, we have a story of hope breaking through. The community of Mngwangwa formed a community garden group and tried a new type of farming this year, a farming method which used natural ground covers to lock in the moisture during dry times. The field planted by the community group didn’t need to be replanted, and the stalks grew high so early in the year that the chiefs took notice. The group worked together to make their own fertilizer using methods they learned in trainings from the previous year. The locally made fertilizer was more than ten times cheaper than the fertilizer available for purchase, and helped the filed grow so well that even the agricultural trainer didn’t believe that there was no extra fertilizer surreptitiously applied.
One pastor was impressed by the height of the maize, but said that you can never tell how good a crop will be until it is time to harvest. So we were waiting to hear how the harvest finished this year. Finally, Thokozani told us: She harvested three times as much from the community field this year as she harvested from the same amount of land last year. And last year was a good harvest year, compared to this year which is expected to be poor. But more importantly, she spent ten times less on her crop this year, because she didn’t need to purchase expensive fertilizer or hire someone to till the fields. We were thrilled to hear that things had turned out well for the group on their first year of farming in a new way. We have heard that sometimes it takes years for new farming methods to produce improved crops. So it is unexpectedly wonderful that this year went so well. Thoko says she wished that they had dedicated more of their fields to this new method.
Because the community field was able to harvest early, there was more food in the community at the peak of this year’s long hunger season. Thoko was previously concerned how the church could feed children and volunteers when last year’s maize ran out, and was considering buying at a high price when food was scarce. Instead, the community is able to use a large supply of fresh maize and it is available just when the other food available is at its lowest. Because of the new farming technique, they had 715 pounds of maize available, enough to get the community through the end of the hunger season. Last year, they spent $61 and harvested 275 bags of maize. This year, they spent less than one third that amount and produced almost three times as much. We are hoping that this is the beginning of improved food security during an otherwise difficult year.