Food Forests

All over the world forests are cleared to make way for development. New roads, car parks and maize fields make up our modern landscapes where once there were forests. Cities grow and forests dwindle. There are many who, like me, find this tragic. Forests are beautiful, spiritual places and to allow them to be replaced by car parks and shopping malls is heartbreaking.

The obsessive pursuit of economic growth means that such nostalgic sentimentality as I have displayed above is often viewed with cynicism. Economics have come to define our parameters for success and forests are judged accordingly. You could argue that the intrinsic value of a forest is more important than its economic value. For instance, in a single season one mature leafy tree produces enough oxygen to keep ten of us breathing and forests do far more than just provide us with oxygen.

Forests clean our soils by absorbing harmful pollutants and slow water runoff: flash flooding can be dramatically reduced by a forest or by planting trees; Great Britain take note! Trees are carbon sinks meaning that they store carbon as wood and not as a greenhouse gas. They clean the air by absorbing pollutants. They provide shade, a highly desirable trait here in Malawi. Trees act as windbreaks, hold soil in place to reduce erosion, pump water and minerals from deep underground, and so on and so forth.

Of course lots of people are already aware of the intrinsic value of standing forests and are working tirelessly on reforestation projects; indeed there are those who are convinced that the only way to save the planet is to plant trees. This can lead to a desperate approach to reforestation which seeks refuge in large numbers. The result is that we’re bombarded with startling statistics informing us that 500,000 trees have been planted here and an area the size of Wales (it’s always the size of Wales and I’ve never known why) has been felled over there.

So reforestation efforts are often about planting large numbers of trees. In Malawi this often entails planting vast numbers of aggressive and invasive eucalyptus or gmelina. These trees are actually able to kill other trees by poisoning the soil around them. Sometimes efforts branch out to include other more local trees; acacias and the like. There is a fundamental flaw in this approach, regardless of which tree is picked for these reforestation efforts. What we should be doing is planting forests, not trees. After all, this is what the word reforestation implies.

Forests are complex systems and cannot simply be re-established by planting large numbers of one tree. The complexity of forests is illustrated by the symbiotic relationships that exist within them. For example, Brazil nuts need a certain type of bee if they are to produce fruit. This bee needs a certain type of orchid and the orchid needs healthy soil. Such complexity exists in all forest systems. If you just plant the tree and pay no attention to the system, you don’t get any fruit.

Ideally, we should never have disturbed such fragile and complex systems but in many areas the damage has already been done. Our job then is to protect what is left and re-establish what has been destroyed, as best we can.

The basis of a forest is its soil. In one pinch of undisturbed forest soil you might find approximately one thousand million bacteria. These creatures are the life blood of the forests. Dead soil cannot produce a living forest. Roots of plants growing in undisturbed soils form links with soil microorganisms in a symbiotic relationship without which plants cannot thrive. Any successful reforestation effort should consider how best to re-establish the rich living organism that is healthy soil.

Another lesson that we can learn from nature in our reforestation attempts is one of succession. Nature does not replace a cleared area of forest with a single tree seedling as we might do. Rather it will use pioneering plants, starting with ground covers and closely followed by shrubs and small trees. The purpose of such species is to prepare the ground for the next stage by covering and protecting the soil, facilitating natural water and nutrient cycles and ultimately dying, to be replaced, in due course, by a full grown climax tree.

This system provides opportunities for diversity to thrive and for the soil to be enriched; many pioneering species take nitrogen from the air to store it in the soil. If you’re thinking that this sounds like an arduous and impractical process for humans to consider in their short lifetimes, think again. It should really be looked upon as an opportunity to grow a vast array of different species, and so of different crops.

By now I imagine you can see where I’m going with this, after all the title does provide something of a clue. Food Forests, an idea pioneered by permaculture, draw upon the examples provided by natural native forests and carefully incorporate non-aggressive exotic varieties. As the name implies the focus of a food forest is the production of food but let’s dig a little deeper.

Forests are roughly made up of seven layers: the canopy, lower canopy, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, groundcovers, rhizosphere (root crops) and a climbing layer (vines). Establishing a food forest means designing, planting, maintaining and protecting a highly diverse system with all the layers of a natural forest, encouraging multipurpose species. Planting a field of gmelina, for example, would involve just planting the climax layer. That is not a forest.

In essence what forests are about is diversity. A diverse system is healthier and more productive. Not more productive of one single crop on an economy of scale but more productive in overall benefits provided. Food forests emulate this diversity to create systems that provide all the services of a natural forest (building soil, regulating water resources etc…) but with more of a focus on crops which humans can make use of, while encouraging the system to thrive.

Rather than rows of the same tree as far as the eye can see, the result is a dense forest of mango trees, acacias, citrus trees, coconut palms, guavas, towering tamarinds and mahoganies. Climbing up many of these trees are passion fruit, air potato, loofa and shushu. Pigeon pea, cassava, the purple flowering tephrosia, hibiscus, blackjack, amaranth, basil and the big yellow flowers of the ringworm bush, occupy the shrub and herbaceous layers. Turmeric, arrow root and ginger grow in abundance. Aloe Vera grows here and there and cow pea, sweet potato, silverweed and watermelon crawl along the forest floor. The ground is strewn with a thick layer of decomposing leaves and grasses which will serve to build rich healthy soils and maintain that link with microorganisms.

The kind of forest I have described above is entirely possible. I would go further and say that it is our duty to provide such beautiful and plentiful systems for future generations. Food forests can go a long way to solving Malawi’s problems with malnutrition and hunger. In the example above, air potato is a carbohydrate which grows abundantly during Malawi’s hunger season. Pigeon pea and cow pea are great sources of protein. Papaya and moringa are rich sources of vitamin A. What’s more, many acacia trees are fantastic sources of firewood, which can be harvested without damaging the integrity of the trees, and mahogany is a highly desirable hardwood.

There are examples of success with such initiatives all over the world. Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert is a great place to start from the comfort of your armchair and YouTube. If you want to get out there and see some examples for yourself you could do worse than visiting Kusamala or Never Ending Food outside Lilongwe, Lukwe in the north, Panthunzi in the south, MOET on the road to Mangochi, Thanthwe in Monkey Bay or me in Kasankha Bay.

In absolutely no way is this mindless hippy idealism; a brush which has so often been used to tarnish permaculture’s image, sometimes with good reason. Of course it isn’t easy to establish food forests. Much care, dedication and attention is needed to protect young food forests from stubborn goats, ensure rainfall is used to its full potential and to build topsoil. It is also vital that the knowledge and understanding of food forests reaches those who need it most: rural farming communities.

The community I work with is beginning to embrace the idea and after just one year the results are startling. Just recently, at a community meeting, a gentleman announced that his little food forest had changed his life. His family, he said, had “been united by their love for their garden and their efforts to make it thrive.” An area which just last year produced nothing at all, is now home to over twenty edible trees and many other plants, including the prolific air potato, growing up a mango tree.

For centuries we have approached forests with brutality. Let us now view them with intelligence and compassion, as this gentleman has done. It isn’t too late for forests to make a comeback.

Baby Meets Passion Fruit

Baby meets Passion Fruit

Last week I watched a film by Geoff Lawton entitled “Food Forests” with five people from Kasankha village where we are working to establish sustainable and highly diversified agricultural systems. First off I should point out that there is no electricity in Kasankha so watching a film at all was a big treat for this group. I made banana bread and we sat down to watch our educational DVD.

Geoff Lawton, an Australian permaculture teacher, took us through how to establish a food forest. The reason I like this film is that it is very visual. It gave my Malawian friends an opportunity to see what food forests look like in a climate not too dissimilar to our own. The rich topsoil of the forest floor had people appropriately “ooing” and “aahing” which left me feeling very good about my decision to spend the morning indulging in a film rather than shovelling manure or planting a tree.

After the film we shared out the loaf of banana bread (which went down very well) and talked about what we had seen. Apart from the depth of beautiful dark soil, what really made its mark on the group was the sheer diversity of food on display. People were particularly curious about passion fruit, partly because I had a bowl of them sitting on my living room table and partly because we planted several hundred of them in the village last year. It turned out that no-one in the group had yet tasted passion fruit. Excited to see their reaction, I cut some up and handed them out to everyone.

They were all surprised by the initial sour taste and pulled faces best described as “biting into a lemon face”. After the initial shock passion fruit proved to be a big hit. One of the ladies had brought her 18-month old son with her. Throughout the film he had made generally disgruntled noises, occasionally challenging Mr. Lawton for the room’s attention, which I must confess made me a little irritable. It was all worth it to see the little tyke’s reaction to passion fruit. He absolutely loved it.

Whenever his mother moved the fruit away from his open mouth he yelled in protest and on several occasions decided that her method of spooning the juice into his mouth was simply not acceptable and downright inefficient. Instead he literally planted his face in the juicy fruit and stuck out his little tough to lap it up. Quite apart from being absolutely hilarious and adorable this little man was proving a valuable point. IMG_5286

Malawian children are often severely malnourished. Roughly 50% of children under-5 experience stunted growth. It crossed my mind that this little passion fruit fiend was making a statement. It was as if he was telling his mother: “Now we’re talking, this is what I need!” Passion fruit, indeed any fresh fruit, is full of micronutrients essential for healthy development. This episode came as an entertaining and very real reminder of the desperate need to diversify Malawian diets and give children the best possible start in life.

The Permaculture Fire is Spreading

The African Moringa and Permaculture Project (AMPP), has been working in Kasankha village in southern Malawi for the past five months. In our last entry we told you about the permaculture trainings which seven community members from Kasankha were delighted to attend at Kusamala in Lilongwe. Now let us follow these individuals back to their homes to see how they have fared.

Permaculture, wayaka moto! Permaculture wayaka moto! These are words of a now popular song in Kasankha Bay. The words means “the permaculture fire is spreading!” and so it is. Since seven individuals finished their permaculture trainings five months ago, permaculture in Kasankha village has not looked back. Despite the difficulties of setting up permaculture gardens in the intense tropical heat of the Malawian dry season, 34 gardens have already emerged. This from only seven people trained. What’s more, there are plans afoot to set up three commercial gardens, run by groups of local women, to supply a local lodge. Interest in establishing new gardens in the village far surpasses the project’s ability to meet it and in due course we will be looking for volunteers to come and help us!

To my mind, three gardens in particular stand out. Of those three, I have singled out one in particular which has become very dear to my heart. This is the garden of Nesta and her husband Enock (see photo below).

Nesta and Enock have been married for fifteen years now and it has often been tough. Food has not always been available for them and their four daughters and income has always been scarce. I was curious to find out how things have changed now that their permaculture garden is established and truly flourishing, so I asked them.

The response was one of unbridled joy and enthusiasm for a garden which has provided the family with income (they sell vegetables to their neighbours who are often to be seen walking into the garden saying odi odi mulli bwanji! mulindi tomato lero? – can I come in? Good day to you, do you have any tomatoes today?) and a source of diverse and nutritious food (the garden is home to over twenty different edible plants!). To my great delight their enthusiasm for the garden does not end there.

Nesta and Enock confessed to me that the garden has been a source of unity for the family. With a wistful look at his aubergines, Enock stated that if he does not find time to tend to his plants he feels sad and misses them. But above all, Nesta and Enock professed to have found in their permaculture garden a new shared love. This love for the plants that now surround their home has rekindled the fire of their love for each other. Truly then the permaculture fire is spreading!

The organisation’s stated vision is to help Malawians live happy and dignified lives free of malnutrition, hunger and poverty. Nowhere is the rapid success of the organisation more apparent than in Nesta and Enock’s garden, where such nightmares have been consigned to the past to be replaced by food, income and love. Love for the plants they tend with so much affection and care, and growing love for each other.

For me, their story gives me all the strength I need to keep working. Life in Africa is not always easy but nothing is more gratifying in this life than helping to bring joy to people who have truly known hard times. The organisation is grateful to all those who have generously donated so far and invites anyone who has donated to do so and help us keep spreading the fire of permaculture in the warm heart of Africa.

Courses Underway

In the past few weeks AMPP has been working in partnership with Kusamala ( to train apprentices in permaculture and bee-keeping. The Green Stars football team have now been trained in permaculture thanks to your generous donations and are beginning to put permaculture plans in place in their communities, with our ongoing help. Likewise a group of men and women from Kasankha Bay, where AMPP’s main project is based, have been trained in permaculture and two of them are currently taking part in a bee-keeping course.

Effectively what this means is that participants are being given knowledge that will enable them to radically rethink the way that they are producing food, in a country where hunger an malnutrition continue to be a serious problem. Our ongoing support will ensure that they have access to all the tools, seeds and further knowledge that they need to make a success of permaculture in their homes. Permaculture can radically transform people’s homes and lives by providing them with a wide range of different foods, in much higher quantities, with very few if any significant financial inputs.

As Nesta, one of our Kasankha apprentices put it: “Permaculture has opened my eyes and I am now confident that I will be able to provide my family with full food sovereignty”. AMPP will do everything it can to support Nesta and all our other apprentices as they pursue this goal but as Nesta went on to say, there are challenges ahead, not least that of doing something different in a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. “My biggest fear” she says “is that my neighbours will laugh at me and think me weird because of what I’m doing but it’s ok because I know that if we do this right, they will want to do it too!”

Indeed once the current permaculture designs have proved successful, and we are certain that they will, our plan is to continue expanding in the community as other households show interest. This has already happened without our even trying. Some neighbours have been so inspired by what we have done already that rather than laughing at people like Nesta they have been asking us when we can start work in their homes! Our long term goal is to create a permaculture community showcasing the full potential of permaculture at community level in Malawi.

AMPP is also working on developing markets for community produce and has been researching the potential of Moringa and baobab oil and powder, soap making, honey production as well as other bee derived produce, jams and vegetable production for the local tourist industry. So far so good as interest in our work and our products is high. However, in order to deliver consistent high quality products we need some initial financial backing. For instance right now we would struggle to provide our newly trained bee-keepers with hives, a frustrating situation to be in. With a little help from the general public we could do so much good and set up a system which will ensure financial as well as food sovereignty for some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world.

If you would like to help by making a donation go to:

Thank you in advance for your generosity.

The Green Stars

In January we made a crowdfunding video for the Permaculture football team, also known as the Green Stars of Lilongwe. The idea was to raise sufficient funds for all the players to do a permaculture course, buy some football equipment and flatten the football pitch in the village which was in dire condition. We raised all the money we needed and I promised updates as the project developed so here goes.

We are planning on holding the permaculture course next month, having spent some time discussing different elements of it with the players and working out what it is they are particularly interested in. The result is that we will focus on providing a solid introduction to permaculture over six days with three different teachers: Eston Mgala, Luwayo Biswick and Isaac Banda, specialists in permaculture ethics and principles, permaculture design and trees respectively. This will provide our players with a wide range of knowledge that will all be locally applicable and tailored to make sense to their own communities.

In terms of football equipment, the team have now got just about everything they need to be able to train and compete, taking pride in their team and their local area. It is our hope that people will sit up and take notice of the permaculture team as they turn out in their great kits and put on a good show. Football is central to village life and getting people talking about the permaculture football team will, we hope, inevitably get them talking and interested in permaculture itself!

The football pitch has proved a little complicated. In our attempts to put things right we discovered that the source of the problem starts higher up in the village where the soil is unprotected and eroded. The result is that during the rains water comes rushing down the the hill to the football pitch creating river beds smack down the middle of it. Obviously the problem needs to be targeted at the source, there would be no point flattening the football pitch for one season and then watching it disappear come the rain season. We are in talks with people in the area and the chief to work out a way to improve water management high up in the village, a worthy goal in itself, before moving on to the football pitch. For now we have set up a partnership with a local school, whereby we will look after and improve their football pitch and in return we can use it to train and play our home games. It is our hope that this will lead to opportunities to work with the school on permaculture projects and on teaching permaculture to the children. The headmaster is very keen for us to work together so the possibilities are definitely there.

That’s where things stand at the moment but we will keep you posted with further developments, particularly after the permaculture course. Follow us on twitter to get all the results from our pre-season friendlies. Our first game was a thriller which we ended up losing by 4 goals to 3. We’re confident that our first win will come this weekend!

Follow the Trees

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. In 1800 only 2% of us lived in urban areas. Many people live in cities because it is easier to find work or for the excitement of being part of something big and sharing it with thousands of diverse people. Cities often offer all sorts of entertainment from theatre to football matches and nightclubs as well as a great range of cultural diversity, so no wonder people flock to them.  Some cities have even conveniently tamed nature for us, putting it in handy little pockets where the trees go in straight lines, non of this scattered nonsense if you please, and the ponds are neatly lined with concrete. In London wildlife never gets more threatening than the occasional vexed pigeon or surprised mouse on the Central line platform of Tottenham Court Road.

In Malawi life is very different. For one thing the majority of Malawians don’t live in cities. Lilongwe, the country’s capital, has a population of under a million. Blantyre, it’s second biggest city, has a population of 3/4 of a million. Aside from these two cities there are two or three others with populations of no more than 200,000, notably Mangochi, the closest city to AMPP’s base camp in Kasankha Bay. The population of Malawi is estimated to be closing in on 16 million. If these statistics haven’t sent you to sleep you will be wondering where everyone else is. The answer is, everywhere. They are scattered all over the country. Roughly 13 million people are spread out over an area half the size of the United Kingdom making Malawi the most densely rurally populated country in Africa, and they share it with hippos, hyenas and crocs in an increasingly tense relationship.

Roughly 85% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas and about 80% of those are smallholder farmers. For decades now farming in Malawi has predominantly consisted of intense maize cultivation. To intensely cultivate maize it was, and largely is, seen as logical to get rid of almost all trees. In a country where 8 months of the year there is no rain  the soil is bound to get pretty baked by the sun, especially if shade is seen as superfluous. This leads to landscapes like the one you see below. When the rains come the soil is so compacted that it simply ups and leaves to go hang out with some rivers.

Now with a population spread out over the length and breadth of the countryside, most of the country looks like the above and top soil is largely consigned to nostalgia. The soil needs more and more fertilizers, chemical or otherwise, if it’s to yield anything decent and if the rains are anything but consistent, yields fail and famine alerts ensue. There are those who might say that this proves the efficiency of cities. If the population weren’t so spread out then they wouldn’t be doing so much damage to the environment. There are two major reasons why this is not the answer.



The first is to simply look at every other major city in Africa, with the exception of Cape Town perhaps. Nairobi’s problems with crime and violence are legendary and Lagos is no picnic. The slums in big cities all over the developing world are not a desirable way to go and you can be sure that if Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, were to rapidly urbanise, slums would spring up by the bucket load.

The other major reason why urbanisation is not the answer is that there’s a much more agreeable, cost effective and bordering on idyllic solution. Malawi’s climate, varying topography and ecosystems, make it a country where the most exquisite variety of foods and useful plants can be grown. Using permaculture and a countrywide reform of agricultural policy implemented to encourage agro-ecological techniques, villages that look like the above could very quickly look like the below. These scorched hells that yield nothing but carbohydrates and misery could be transformed into lush shady gardens where food is so abundant and diverse that all problems of malnutrition and food insecurity can be confined to youngsters evoking the silly mistakes of their forefathers with mirth and good humour as the country sets off on a new path of abundance and plenty. Doesn’t that sound lovely.

IMG_0164 (1)

These are not the musings of a deluded permaculture-hippy but facts expressed with jests because to do otherwise would be to commit my spirit to the most likely reality: things will get worse until famine hits the country hard. In 1992 Malawi had a population of 7 million. In 2002 there was a famine and close to a million people died. In 2013 the population is closing in on 16 million. That means that 10 million people in Malawi are between the ages of 0 and 20. Roughly 5 million of those are women. The birth rate is reported to be as high as 6 children per woman. Over the next 20 years if 5 million women have 6 children each, even allowing for high child mortality rates and low life expectancy, the country’s population could more than double. By 2050 the country is forecast to have a population of roughly 50 million. I can’t predict what the future holds but I can safely say that there is absolutely no way that this country could support that many people with the current agricultural policy and we can wave goodbye to the dwindling wildlife.

So there are hard choices to be made. The most likely thing is that the country will make the wrong ones and that famine and other disasters will ensue. Those of us who know that permaculture changes the face of this country, and of our planet, every day in ever growing areas, can have hope. But even for us it’s hard to hang on to hope when people seem so determined to follow the trees they have cut down and committed to oblivion rather than following living trees into a life of prosperity and abundance.

Famine and Aid

The last couple of weeks have been spent looking for land to set up the African Moringa and Permaculture Project (AMPP) headquarters. I found the spot and have embarked on the treacherous waters of land acquisition in Malawi. The plot I found has not been used for 35 years for anything other than occasionally baking some bricks. We are not displacing anyone or interrupting any human activity by setting up shop here. You would think then that the process would be simple and that maybe just maybe the arrival of an organisation whose motive it is to work with and for the local community, would be met with an overwhelming feeling of positivity and good cheer. This was not my overwhelming feeling.

Instead the phrase “give me money”, all too common in Malawi, was heard at every turn. For those who might read this and have not been to Malawi, I should qualify my obvious displeasure at hearing it again and again. This is a desperately poor country. Consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world by such organisations as the World Bank and the IMF. Many people might think that it is to be expected that people should beg but it was not always like this. When the civil war in Mozambique raged, refugees poured into Malawi and of course hot on their heals came the hordes of aid workers. Aid workers are generally compassionate and generous people. It was natural for them, when faced with poverty, to handout money and gifts left and right. It’s hard to begrudge them for doing so. And yet I do.

Many Malawians, particularly in rural areas, have now come to associate foreigners with handouts. This has lead to “give me money” almost entirely replacing “hello” in many areas. For someone like me who is setting up an organisation that will be based here and will give people the necessary skills and knowledge to provide for themselves for the long term, handouts are anathema. AMPP absolutely cannot start life in this community being viewed as the local cash cow. We want to restore people’s pride in their work and in their village, banishing the ghost of malnutrition and hunger to annals of history in the process.

But here’s the catch. People are hungry now. Not tomorrow or the next year, now. Telling them you will give them skills that could change their lives in the long term yields reactions ranging from mild enthusiasm to blank stares closely followed by “I cannot feed my family”. How do you refuse money to someone who cannot feed his family when you have been driving around spending a small fortune on fuel?

As a Londoner I am not unused to begging. It’s on Tv whenever savethechildren or oxfam come out with a new ad and we come across it in the streets occasionally too. My first thought in the first instance is to change channel or avert my eyes, it’s horrific but it’s also incredibly unfair to guilt trip me into reacting to it. In the streets of London when someone comes up to you and says “I need 50p to get home on the next bus, please help” my first thought is “No. He’s full of it and will probably spend it on booze.” Perhaps these reactions are unfair, I don’t know.

In Malawi it is very real, especially in person. But there’s another catch. Sometimes it isn’t. The family AMPP is buying land from said the same thing to me: “we need the money now, we have no food.” Fine, I said, I’ll pay you an advance now but cannot give you the whole amount until I have the paperwork assuring me that AMPP owns the land. This advance, all I had with me at the time, would have been enough to feed a family of four for ten days, by which time I would probably have paid the full amount for the land. Much to my surprise they said no. How then am I supposed to believe that they genuinely need the money for food now? How do I distinguish between those who desperately do need the money and those who are just using it as a line to real you in?

And then there’s the chief. We call the chief the Traditional Authority or TA, as a way to explain it to our western minds. I was told before my meeting that this was a good chief, compared to others and that I am lucky to be dealing with him. This so called “good chief” was present when people in the village asked me for money to feed their families. He was present also when a man asked me for money to mend his bike so that he could get back to his family. The chief said nothing and barely even looked at them. He then demanded enough money from me to feed a family of four for two weeks, just for his own lunch and to satisfy his ego. I got the distinct impression that the unspoken threat here was that if I didn’t do this he would not sign the papers selling AMPP the land. I paid him.

I don’t know what the correct behaviour is in all these cases or whether there even is an answer. The whole experience left me feeling awful and certain that I had done the wrong thing, yet utterly unsure as to what the right action was. I’ll keep going and, with luck and hard work, AMPP will successfully meet its goals by eradicating malnutrition and hunger in its area of influence. Maybe then I’ll have some answers to the questions posed by the experiences I have related here.

Permaculture in Malawi

The African Moringa and Permaculture Project (AMPP) is in its first few months as a registered NGO in Malawi. The idea of the project is to promote and teach permaculture with a particular focus on forest gardens (or food forests as they are known here) and Moringa Oleifera, a highly nutritious and useful tree. For those of you who may not know too much about Permaculture in Africa I shall endeavour to explain.

Malawians plant maize and little else as a result of years of government and international corporations’ food sovereignty policies which claimed to be putting an end to hunger by filling stomachs. If people have bellies full of maize then they’re not hungry. Logical I guess. Very often the chosen maize seed is a hybrid variety provided by international seed companies. Hybrid maize, when combined with pesticides and chemical fertilisers, generally produces higher yields than non-hybrid varieties and pests are all but wiped out. Companies like Monsanto, Panar etc… will tell you that this is why they encourage the use of hybrid seeds. Greater yields mean full bellies and more potential for selling cash crops. Everyone wants fewer pests. Makes sense.

Whenever you’re sold something that looks too good to be true make sure you read the small print. In this case the small print reads as follows:

1) “Hybrid seeds cannot be saved [saving seed means to keep seed from your harvest to plant it the following year and it enables farmers to be independent]. If you try to save hybrid seed it will do worse every year.”

The result of this first item of small print is that farmers become dependent on seed companies because they need to buy new seed every year. If they don’t, their harvest will dwindle. It also means that the genetic diversity of seeds being used is very small. If a new pest arrives, immune to the pesticides, as is happening more and more, the entire crop is liable to be wiped out because each plant is essentially a clone of the next. Hmm… not sure I like the sound of that. Lets keep going.

2) “The price of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is tied to international markets and is largely dependent on the global price of oil [which as we know is not very reliable].”

Item two of the small print means that more and more farmers cannot afford chemical fertilisers and pesticides but cannot abandon them either because of item three, read on.

3) “The systematic use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides will kill a large number of beneficial organisms in your soil. Coupled with the large scale mono-cropping of maize, which we sincerely encourage, this will lead to what one might refer to as ‘dead soils’. A little dramatic but essentially true.”

Aha… That doesn’t sound good but what does it mean exactly? Maize is an annual crop (you plant it every year) and is a heavy feeder (it eats up a lot of the soil fertility). In a natural system beneficial organisms in the earth will build soils by helping organic matter to decompose and adding essential nutrients. Fertilisers and pesticides which kill beneficial organisms and will artificially replace the nutrients which would otherwise build up naturally. This means that you cannot simply stop using fertilisers and expect your soil to do well. It’s dead, there’s nothing there for the plants to eat. You can start rebuilding it. Applying compost, manure, sheet mulching but this all takes time. A commodity that people simply do not have here. If you don’t plant your field then you have no food. Simple.

Mono-cropping on a large scale means cutting down trees, leading to this kind of landscape:


Trees also hold soil together. If the soil is left bare every year after the maize harvest and has no tree roots to hold it there then what’s to stop the rains washing the topsoil away into the rivers? Nothing. Especially when coupled with the wholesale burning of maize husks, dead plants and grasses. A tradition which used to be employed to scare animals out of the bush to kill them for meat. Now all they scare out of the bush are mice, and these they eat anyway. What a sad decline from hunting antelope.

Malawi has many rivers running through it and out of it. As a result people joke that her biggest export is her soil. Ha, how funny.

4) Maize is not nutritious. The way people prepare it traditionally, pounding it and drying it in the sun, will leave them with a substance that is about as nutritious as cardboard.

The result of item four is that people believe themselves fed but suffer from malnutrition. When their stomachs are not full of maize to the point of bursting they think that they haven’t eaten enough. Often times they believe that those trying to tell them otherwise simply aren’t able to eat that much maize and so are just strange.

5) “Essentially what you are doing by buying our seeds and planting the way we encourage you to do is accepting that you will always be a poor subsistence farmer and that we will keep making money out of your poverty.”

Right. Well point five is quite clear. Not sure I like the sound of all this. Looks like the definition of a scam to me, leading to a poverty trap.

Permaculture in Malawi is about changing this trend by:

1)Rebuilding soils little by little by teaching farmers to mulch their fields, use green manures (planting nitrogen fixing plants and tilling them into the soil to build them up), apply compost and manure and all the while produce food. Rebuilding soil cannot be done from one year to the next but as a healing process.

2) Planting trees to build soils naturally and to provide other sources of food. This country is blessed with potatoes that climb trees, highly nutritious local plants that grow as weeds, any number of trees that fix nitrogen and a climate that allows wonderful plants from all over the world to grow here.

3) Harnessing diversity to fill people’s stomachs with more than just maize, thus fighting malnutrition and creating opportunities for genuinely sustainable agri-businesses to develop.

The African Moringa and Permaculture Project wants to focus on trees. We want to have a food forest demonstration that incorporates a large diversity of trees, climbers and other plants. Well managed food forests can provide a diverse alternative to cleared mono-cropped land as a source of food and will naturally rebuild the soil. For agri-business, our focus will be on Moringa Oleifera in particular. The leaves can be eaten fresh or in powdered form and are highly nutritious.  The seeds can be pressed for oil which has similar properties to olive oil. It is great for the skin and can be used as a massage oil or to make soaps.

It’s as clear as day that Permaculture can transform this country for the better, help us to make it happen:

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A Cruel Sense of Humour

This is the tragic tale of Gusgus, an affectionate chick who deserved better. Gusgus was born one of eight. A sleepy, fluffy and chubby little guy, with white feathers, a brown speck on his head and a couple of black specks on his wings. His brothers and sisters resemble a regiment of miniature penguins, scurrying after their mother with eager beaks pecking at worms, with little regard for their own comfort or safety. Alongside his siblings Gusgus stands out like a flamingo amongst swans. His mother is a fierce looking Mama Morton, with jet black feathers and a tendency to puff up like a Turkey sensing Christmas, when a human approaches; a strange thing when one considers the luxury of her existence. But it is not for her defensive nature that she has earned my displeasure.

No sooner had Gusgus emerged from his egg that his own mother attacked him with beak and claw to finally leave him alone and abandoned in the dirt and rain. It was there that I discovered him, hanging on to life by a feather, his tiny wings hanging by his side, his head sitting on his chest, despairing at the cruelty of his fate.

I scooped him up at once, took him to my room and the warm comfort of my duvet. There I held him for hours cupped in my hands to keep him warm and to breath life back into his tiny body. Slowly but surely Gusgus gave signs of life. I made him drink aloe-water and eat a little. That night he stayed with me and I slept fitfully for fear that I might crush him. In the morning I was woken up by a weak sounding series of “cheep… cheep..cheeps” as Gusgus attempted to stand. He wobbled fearfully and rarely opened his eyes but it was certainly and improvement.

That day he tentatively began to eat. Peck, peck, sleep. Or should I say sleep, sleep, peck. He slept so much we came to believe that maybe Gusgus was narcoleptic, a thought that, I confess, amused us greatly. But, as the day went on Gusgus got stronger. That night he slept close to me once more. I had little alternative to keep him warm. This is Africa and where I am there are no heat lamps.

The following morning it was clear to see that Gusgus was close to making a full recovery, amazing considering his ordeal. We decided to see whether one of our other hens might want to adopt. He wasn’t having it. When I took him back to the chicken yards he refused to run after the other hens like his siblings did so eagerly. Instead he stayed at my feet refusing to move. When I moved he ran after me. When I moved further away, he closed his eyes and dropped his head as if to say “abandoned again…” Needless to say, I couldn’t leave him there, so I scooped him up to a chorus of “cheeps!!” and we headed off to find another solution.

It was clear that Gusgus couldn’t grow up thinking that he was going to turn in to a featherless giant with a hairy face. No, we had to find Gusgus a mother of a more avian disposition. So it was that a friend of mine suggested we slip him under one of her broody hens. It seemed desperate but then, we were desperate, so we gave it a shot. Imagine our surprise when my friend’s nervous looking hen eagerly adopted this little newcomer. She took him under her wing and kept him warm and Gusgus reveled in the coziness of it all!

What a great end this would make to Gusgus’ story. Alas, mother nature had other plans. So it was that as Gusgus ran out into the sunlight for the first time with his foster hen, a crow, well known agents of death, swooped down and abruptly ended his short and tumultuous life. Nature has a cruel and dark sense of humour.