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.