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:

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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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