Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Irrigation Training

Irrigation allows a farmer to be productive year-round. This means that food production is less weather dependent, and more in the farmers own hands. Farmers who practice only rainy season planting must harvest their entire annual food requirement at one time. If the harvest is too little, better luck next year. But farmers who adopt irrigation can take their rainy season harvest as a starting point, adding grain, protein, and vegetables strategically to make it through the year with plenty of food on the table.

There are other techniques farmers use to stretch the rainy season harvest. They can sell products when the market price is higher, thereby having to sell less. They can practice better farming methods to increase overall yields. They can ration the harvest equally throughout the year to avoid total famine. Improving storage, processing, and cooking methods can boost efficiency. But irrigation has a multiplying effect on all of these strategies. 

More than 50 farmers have already been trained this year. Another class of over 100 are entering the training phase. The expected increase in yield should total more than 30 metric tonnes. That's enough to feed you for the next 50 thousand days, or more importantly, 200 families for an additional 2 months per year - long enough to break the cycle of hunger.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tomato/Maize Trials

Our demonstration garden at Mziza is primarily platform for teaching about irrigation, but it also serves as a place for trials and experiments. Over the past four months, we have been conducting trials on maize and tomatoes.
We planted 2,000 individual tomato plants on area of 4,500 square feet, or about 1/10 of an acre. We spent $50 excluding labour to grow the plot for 4 months. At harvest, we collected 400 kilograms (880 lbs.) of tomatoes and sold them for about $190. This success can easily be replicated and exceeded by our farmers, if they manage their crops properly. The income from such a small plot would be equivalent to more than 3 months living expenses.
For our maize, we wanted to attempt early planting with irrigation, that would be met with rains mid-growth. This technique is effective when rain patterns are unpredictable. After the first 6 weeks of irrigation, the seasonal rains took over watering duties. This relieved the farmers of the workload of irrigating the maize at exactly the time they needed to be planting other crops at the start of the rains. In late February, the maize was ready for eating as corn on the cob. By March, it was ready for making nsima, the local staple dish. 
Farmers can adopt this technique of early planting and preempt the hunger that strikes most communities in February-April. Many farmers are already using this method, and that will be a good thing this year, when rains have stopped before the rain-planted maize has matured. Early planted maize will provide a small, but needed bump to the annual harvest and give farmers more time to look for other solutions to the below average yields.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Composting Training

As training continues, farmers will get out of the classroom and into their fields. The first test of the trainees' muscle is to make a compost heap of 8 cubic meters, a 2 by 2 meter cube of grass, leaves, manure, and crop residues. The compost heap will decompose into about 1 ton of nutrient rich compost that can be used to grow 1/4 acre of corn or vegetables. It is equivalent to about $50 worth of fertilizer.

Composting not only provides nutrients but reduces the risk involved when investing heavily in chemical fertilizer. If the crop fails due to weather or the farmer falls ill during the season, the fertilizer is wasted. Compost does not wash out of the soil as quickly and only costs the farmers time to gather the composting materials.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Establishing Farming Clubs

Mphimbi Club invited the local chiefs to
the training (seated on the right)
Club Formation

In January, AWP worked with three new communities to establish farming clubs. The clubs form the basis of our partnership with the farmers, but also give the farmers themselves a platform to create positive change in their community. We discourage the idea (which always crops up) that such clubs are "AWP Clubs". On the contrary, these clubs are independent, persistent, and autonomous. They will work with other organizations, agri-businesses, and government extension officers. They invite AWP to their meetings, rather than AWP calling them to a training. They manage themselves, which is important for the sustainability of the club.

The clubs begin by discussing the many reasons people do farming. To have enough food for their families, to earn income, to preserve the land for their children, and to provide for the sick, elderly, and bereaved, are all common answers. From this, the club will decide on an overall goal, a mission statement, for their charter.
Mphombe Club members gather at a local church

The club then must determine how they will know if they are being successful as a group. They will need to identify the observable outcomes of their success (e.g. the quantity of food produced, income earned), and track them over time. This is the capacity for self-evaluation that will ensure the club don't look to AWP or any other organization to know whether they are being successful. 

By self-evaluating, the club will be in a better position to maintain and grow its membership. Everyone will know exactly what benefits the club is offering them. By using multiple measures of success (production, income, nutrition, persistent availability of food), the club will have as many opportunities of achieving something that will give them hope and motivate them to improve. If you don't know what you're aiming for, you don't know how much you have achieved.
The Mphombe Club chairman gives a final word of encouragement

Friday, January 16, 2015

Small Plates

The lean months have started. Kids scrounge maize kernels that have dropped from grain silos and storage sacks. Roasted and served on a tin lid, the snack holds them over lunch.
By providing input loans at Mziza, AWP ensures that farmers and their families avoid this situation. Club members continue to rely on the harvest from 7 months ago. The effects of food security on their families go far beyond what we can observe.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Getting Going at Mphombe

Chiefs and lead farmers met at Mphombe to discuss the way forward on food security in their village. The leaders expressed the community's struggle to provide food throughout the year. The most vulnerable tend to run out of food first. That means widows, children and the elderly lack food when they need it most.

The challenge of accessing capital for their farmers was also brought up. Leaders agreed that if the farmers knew how to plan and how to use their local resources, farm yields would increase. Importantly, many farmers don't believe that compost can provide sufficient soil nutrients to grow their crops. Leaders realized that the use of compost was not uniform among farmers, which leads to varied results.

We agreed on a strategy that would help farmers minimize their farming costs by using local resources in the best way possible. Fertilizer would be reduced in favor of compost, but farmers would need to be trained in how to make and use compost first. Use of pesticides would be stopped by maintaining clean, brush-free environments surrounding their gardens.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fruits of Food Security

We are now seeing good results from our maize storage trial. Last year, ten farmers volunteered to store maize at the AWP office. Together they stored 63 bags, or about 7,000 lbs, of maize. Seven months after the harvest, they have taken the first 2 bags back to meet food shortages at home.
The purpose of the trial was to see if farmers could avoid food shortages by keeping maize in a controlled storeroom. It's very easy to sell maize when it is stacked in your living room. Vendors on bicycles pass through the village offering to trade grain for second-hand clothes, soap, or even salt. Usually the farmer loses on these trades. But if maize is out of sight, it's difficult to misuse.
Now that we have seen the maize last for seven months, and we expect it to last a further 5 months, we know that this kind of storage arrangement helps farmers. The farmers are grateful for the opportunity as well, but they know that they should put even more grain into storage. The farming club will have to work on how to build their own storage to meet this need.