Friday, March 28, 2014

A Visitor from Kondoa Tanzania

We were honoured by the visit of Anglican Bishop Given Gaula of Kondoa, Tanzania. He came to see if the work we do can help people in his diocese fight hunger and malnutrition. His diocese faces significant water stress as an obstacle to food production. However, irrigation and good farm practices could overcome the challenge.
 We looked at the water pumps that AWP uses to see if they are appropriate to his diocese. He thought they could work because people are only using watering cans for their small gardens now.
Later we visited the Mziza farming club and demonstration garden. He was impressed by the quality of maize, and saw the importance of fertilizer in Malawi. In central Tanzania, farmers don't use fertilizer to grow maize. The bishop noted that in Malawi, without fertilizer or significant quantities of compost/manure, the maize crop will produce nothing.
 His words of encouragement to our Mziza farming club were much appreciated. As a fellow African, he could speak directly to the importance of farming and the challenges they face in their lives.
We traveled through the city to get a perspective on development and culture in Lilongwe. The bishop was impressed by our good road system, the same roads that foreigners bemoan. We should not take even one small piece of development for granted. Having grown up in Tanzania, he was very interested in Malawian history. Before leaving for the airport, we took him to Kamuzu Banda's mausoleum to appreciate the progress Malawi has made since independence in 1964.
We look forward to the possibility of applying our experience to work in his area of Tanzania.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How to Make a Vegetable Nursery

As recent blog posts have highlighted, the nursery is an integral part of a good vegetable farm. Many plants are too sensitive to be planted on their own in the field. These sensitive plants are planted first in a protected nursery. Usually, we plant onions, tomatoes, and leafy greens in the nursery, while hardy crops such as maize, beans, and squashes are seeded directly in the field.

The first step in establishing a nursery is to select a location near the water source. The site should be flat and on a higher ground to avoid flooding by rain. Then a fence is constructed to keep out domestic animals, pests, and thieves.
 Next elevated beds (1 meter wide, 2-3 meters long) are made to further protect the nursery from flooding.
 The elevated bed are useful for containing compost in the planting area. The beds are filled with a thin (2 inches) layer of dry compost. Excessive animal manure is avoided to keep acidity down. This layer provides the nutrients that the dense plant spacing will require.
 Lastly, the bed is leveled off with a layer of sand (1 inch). The sand is very light and fine. This prevents the formation of a hard-caked top soil that could prevent the seedlings from emerging.
 Now farmers measure lines across the beds. The lines are furrowed about 1/2-1 inch deep (depending on seed variety).
 At last, we plant our seeds in the furrows. An even scattering of seeds along each line will provide the farmer with a way to estimate germination success. Gaps in the line would suggest a low germination percentage.
 The beds will require shade to prevent the sand from reaching high temperatures, increasing evaporation and possibly burning the seeds. A layer of grass does the trick. If the grass is placed directly on the sand, some seeds will not manage to emerge between the blades of grass. Stones and a lattice of bamboo poles give a good (4-5 inch) gap between the covering and the seeds. Also the farmers can lift or part the grass to view the seedlings without damaging them.
 When the job is done, it looks something like this...
After 2-3 weeks, the seedlings will be strong enough to be transplanted to their stations in the field. Many thanks to the farmers at Chifuchambewa who gave a perfect demonstration even as they were learning this technique for the first time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beans in the bag

In case some recent blog entries had you confused, we do in fact know that food is not synonymous with corn. (Though in the local language Chichewa, there is a significant overlap in common usage of the terms). Food of course is what is necessary for a person to have good health, energy, and growth. Corn alone is not sufficient. Beans go a long way toward fulfilling the spectrum of nutrients required for a balanced diet. Beans contain high levels of proteins, especially those lacking in rice and maize.

The seeds loaned out for our beans seed-bank at Chibanzi are now producing fruit. Farmers began the harvest this month, yielding around 33 times the weight of the seed. The 6 kilograms of seed per farmer is coming in at 200 kilograms of harvest. Another way to look at it is that on average each bean planted produces 33 beans at harvest.
Another aspect of a good diet, often overlooked, is the role of appetizers (and I don't mean deep-fried tidbits you eat before dinner). Appetizers are ingredients that make food taste good. Some of the best appetizers are energy packed foods like sugar, butter, and oil. But these are usually expensive. Easily grown, onions have strong flavour. While their energy and nutrient content is mostly washed out by the common practice of boiling or frying, they do taste good. The good taste in tern promotes good appetites. And having a balanced diet on the plate is one thing, but eating sufficient quantities of a balanced diet is something else. For the sick, young, elderly (i.e. those most vulnerable to malnutrition), making food taste good is as important as any other aspect of the dish.

The onion nurseries pictured here will play a big role in making sure no one suffers malnutrition or hunger at Chibanzi this year.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Hand pumps

A series of hand pumps ready for irrigation.

Food security training at Chifuchambewa

What is food security? Well, if you ask "what's for dinner?", and what you mean is "should we eat spaghetti or rice?"; "lamb or fish?"; "potatoes: baked or mashed?", then you have food security. But if "what's for dinner?" means "where will we find our next meal?", that's food insecurity. 

There are food insecure people all over the world. That is except perhaps in Antarctic. I would imagine that at scientific bases in Antarctic no one is worried about what to eat. Even if there is a disaster that cuts them off from resupply, surely there is a back up pantry that lasts a few months or more. What's the point of all this? It takes so much planning and preparation to live on the frozen continent that the crews who make the journey come prepared with enough food. That's what food security requires: so much planning and preparation.
When teaching farmers about food security in their household, we ask them to imagine they are planning a journey. What would they need to bring? Enough food or money to last them the entire length of the stay. Well, its the same when you are staying at home. You need to plan for each day, month, year so that you have enough food to get you through. You need enough for everyday life, and for emergencies. You need seeds to plant and replenish reserves before they are depleted.
Farmers at Chifuchambewa came in large numbers to discuss food security and pick up some new tools to help them plan for the future. This community produces enough to be food secure, but the food is not available at the right time. This can all change in just a single season if farmers reserve food for lean months.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Nasala onion nursery

Last year we started working with farmers at Nasala, Lilongwe. We identified this group through NAPHAM, which is an organization that supports and advocates for people living with HIV and AIDS. One of our founding ideas at AWP is that people with AIDS need better nutrition to allow them to continue on powerful ARV medication, stay healthy, and support their families.
Our program last year at Nasala was a minimal training, a testing of the water so to speak. This year we ramped it up by including more members and training them a various locations closer to their homes. Being close to home is a big help for some members whose health would be effected by long walks.
On Friday last week we conducted nursery establishment trainings. Effective nursery establishment allows the farmers to 1) achieve high germination rates, 2) estimate seed population and scale the gardens appropriately, 3) share seedlings evenly among 5 or more farmers. Basically, we use good nursery practices to avoid wasting money on seeds and wasting labour on oversized gardens.
As the photos show, most of the farmers in this group are women, many of them widows. Men in the community are reluctant to participate in programs designed to support people with HIV and AIDS.