Wednesday, November 18, 2015

New Farmers Take On Hunger in Community

Every year around this time, Malawians are preparing their gardens to be planted at the first sign of the rainy season. Farmers in our training programmes are no different, except that's not all they are doing. Irrigation farmers are preparing to harvest at the same time they are preparing to plant. 

These pictures show the dense, deep-green fields of our newest trainees at Ngwangwa. The local Extension Office estimated a shortage of 50% after the 2015 rainy season harvest. December is half way to the next harvest, and many families are beginning to ration food, or even run out completely.

 A harvest of just 500 lbs of grain can carry a family over for 4 to 6 months when other food supplies are dwindling. Many of these farmers can expect to harvest as much as 1,000 lbs of maize from their irrigated fields.
 The farmers were trained in a strategy that would both increase their production, and ensure that the food is available when it is most needed. Irrigation is the backbone of the strategy because it allows them to grow food at any time. Irrigation provides a farmer with tools to fight hunger whenever the need arises.
 This year, AWP trained 325 farmers in irrigation and food security strategies. The farmers grew maize in response to last year's drought and low yields. Some farmers were in desperate situations following crop failures, and while they are still struggling, the situation is less grim, more hopeful. Farmers have a sense of purpose, rather than helplessness, because they have the means to respond to the food shortage. Other families are now looking to them for help.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Doing more with less

The concept of efficiency is critically important as it applies to many different aspects of the farming life in Malawi. The yield per acre; farm output versus input; the percentage of water pumped that reaches the roots of the crop; the amount of time spent in the garden versus the level of production. Farmers who waste land, inputs, water, or time are less efficient, and therefore more at risk of hunger and malnutrition.

Farmers need to be able to do more with less. That's where good, simple pumps come in. The area that one young woman can grow with a pump is more than what two strong men can manage with watering cans.
This girl was put in charge of watering a huge field of cabbages by herself. Her father trusts that she can manage to do it, even though without a pump he couldn't do it himself. On top of that, she still has time to get home and take care of her other chores and schoolwork.
 A field of cabbages of this size can provide enough income to pay two years of school fees. Families that could not normally pay for their kids' education can work together to grow a crop that will meet all their needs and even improve their lives through education, healthcare, better housing, better drinking water, etc.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Deriving Windmill Data from a Bicycle Odometer

Many development projects lack data to support their implementation. This does not mean that the projects are not having a positive impact. It could simply be that the data is harder to collect than the project is to implement. After all, for us to know how much water our windmill is pumping we would have to sit and watch it 24/7. It's just not feasible. Or it wasn't until now.
Our demonstration windmill, which has supplied more than one million liters to the garden, is under its own trial to produce data that can be used for redesign and replication. One of the challenges is to understand the behaviour and performance of the windmill over a long period of time, without constantly having to be present at the garden.
To address this, we have modified a bicycle odometer to record data in real time. On a bicycle, the computer takes input from a magnetic sensor that signals every time the magnet on the spokes goes around one revolution. It is essentially recording RPMs and converting that to distance and speed. We have adapted the computer to record RPMs on the windmill. First, the windmill's RPMs are usually much slower than a bicycle's, so instead of one sensor, we use 6 evenly spaced around the spokes of the windmill. Now the sensor can pick up much slower speeds, but we have to divide all of our measurements by 6.
Next we record the distance, speed, and "trip time", from the computer. Distance corresponds directly to number of rotations. In this case, we use an input tire circumference of 1,667mm in the computer. This yields approximately 100 rotations per kilometer. We can also convert the speed to RPMs. That is, 1 kilometer per hour is approximately 1.67 rotations per minute. The "trip time" simply let's us know how many hours the windmill was moving since the last time we recorded the data.
The piston pump driven by the windmill falls into a category of pumps called "positive displacement pumps", or PD pumps for short. The important thing about PD pumps is that their output is in direct linear proportion to the cycle rate of the pump. (This is in contrast to a centrifugal pump which has a diminishing return on increasing speeds beyond its intended speed). We can convert the RPMs to pump output by multiplying the RPMs by the displacement of the piston. In our case, each stroke of the pump displaces 1.13 liters. So, 1 kilometer per hour is equal to 1.67 RPMs, which is equal to 1.88 liters per minute.
Finally, we can analyze the data from the computer to learn:
1. How much water the windmill pumped
2. Its average speed/output during the times when it was moving
3. The "up time" or proportion of time it was actually moving

Our goal is to maximize the amount of water pumped. When we make modifications to the windmill, we observe changes in the average output and up time. For example, if we decrease the pump displacement, we would expect to see average speed and "up time" increase because there is less resistance. We can now see if these increases are enough to overcome the loss of displacement to pump more water overall.

Using Data to Improve Project Design

The AWP Demonstration Garden is an important component of our project because it is a platform for teaching and research. Already this year we have conducted a tomato trial, resulting in a production of 880 lbs of tomatoes on a 4,500 square foot plot. The results of the tomato trial have been used by two partner organizations in planning their own irrigation activities.
Currently, we are conducting trials of cabbage, onion, tomato (again), potato, and maize. Farmers in the area are observing these trials so that they can learn how to achieve similar results. The results of the trials will guide organizations across Malawi on project design, helping them target realistic goals with their farmers. This is one way we help farmers achieve food security without directly training them ourselves.

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.