Community Grain Banks Create a Pathway Out of Poverty
This post was written by Joni Waldron, Palladium
Grace Levison had never purchased farming inputs before 2017. She had always planted seed saved from the previous year’s harvest, mixing it with small amounts of manure from chickens and goats when she could afford to keep them. Recycled seed often leads to lower yields over time, and without appropriate fertilizer, the soil loses the nutrients required to nourish a healthy crop. From October to April — the rainy season in Malawi — Grace would work tirelessly to turn the soil, plant maize and beans, and tend to her crop. Still, when harvest time came, she only managed to fill about half an oxcart with maize — about 440 pounds (200 kilograms) — not nearly enough to feed herself and her eight children.
To bridge the gap between the time her food supply ran out and the next harvest, Grace would take up day labor for other people, often at the expense of tending to her own crop — thus further sinking into a cycle of food insecurity. When Grace’s oldest children did well enough in school that they received admission to secondary school, it was a mixed blessing. Already struggling to feed her family, Grace wasn’t able to pay the fees for the children. Instead of studying, the children had to spend their afternoons working to raise enough money to stay in school.
A Community Comes Together
In 2017, Grace’s community of Nachikunga began working with United Purpose — a civil society organization operating in Malawi that had received funding from Irish Aid to improve livelihoods among the extreme poor. The community worked with a field facilitator from United Purpose to identify proven interventions that could help to provide pathways for farmers like Grace to accumulate more wealth — increasing their food security and resilience. One of the interventions that were chosen was a community grain bank. A total of 170 households in Nachikunga opted into the grain bank with an initial contribution of MWK 1,000 ($1.36). Space was set aside at the village community center; and with the MWK 170,000 ($231) collected, members of the grain bank purchased pallets and bags with which to store the grain, bought pesticides to reduce insect infestation, and paid for security to keep the grain safe.
In September 2017, the community received an initial loan of farm inputs from United Purpose. These inputs included a choice of certified seeds (maize, bean, soybean, or peanut), and urea and fertilizer for preparing the land. In return, each borrower was expected to pay back 150 percent of the value of his or her loan after harvesting, either in cash or the equivalent value of harvested grain.
In the first year, Grace received a loan package valued at MWK 27,000 ($36.75), which included 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of maize seed and 55 pounds (25 kilograms) each of urea and fertilizer. The impact of access to quality inputs was profound. In May, Grace harvested three oxcarts full of maize — roughly 2,646 pounds (1.2 metric tons). Of this, she paid back 332 pounds (150.5 kilograms) to the grain bank, leaving her with 2314s pounds (1,050 kilograms) to eat or sell — more than five times her previous yields. “For the first time in many years, I harvested enough to last a whole year,” says Grace. “I realized then that with sufficient farm inputs and good rains, achieving bumper yields can become a reality.”
By the end of the harvest season, the grain bank had collected 52,360 pounds (23.75 metric tons) of maize as repayment from the initial loans. Of this, 80 percent was monetized in order to purchase inputs for members to prepare their land for the next season. The remaining grain was then made available as an emergency supply for households to use during the “lean season” — the period between January and March that falls just before the harvest, when food supply often runs low. All members of the community — including those who are not members of the grain bank — are eligible to take a loan of grain from the bank during this period, with repayment of the loan amount plus an additional 50 percent due after harvest.
A New Bag Makes the Grain More Profitable
In 2018, United Purpose learned about PICS bags through the Feed the Future Malawi Ag Diversification Activity (AgDiv), which promotes appropriate technologies in Malawi to improve agricultural productivity and reduce post-harvest losses. PICS – Purdue Improved Crop Storage – bags were developed in the 1980s by Purdue University with funding from USAID. Each bag consists of three layers that create a hermetic seal — making them impenetrable to pests and suffocating those that are already inside the bag when it is closed. The bags — which can be used for three years or more — reduce post-harvest losses due to pest infestation to nearly zero, increasing the quality and quantity of grain available for sale or consumption.
In 2018, 165 farmers in Nachikunga each received a single sample PICS bag as part of a marketing strategy to share the effectiveness of the bag. Rather than keeping the bags for themselves, the Community Grain Bank members chose to fill the bags with the grain they used to pay their loans to the grain bank. As a result, 165 of the 475 bags of maize kept in the bank were stored in the PICS bags — saving the community MWK 57,750 ($78.60) in the cost of pesticides and conventional bags.
According to the secretary of the grain bank, Lenato Chimkanda, “Before we started using PICS bags, all of our grain was infested by weevils. Even though we would apply chemicals, we would still end up with only 18 bags worth of grain out of 24 saved. Now that we are using PICS bags, we can keep the grain as long as we want, and it still maintains its quality.”
When it came time to monetize the maize for purchase of 2019 farming inputs, the savings were even greater. The average conventional bag had lost more than 11 pounds (5 kilograms), or 10 percent of its original weight due to pest infestation — compared with no loss of maize among grain stored in PICS bags. In just four months, the grain bank had saved 1,819 pounds (825 kilograms) of maize — at MWK 150 ($0.20) per kilogram, this translates to an additional MWK 123,750 ($168.44).
Even more importantly, the grain saved by the PICS bags provided nearly four months of food to families in Nachikunga that would not have had food otherwise. “Fewer people now have to walk long distances in search of food during the lean season,” says Lenato. “Even those that have not managed to keep enough grain are able to borrow maize to eat from the grain bank.”
By all accounts, the village grain bank has been a tremendous success, but the community would like to see its capacity grow even larger. This past year, the bank had lent out all of its grain before the end of the lean season and had to turn away hungry families. In order to save enough grain to last throughout the season, the community has raised funds to build a new facility just to store the grain. Once the larger structure is completed, it plans to raise the entry fee for the bank to MWK 2,000 ($2.72), which will be used to purchase enough PICS bags to store all of their grain pest and pesticide free.
Palladium implements AgDiv for USAID.