Innovative Irrigation for Malawi’s Agricultural Future
This post is written by Joni Waldron, Palladium.
The tassels topping the stalks of maize form a canopy above Lucia Sitolo’s head; the cobs will soon be ready for harvest. Each cob sells for 50 MWK (approximately 7 cents) — the whole field is likely to earn more than 100,000 MWK ($133) — income that will allow Lucia to purchase food for her family and fertilizer to improve future harvests.
December is not always such a promising month for Lucia. In the past, this is the time of year when the household food supply has started to run out. Across Malawi, the period between January and March is known as the “lean season” because so many families struggle to find food in the months leading up to the annual harvest. According to the World Food Programme, 90 percent of cultivated land in Malawi is rain-fed, while farming in dimbas — land near perennial streams — and use of watering cans provide the primary alternative means of food production. With less than 1 percent of land under irrigation, the national food supply and the livelihoods of more than 80 percent of the population are dependent on a single rainy season that starts in November and ends by April.
A single growing season limits the potential yield for farmers like Lucia, which makes Malawi particularly susceptible to food shortages. Increasingly erratic rainfall can also constrain food production; over the past five years, the total maize produced in Malawi has averaged only 2.9 million metric tons annually compared with the national food requirement of 3.2 million metric tons. Even in an ideal rainy season, farmers like Lucia are often only able to harvest enough to feed their families for eight or nine months and are unable to produce enough surplus to generate cash for savings or investment.
Drip irrigation kit
In July 2019, Lucia received a drip irrigation kit from the Feed the Future Malawi Ag Diversification Activity (Malawi AgDiv). The technology, which includes a solar-powered submersible pump, water tank, and drip irrigation lines that cover an area 500m², is provided on loan to farmers who are ready to take the next step towards commercializing their farming methods. At approximately $750, the kit costs more up front than the annual income for an average Malawian. However, through a partnership with United Purpose and Community Finance Limited, Lucia and four other members of her community were able to receive the technology on loan. Because drip irrigation enables farmers to harvest three crops per year instead of one, they are able to pay back the loan within 18 months — after which the capital is used to provide the technology to other farmers in the same community. In years when rainfall is inconsistent, farmers using drip irrigation are more resilient than their neighbors because they can continue to water their crops through drought periods, and they are able to harvest higher quality and quantities of grain and produce. Over a five-year period, drip irrigation is expected to nearly double the profits for smallholder farmers, improving food security and providing cash for food, education, household improvements, and small businesses.
Lucia received her drip irrigation kit in the middle of the dry season. The first crop she planted was maize, a tough variety of corn used to make the staple food nsima that is eaten across Malawi. In the past, Lucia was only been able to grow a small amount of maize during the dry season due to the amount of labor required to irrigate it with watering cans. As a result, she would only harvest two bags of maize. This year, Lucia expects to harvest 10 bags of maize. “Using watering cans, we could only produce crops on a very small piece of land because it required a lot of labor,” explains Lucia. “I felt pain from carrying the cans every day. With drip irrigation, the water goes directly to the plants — so the only work I need to do is weeding.” Once she harvests the maize in a few weeks, Lucia is planning to plant tomatoes and potatoes on the same land.
With the larger yield from just one cycle of irrigated farming, Lucia will have enough food for her family of eight and be able to afford inputs like fertilizer that can increase production of her next crop. “It’s been a blessing in our household. Now we are able to farm more land with less labor,” she says. Once she repays her loan, Lucia hopes to use the profits to expand the size of irrigated land. “I’m grateful for receiving this equipment, and I am ready to work,” she says. “My vision is to buy more pipes and farm more land in this method.”
Palladium implements Malawi AgDiv for USAID.