Farmers turn to sweet potatoes

Farmers turn to sweet potatoes

Persistent dry spells across Malawi’s Southern Region have left crops wilting, sending maize farmers into panic.

The El Nino weather pattern compelled Bertha Pelani, 32, of Nyezelera in Phalombe District, to slash her scorched crop and plant sweet potatoes on her one-and-a-half acre field which produces 40 to 50 bags of the staple grain with good rainfall.

Pelani inspects her flourishing potato field

“This growing season, the first rain was delayed until January when I planted my maize. However, a month-long dry spell hit in February and our crops wilted irredeemably,” says the mother of three.

In February, the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services forecast continued dry spells until the close of the rainy season next month.

The department’s director general Lucy Mtilatila said global projections show that El Nino conditions may continue till June.

“The weather forecasts show that we will continue to experience lesser rains and dry spells to the end of the season. However, this time around, the dry spells would be across the country,” she said.

Care ranks the climate-related crisis as southern Africa’s worst dry spell season in over 40 years.

Says Care Southern Africa regional director Matthew Pickard: “Crops are wilting, livestock are dying and millions of people are facing severe food and water shortages.

“The situation is particularly dire for women and girls, who often bear the brunt of such emergencies.”

The World Food Programme estimates that over 6.8 million people in Malawi require urgent food aid.

Last Saturday, President Lazarus Chakwera declared the State of Disaster in 23 of the country’s 28 districts, including Phalombe.

The harsh weather pattern has affected 749 113 hectares of maize or 44.3 percent of the national crop area, he said.

As early as January, Pelani buried the wilting maize in bigger ridges for potato production in a desperate attempt to beat hunger.

The decision has paid off.

Pointing at her healthy crop, the mother of three brags: “I expect to harvest not less than 20 bags of sweet potatoes by April.

“I will use the potatoes to feed my family and sell up to three-quarters to buy maize.”

Robin Jimu of Mungomo Village in the district says people in the rural locality utilise the moist fertile alluvial soils along the Namphende and Machemba rivers to grow sweet potatoes and other crops.

“We are doing our best to beat hunger,” he says. “After all, sweet potatoes and pigeon peas do well in Phalombe. They could be our saviour.”

Last week, Lhomwe Paramount Chief Kaduya appealed for more food aid and urged farmers to utilise the damboland for winter cropping.

She said this when Apostle Clifford Kawinga, the founder of Salvation for All Ministries International, donated 2 000 bags of maize flour weighing 10 kilogrammes each to households in Phalombe District.

Leadership for Environment and Development in Southern and Eastern Africa regional director Professor Sosten Chiotha commends the farmers for switching to drought-tolerant crops instead of waiting for food handouts.

He says Malawians should better learn from the increasingly unpredictable rainfall pattern and other harsh effects of climate change

“We need to pay attention to seasonal forecasting to help in planning, practise drip irrigation which uses small amounts of water, climate-smart methods such as water harvesting and mulching, and fully embrace the mega farms concept,” he states.

Nearly 16 million subsistence farmers in the country depend on rain for crop production.

Ministry of Agriculture Principal Secretary Dickxie Kampani calls for a shift from overdependence on rain-fed agriculture.

He elaborates:  “We don’t grow crops with rain but with water. Therefore, we need to conserve water and maximise the use of irrigation.

“Farmers must grow crops that are drought-tolerant and those with wetlands must use them to the fullest.”

Agriculture policy analyst Tamani Nkhono-Mvula says Malawi has the potential to be food-secure even if it does not rain for four consecutive years.

However, he faulted the government for allocating over K161 billion to the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP) though the subsidy has failed to produce results. 

“The biggest challenge is that investment in irrigation has been minimal, yet we are clinging to AIP. We need to take politics out of food security,” he says.

The post Farmers turn to sweet potatoes first appeared on The Nation Online.

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