Published on Nasikiliza

Feeding soils today so they can feed us tomorrow

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Photo: Mercy Chimpokosera-Mseu Photo: Mercy Chimpokosera-Mseu

Back in my primary school days in Malawi, I disliked waking up early. Obviously, Monday to Friday were the toughest days because I had to wake up early for school. It seemed as if nights were shorter than they are today. My mother used to tell me, “Wake up early today so that you can have enough sleeping time when you grow up.” Though I am not sleeping as much as I understood her then, I got the sense of her advice: that it is important to invest early when you have the energy so you can harvest more later in life.

It is no secret that 7.9 billion people worldwide rely on soils for food. However, unsustainable farming practices and rapid population growth have exerted more pressure on soils to produce beyond optimum. Globally, soils have suffered from depletion of nutrients and degradation, making it impossible for the soils to optimally deliver vital ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, water regulation, flood protection, and habitats for biodiversity. Malawi is no exception.

Forests that protect soils are disappearing at a fast rate — 10 million hectares of forest are cut down annually worldwide. According to Global Forest Watch 2021, Malawi lost 420 hectares of humid primary forest, which are rich in carbon absorption, from 2002 to 2020, leading to an 8% decrease in total area of humid primary forest. In addition, climate change impacts such as flooding and erratic rainfall have worsened the state of the soil and contributed to food and nutrition insecurity in Malawi.

Since 2018, more than 1.5 million people in Malawi have suffered from food insecurity annually. Ntchisi district is among the hotspots of land degradation and food insecurity. Chibuka village, located in the hilly and sloppy parts of the district, experienced high rates of soil erosion and gully development that markedly affected productivity of its land resources. Through the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach – Supporting Project II (ASWAP-SPII) supported by the Multi-Donor Trust Fund, the European Union (EU), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Irish Aid and the Government of Flanders, Chibuka village started investing in the health of its soils using climate-smart approaches.

Just like my mother’s words,  Group Village Headman Njombwa repeatedly encouraged beneficiary farmers through a common African proverb that says, “An old man who wakes up early to go to work was a young man who slept a lot.” Beneficiaries reworked old ridges, prepared new ridges across the slope and planted vetiver grass on contours to control soil erosion and improve the soil’s water retention capacity. Though it was laborious in the first year, these farmers now benefit from improved soil water availability and reduced soil loss, improved yields, and enhanced livelihood resilience.

Experience under the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach Project shows that climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is more beneficial when it is practiced on a larger scale compared to small fields, and when it integrates multiple practices. Therefore, beneficiaries in Chibuka village have adopted a catchment approach that ensures the entire catchment is restored and protected. Apart from vetiver planting on contours and ridge-making that serves as terraces, they have further integrated agroforestry, manure application and green cover in their fields through knowledge and inputs accessed from the project. Having invested for almost three years, the farmers are happy with the achievements attained so far. Dadile Potifala, 36, proudly shared that she harvested 4 tons of maize in the last season compared to the 2.4 tons she harvested before investing in sustainable farming practices.

The CSA investments received a boost with the incorporation of some ASWAP beneficiaries into the Agriculture Inputs Program, which provides fertilizer and other inputs to farmers. The ASWAP farmers are able to manage soil fertility efficiently through integrated soil fertility management that combines inorganic fertilizer, organic resources, soil and water conservation, and crop diversification.

Moving forward, the ASWAP-SP project will continue to invest more in CSA practices. The lessons from Chibuka village can be effectively scaled up to other parts of Malawi. With CSA investments, productivity increases, resilience improves, and climate change impacts are mitigated and adapted, resulting in innovative approaches to catchment management that ensure the soils that are fed today will be able to feed the next generation of farmers.


Mercy Chimpokosera-Mseu

World Bank Environmental Specialist

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