Meet the Climate Hackers of Malawi

Farmers are using creative methods to combat the effects of climate change.

Meet the Climate Hackers of Malawi

Some of the smallest and most innovative farmers are now able to grow food. Judith Harry, along with her neighbors, sow pigeonpeas in order to protect their soil from a scorching, hotter sun. They plant vetiver to keep floodwaters away.

Some are reviving forgotten crops like yams and finger millet, and planting trees to naturally fertilize soil. Some are reversing the legacy of European colonialism: the practice of planting maize or corn in rows, and then saturating fields with chemical fertilisers.

"Another crop might do well," Ms. Harry said, who abandoned her parents' traditional of only growing maize and tobacco, and added peanuts sunflowers and soy in her fields. "That could save your season."

Not only Ms. Harry or her 19-million-strong agrarian country in Malawi are at the forefront of climate change. Their scrappy, throw-everything-at-the-wall array of innovations is multiplied by small subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world.

It is a matter of necessity.

The reason is that they depend on the weather for their food, and the climate has been thrown off by 150 years worth of greenhouse gas emission produced by industrialized nations.

Droughts burn their soil. Storms are coming at them in a vengeance. Once rare, cyclones are now common. Add to this a shortage in chemical fertilizers that most African countries import, from Russia which is now at war. The value of the national currency also has decreased.

All at once. Farmers in Malawi must save themselves from starvation.

Maize, a major source of calories in the region, has problems.

Malawi's maize production is being impacted by cyclones and droughts. The temperature has also been rising. Climate shocks in southern Africa have already dampened maize production, and they are expected to continue to do so if temperatures rise.

"The soil is cold," said Ms. Harry.

There is no option to give up. When the rains stop, there's no backup insurance and no irrigation.

You grab your hoe to try different types of ridges in order to save your orchard. You share your manure with neighbors who had to sell goats because of hard times. You start eating soy porridge instead of corn meal for breakfast.

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These hacks are not enough. This was evident when Cyclone Freddy slammed into Malawi's south in March and dropped six months worth of rain in just six days. It washed crops, homes, people and livestock away.

Still, you keep going.

"Giving in means that you won't have any food," said Chikondichabvuta. She is the granddaughter of a farmer and a regional advisor with the international aid organization CARE. "You have to adapt."

For now, it's up to you. The United Nations has said that global funding for poor countries to adapt to climate hazards only represents a fraction of the amount needed.

Alexander Mponda grew up with maize. Even Hastings Kamuzu Banda - Malawi's first president and an authoritarian ruler who ruled the country for 30 years - grew maize. He encouraged Malawi to modernize agriculture, and maize became the new standard. Millets, not.

Hybrid seeds were widely used. Subsidies were provided for chemical fertilizers.

Maize was promoted by British colonizers many years before. It was a convenient source of calories for the plantation workers. Once widely consumed, millet and Sorghum lost their market. Yams have virtually disappeared.

Tobacco was the major cash crop, and maize became the staple grain. It is known as nsima in Malawi, ugali in Kenya, and posho in Uganda.

So, Mr. Mponda (26), grows maize. He no longer relies on maize. Monoculture has degraded the soil over decades. Rain doesn't fall on time. The fertilizer also didn't work this year.

Mponda stated, "We have to change." "Staying with one crop is not beneficial."

According to the local agricultural office in Mchinji District in central Malawi, the total area devoted to corn in this district has decreased by 12 percent compared to last year. This is primarily due to a lack of chemical fertilizers.

Mr. Mponda belongs to a group in his area called the Farmer Field Business School, which runs experiments on an extremely small plot of land. They've planted two soy seeds side-by-side on one ridge. The next ridge, they sowed one. They've used manure on some ridges and not others. Two peanut varieties are being tested.

It is important to test out what works and what doesn't.

Mr. Mponda grows peanuts. Peanuts are a good cash crop and also good for soil. He planted soy this year. For his maize acre, he got half the normal yield.

Sweet potato is planted by many of his neighbors. Around the country, farmers have been experimenting with similar crops.

Malawi has experienced cyclones, four years of rising temperatures, and cyclonic droughts. Climate change, as in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa has affected agricultural productivity. A recent World Bank report warned that climate shocks may shrink the already fragile economy of the region by 3% to 9% by 2030. Half of its population lives below the poverty level.

80 percent of them do not have access to electricity. They do not own motorcycles or cars. Sub-Saharan Africans are responsible for only 3 percent of planet-heating gasses that have accumulated.

They are largely responsible for climate change.

Small farmers can only do so much if the biggest climate polluters in the world, led by China and the United States, don't reduce their emissions.

Rachel Bezner Kerr is a Cornell University Professor who has been working with Malawian farmers over 20 years. If we continue in our current course, "that's what will happen."

Wackson Maona is 74 years old and can still remember that in the north, where he resides, near the Tanzanian border, there used be three short rain bursts before the rainy seasons began. The first rains were the ones that washed away the ashes of fields after harvest.

The rains have stopped.

Rain may start or end early. They could continue for months. Now that the skies are mysterious, Mr. Maona pays extra attention to his soil.

He won't buy anything. He saves seeds and plants them. He uses compost that he makes in an old mango tree shaded by a large, old mangrove (he calls it his "office") to feed his soil. Then he adds goat manure which helps hold moisture.

His field looks like an unruly garden. Pigeon peas are bushy and grow under the corn to shield the soil from the heat. Pumpkin vines creep on the ground. As with bananas and beans, soybean and cassava are planted together. The climbing yam is a reliable producer. In his field, he has tall trees whose fallen leaves are used as fertilizer. His short trees have flowers that act as natural pesticides.

He says, "Everything's free." It is the opposite of industrial agriculture.

It can take more time and effort to plant several trees or crops on a single plot of land. It can serve as an insurance.

"The maize could fail." Cassava is better. Esther Lupafya said, "The sweet potato can do much better." She used to help malnourished kids at a nearby clinic before switching to helping farmers grow better food. "So that you can eat some."

She has seen the diets improving. She has seen farmers persist even after a series of climate shocks - terrible droughts in 2019 and incessant rainfall this year. "They could've given up," said Ms. Lupafya. "They won't give up."

Jafari black did everything in the district of Balaka.

He and his neighbors dug out a channel when heavy rains washed away the topsoil a few decades ago. They planted elephant grass and vetiver to keep the riverbank in position.

Last November, Mr. Black invested a lot of money in hybrid maize seeds that yield quickly. Along with the maize, Mr. Black also planted sorghum. Sorghum does well in rain or shine.

The rains continued to pour. His maize failed. Sorghum, too.

He planted sweet potato vines. They were washed away by Cyclone Freddy.

Now his field was just mud and dust. It was a new stream, deep enough to allow children to wash their clothes.

One afternoon, Mr. Black stood in mud and asked aloud if there was anything else he could have done. "I can’t just sit idle."

He only had sugar cane stalks from an earlier harvest. He planted them.

The cyclone forced Ms. Chabvuta to make a difficult decision for her family.

It blew through the house that her grandfather built, in which her mother grew up, and where Ms. Chabvuta spent her childhood holidays. It flooded the fields. Six goats were washed off. Her uncle, who lived in the area, was devastated.

It was a big blow because he had always been the one who was resilient. He pushed his family to rebuild the wall that was destroyed by a previous hurricane. He was unafraid to rebuild after losing his cattle. She recalled that he used to say, "We have history here." This year, he said 'I am done'.

The family now wants to purchase land in a village further away from the riverbank. This will shield them from the inevitable next storm.

Ms. Chabvuta stated, "We cannot keep insisting that we live there." It's time to move on.

Golden Matonga has contributed to the reporting of this article from Malawi.