Malawi Floods

k4042820A Permaculture Look at Flooding

In Malawi in 2002, we heard about massive destruction, displacement, and hardship that was caused by the floods in the Nsanje district in the south of the country.  This was indeed a tragedy not only in terms of the suffering that it caused the people there, but also in terms of the damage that was done: the destruction of property, the loss of crops, environmental devastation, the damage to infrastructure, and the costs that were needed for rescue operations, relocation, food aid, and sanitation concerns.

This year, 2015, we are again witnessing a recurrence of terrible flooding and devastation in the south of the country.  These situations, as bad as they are, provide us with a very important opportunity to think about whether these are just “acts of nature” or rather something that can be prevented in the future.  We need to begin to look at the causes, not just the effects.  Water management is a very important concept in Permaculture.  Without water our crops won’t grow, we can’t bathe, wash clothes or dishes, and without clean water to drink we would die very quickly.  During the dry season, we are often in need of water as many of our rivers and boreholes run dry.

Permaculture offers us a very useful tool for water management:  The four “S’s”: STOP, SPREAD, SINK, and SHADE.

Every drop of water that falls on our land should remain on our land.  Therefore, the four S’s can be easily accomplished with the help of trees, plants, groundcover, root systems, contour ridging, and swales.  All of these things help to STOP the flow of runoff, SPREAD it out, allow it to SINK into the soil, and then SHADE it so that it remains there for a long time into the dry season helping to keep our rivers running and our boreholes full.

Picture1aWhen we eliminate many of these things through poor land management practices, we begin to see that the water from our land flows away very quickly causing soil erosion and gullies.  As the water from our land meets the water flowing off of other people’s land, it will eventually form small streams that flow into larger streams, and then into rivers that flow towards the lakes and oceans.  When these rivers fill up so quickly, the increasing amount of flooding that we are seeing along the lakeshore, and in low-lying areas like Nsanje, becomes inevitable.  This runoff water also carries with it much of the valuable and nutritious topsoil that we need to grow healthy crops.

Are we practicing the four S’s in Malawi or not?  Widespread deforestation has become a very common sight, massive burning during the dry season destroys the organic matter that can help to hold back the rains, and even the plants from each year’s harvest are gathered up and burned rather than being left to return to the soil that they came from.  Monocropped ‘agricultural systems also contribute to ‘hard-pan’ conditions in which the soil becomes hard like cement.  This leads to immediate flooding during times of heavy rains and quickly turn to drought-like conditions as soon as the rains stop.  The flooding that we are seeing again this year can be blamed–in part–on all of us, for there is a saying in Permaculture that says, “We all live downstream.”  This means that no matter what we do, it will eventually come around to effect us all.

Banana Pit absorbing runoff water

Banana Pit absorbing runoff water

Water can be channeled into pits where bananas and other water-loving species can thrive; water can be harvested off of roofs and other structures into tanks, barrels, and other containers; water can be spread along the contour of the land using permanent ‘swale’ systems which can be used to increase food security as well as to replenish the water table; and water can be absorbed in our agricultural systems through the use of perennial grouncovers, mulching, and diversified food forests.  The solutions are endless!

 We all have a role to play in teaching people about the importance of the four S’s of Permaculture—STOP, SPREAD, SINK, and SHADE.  Even more importantly, we need to begin to apply it ourselves no matter where we live.  If everybody in Malawi were working towards the design of sustainable systems of water management which harvest every drop of water into the soil, rather than creating conditions of runoff and erosion, we would quickly see an end to the annual floods that continue to plague Malawi.

Outreach with Malawi’s Tobacco Farmers

Learning about liquid manure

Learning about liquid manure

Never Ending Food recently received a significant donation from a U.S.-based organization called ‘Commune Wednesdays‘.  This is a group of artists, designers, musicians, and individuals who are concerned about the detrimental impact that the tobacco industry is having on individuals, farmers, families, and nations.  It was requested that this donation money be used in a manner that would have a beneficial impact on tobacco farmers here in Malawi.

We discussed the possibilities with our interns here at Never Ending Food and it was decided that we could use the money to target local tobacco producers.  It was felt that it could be very beneficial  to take these farmers on a series of field visits which would expose them  to new ideas.  Sites were selected based on their ability to demonstrate alternative cash crops and income-generating activities, crop diversification ideas, sustainable land management techniques, and agroecological practices.

Looking at organic production systems

Looking at organic production systems

The interns selected 10 local tobacco farmers, both men and women, and took them on their initial visit to the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, which is a a local, non-governmental organization that promotes household-level permaculture and agroecology systems in Malawi through demonstration, education, outreach and advocacy.  The day focused on sustainable land use, including:  compost making, mulching, liquid manure, intercropping with legumes, crop rotation, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and good water management (including a solar-powered water pump that makes it possible for Kusamala to operate a full-scale commercial organic garden).  They also looked at income diversification through the use of tree and fruit nurseries, animal management, organic vegetable production, and local (open-pollinated) seed saving.  There was an emphasis on nutritional diversification through the integration of polycultural agricultural systems which are able to offer year-round access to foods from all of Malawi’s 6 food groups (staple, vegetable, fruit, animal products, legumes & nuts, and fats).

The second visit was split between Maulana village and Never Ending Food.  Maulana is home to Never Ending Food’s former

Diversified household production

Diversified household production

Permaculture Manager, Luwayo Biswick, as well as our current intern, Kusala Biswick.  Together, these two brothers and their family have been transforming their village into a wonderfully diverse eco-community.  The group was able to see Permaculture designs, composting toilets, polycultural agriculture systems, and the reusing of grey water at the sites of boreholes and washing areas.  At Never Ending Food the group members were also able to take a look various water-harvesting techniques, organic practices, and the integration of hundreds of foods, medicines, fuels, and building supplies into diversified and seasonal systems of agricultural production.

Worm farming at E3

Worm farming at E3

The third visit took the group to visit a group called ‘E3 Worldwide‘.  This is a faith-based organization who has been using principles of Permaculture design to empower local communities.  At this visit, the group saw the use of aquaponics (combining fish farming with vegetable production), animal husbandry (pig rearing), worm farming, composting toilets, water harvesting through swale systems, and diversified perennial food production.

The last visit was to the home of a Lilongwe-based man, Goodfellow Phiri, who specializes in the manufacturing and use of organic manure, compost, and the use of urine.  Urine is loaded with ‘urea’  (the nitrogen component of urine), which is something that many Malawian farmers buy in the commercial form each year to apply to their crops.  Learning how to use organic methods can help local farmers to save money and move away from the use of chemical-based products.

Organic compost making

Organic compost making

We are now in the process of assessing how much of the budget is remaining and are planning some small-scale ‘incentive’ purchases for the farmers from these visits who show the most initiative and behavior change as a result.  These ‘incentive packages’ may be a small set of farming tools, educational resources, or  anything else that serves to encourage activities that are more sustainable, healthy, ecologically friendly, and which help to move farmers away from tobacco and towards a brighter future! We’ll keep you posted.

Malawi’s Latest Group of Permaculture Designers!

Kumbalii PDC 061The 12-day Permaculture Design Course (PDC), which was held at Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, has just come to a close.  Malawi now has 6 new certified Permaculture Designers who are eager to put their skills to the test.   On the final day of the course each participant presented the maps and designs that they had been working on for the past two weeks.  These designs ranged from personal residential, health centers and hospitals, to the designing of entire communities.  After the presentations the participants looked at creating ‘action plans’ for implementation of 1-month, 6-months, and 12-months activities.  This time frame will carry them through a full seasonal cycle of Malawi’s rainy/dry season.

Kumbalii PDC 012Never Ending Food wishes all the participants the very best in implementing their designs and in their efforts to make Malawi a more sustainable, healthy, profitable, and well-nourished place to live!

Permaculture Design Course in Full Swing!

Kumbali PDC 2014 043The Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology in Malawi, Africa started on Monday of this week.  There are 6 participants who are taking the course and they all come from various walks of life.  Some of these participants are working for Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and will be using the skills to improve the sustainability of project programming, others are community members and local farmers who will be using Permaculture ideas to improve their personal lives and production systems.

Kristof Nordin, from Never Ending Food, has been facilitating the first week of the PDC.  He has guided the participants through the basics of Permaculture (definition, ethics, and principles).  The group also looked at the current challenges–both domestically and globally–for which Permaculture can be used to find solutions.  A lot of the first week consists of fundamental theory upon which the rest of the course work is founded.  This ‘foundation’ included a look at the basic processes of nature, including: the nature cycle, soil, water, ecological patterns, and the use of natural resources.

Kumbali PDC 2014 069In week one, the group also began the process of mapping.  This is another fundamental practice of Permaculture which combines the skills of observation, site analysis, and element analysis to create a ‘map’ of existing resources.  This map constitutes the corner stone of good Permaculture Design.  The map tells us what is already there for us to utilize, while the design becomes the plan for the future in which each existing element is used to its fullest potential.

Luwayo Biswick will be continuing with the group for the end of this week and into next week.  He will be covering the use of Permaculture Zones, guilds, animal management, integrated pest management, and hands-on practicals with soil, water, and propagation techniques.  Throughout the entire two weeks the participants will be working on creating their own personal designs which will be presented to the group at the end of the course.

Kristof will be rejoining the group next week to facilitate a day on how Permaculture can be applied to the designing of large-scale land systems.  Many people do not realize that Permaculture ideas–although very useful at the household level–can be scaled up to benefit commercial farms, large estates, housing schemes, even entire cities!

Never Ending Food wishes all the participants the best of success with their course!

Food Insecurity in Malawi: Do Agricultural Input Subsidies Actually Address Hunger?

imagesA new research paper has been submitted to Never Ending Food which takes a critical look at the use of government subsidies to address hunger in Malawi.  This paper was written by Andy Currier, a student at Colby College in Maine, as part of an International Environmental Policy class.

The paper does a great job of demonstrating that increased maize production does not equate to increased food security.  It takes an in-depth look at Malawi’s FISP (Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme), the amount of financial resources which have been dedicated to this programme, and the resulting fluctuations in maize production.  Currier then compares the maize-based focus of the FISP programme to some of its quantifiable results.  The paper found that:  ”60% of the subsidy recipients reported still being net maize purchasers not producers”; “Only 30% reported that the subsidy led to increased maize consumption”; and “Implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS), 69% of the ministries budget has gone towards FISP since 2005 (Mazunda, 2013). By placing all the eggs in one basket, other possible programs and development agendas aimed at decreasing food insecurity have, “gone on the shelf” (De Schutter, 2013).  Despite committing 16% of the total governmental budget to fertilizer subsidies by 2009, Malawi still imported $30 million USD worth of maize to cover the shortfall until 2012 (Tafirenyika, 2013).”

The paper concludes by saying that: “The results of this analysis suggest that to date FISP policy in Malawi has failed in providing an adequate solution to food insecurity. All of the emphasis on increasing maize production in Malawi perpetuates poor diet and requires more agricultural effort than an alternative system promoting the usage of diverse crops. Both issues can be solved by local institutions promoting Permaculture: a shift away from maize and towards crop rotation that naturally replenishes the soil, provides food year round and serves greater nutritional function…Instead of focusing on improving maize production, an effects based approach targeting the number of Malawians still inadequately fed would serve a more accurate benchmark when evaluating program effectiveness. By these standards expensive input subsidies have failed to proportionately increase food security and the time for research into a new agricultural system has arrived.”  Currier_PolicyBrief_ES234

Great work Andy!  Never Ending Food wishes you all the best in your future Environmental Studies.