Doctoral Thesis on Permaculture in Malawi!

Abigail Conrad, along with her research assistants Geoffrey Mlongoti and Chisomo Kamchacha (image courtesy of www.abigailconrad.com)

Abigail Conrad, along with her research assistants Geoffrey Mlongoti and Chisomo Kamchacha
(image courtesy of www.abigailconrad.com)

In one of the most extensive studies ever done–to date–on the implementation of Permaculture practices in Malawi, researcher Abigail Conrad has just released the results of her Doctoral dissertation entitled, “We Are Farmers: Agriculture, Food Security, and Adaptive Capacity Among Permaculture and Conventional Farmers in Central Malawi”.

Ms. Conrad (now Dr. Conrad) conducted her research in Malawi from September 2011 to July 2012 with the aim of evaluating “the impacts of using permaculture by comparing the agricultural practices and food security of smallholder conventional farmers to farmers who use permaculture.”  The study takes an in-depth look at Malawi’s agricultural history, exposes several drawbacks to current ‘conventional’ agriculture practices, highlights many benefits that local farmers identified through their practice of Permaculture, and gives a realistic analysis of the challenges facing the expanded uptake of Permaculture in Malawi.

Permaculture in Malawi (image courtesy of www.abigailconrad.com)

Permaculture in Malawi
(image courtesy of www.abigailconrad.com)

This study is exciting and encouraging in many ways.  First, there has been a glaring lack of academic research surrounding the use of agroecological approaches, such as Permaculture.  One of the reasons for this disparity is highlighted in Conrad’s paper where she writes: “Anthropologists Veteto and Lockyer state that permaculture “has largely been ignored” in academia generally, and in anthropology specifically, because it was developed when discrete disciplinary approaches were well not suited to address the holistic approach of permaculture (2008:49).”  Conrad also states that: “Further, permaculture challenges how governments and NGOs usually teach people to farm. Scientists, governments, and agribusinesses have devalued and eroded indigenous farming knowledge, like that used in permaculture, with the imposition of monocropping and Green Revolution technologies.”

Secondly, Conrad’s findings help to highlight some of the benefits that Permaculture farmers are already experiencing through the implementation of sustainable design systems.  Interestingly, the majority of Conrad’s research took place during a highly economically unstable period in Malawi, and yet Permaculture farmers continued to express gains and benefits.  She writes:  “Further, the permaculture farmers experienced the benefits discussed during an abnormal time of political, economic, and environmental stress and shocks. In 2011-2012, the economy was unstable because of limited foreign currency due to donors withholding aid funds and low global tobacco prices, which led to higher food prices, inflation, imported fuel shortages, decreased fertilizer imports, and sugar shortages (Dionne, Kramon, and Roberts 2013:14; Wroe 2012:139)…These broader factors negatively affected household livelihoods; however, these problems did not prevent permaculture farmers from experiencing benefits.” Again, from the paper: “My primary findings suggest that permaculture farmers experienced multifaceted benefits from implementing permaculture because the farmers used permaculture practices that addressed specific household constraints and expanded their adaptive capacity.”

More information regarding Conrad’s research, methodologies, findings, and recommendations can be found by visiting her website at AbigailConrad.com

To highlight some of the most interesting and promising aspects of Permaculture implementation in Malawi, we will let the study speak for itself.  Here are a few quotes from the paper:

  • “This analysis showed that farmers who used permaculture experienced agricultural, environmental, livelihood, and food and nutrition security benefits in comparison to farmers who solely used conventional agriculture.”
  • “The permaculture farmers reported agricultural benefits that resulted from growing more varieties of crops, intercropping, and using soil and water conservation techniques.”
  • “On average, permaculture farmers grew three times more crops overall, and more crop varieties per food group than conventional farmers.”
  • “In practice, permaculture plots in Malawi are often organic, low-input, and biodiverse, and farmers used techniques like intercropping, planting trees and perennials, and resource recycling.”
  • “There was variation between households, however, permaculture farmers reported a range of agricultural, environmental, livelihood, and food and nutrition security benefits related to the agricultural practice changes they made with permaculture implementation. For example, permaculture farmers had higher agrobiodiversity and lower purchased input requirements on average compared to conventional farmers. In addition, the permaculture farmers all reported improvements in food access since beginning to use permaculture. Permaculture farmers also on average had higher food security and diet diversity scores than conventional farmers.”
  • “The applications, dissemination, and credibility of permaculture have grown in Malawi since the mid-1990s, with organizations using permaculture in all regions of the country. A report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, after visiting Malawi in 2013, mentions that “permaculture vegetable and fruit gardens, which are vital for food security and nutrition, could be disseminated more broadly” (De Shutter 2013).”
  • “The permaculture design system includes different techniques than conventional agriculture and has a unique history. The design system focuses on agroecology and systems design, which the social movement, education, and permaculture organizations promote.”
  • “Permaculture farmers’ practices involved more than adopting a new farming practice like using manure, tree planting, or intercropping beans with maize, as some other sustainable agricultural development programs in Malawi focus on. They used the skills-based permaculture system to alter agricultural, resource, and land management practices, in addition to applying a degree of systems thinking by using the design system.”
  • “Conventional farmers had limited ability to apply conventional techniques given their cost and conventional techniques did not improve their farm system in the long term. Permaculture farmers faced the same overall problems as conventional farmers, however, permaculture education and practices expanded farmers‟ skills and available strategies to contend with some constraints and improvise in response to problems. Permaculture farmers also faced social challenges and material, environmental, and knowledge constraints when implementing permaculture. However, farmers were able to use permaculture practices in a way that provided them with agricultural, environmental, and livelihood benefits.”
  • “Learning permaculture gave farmers tools to improve their food access. As permaculture education opened new possibilities for ways to farm, it expanded the food consumption choices available to farmers. Permaculture farmers altered their food practices and cooking to a degree in response to improved food access.”

    A Permaculture Design Course being conducted in Malawi.

    A Permaculture Design Course being conducted in Malawi.

  • “My primary findings suggest that permaculture farmers experienced multifaceted benefits from implementing permaculture because the farmers used permaculture practices that addressed specific household constraints and expanded their adaptive capacity.”
  • “The multi-functional benefits farmers experienced from using permaculture supports the growing call for “triple-win solutions” for agriculture, health, and environmental sustainability by donors and policy-makers that promote low external agriculture (IFPRI 2013a:13).”
  • “Similarly, learning about permaculture has helped to widen the set of knowledge and tools at farmers‟ disposal, and therefore the options available to them, to make changes to their agricultural production and to solve a host of associated problems.”
  • “For example, the permaculture ethic of equitably sharing surplus resources that the permaculture organizations promoted helped to support local community norms of sharing and reciprocity. More generally, as a type of social learning, permaculture education involves farmer-to-farmer learning and promotes local knowledge, which can potentially build community capacity, strengthen relationships of reciprocity, and expand knowledge sharing (Pretty and Smith 2004:637; Altieri and Toledo 2011:588–589).”
  • “The differences between conventional and permaculture farming, and the challenges and benefits of using permaculture have implications for the development sector and the permaculture movement. For the development sector, the research findings point to the potential value of skill-based approaches to agricultural development and food-based approaches to food and nutrition security.”
  • “Malawians’ reliance on maize contributes to food insecurity and malnutrition due to annual maize shortages and inadequate diet diversity (WFP 2012:41; Yeudall et al. 2007; Lin et al. 2007; Dickinson et al. 2009:3).”
  • “Although most Malawian farmers are smallholders, the government, tobacco leaf companies, agribusiness, donors, NGOs, and civil society organizations make up the dominant players, and often beneficiaries, in the agriculture sector according to development studies scholar Chinsinga (2011b:59). These actors primarily promote conventional agriculture technologies, such as hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation (Chinsinga 2011b; Bezner Kerr 2010:104).”
  • “Foreign corporations sell the bulk of agricultural inputs in Malawi, offering farmers‟ limited input options (Chinsinga 2011b:60–61; Holden and Lunduka 2010; Bezner Kerr 2012:224). US-based Pannar (now part of DuPont) and Monsanto and Zimbabwean-based Seed Co. dominate the commercial seed market in Malawi.”
  • “Conventional agriculture development work, such as that supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Program, often supports the economic interests of companies and economies in the global North at the expense of environmental sustainability and smallholder farmers‟ economic and food sovereignty (Bezner Kerr 2012; Altieri and Toledo 2011).”
  • “Some farmers can access fertilizer and hybrid maize seed inputs at a highly subsidized rate through FISP, but the program does not provide enough inputs for farmers, is fiscally unsustainable, and emphasizes maize production (MAFS 2007:xvii).  Farmers use these inputs to contend with environmental problems in the present; however, input use is not a sustainable coping strategy and does not address the underlying problems of soil infertility and inadequate rainfall that make them necessary on an ongoing basis. In addition, these inputs are primarily used to increase maize yields, which fails to address the issues of food quality and malnutrition associated with predominately maize-based diets (GFDRR 2011; Oxfam International 2009; Pinstrup-Andersen 2010; Bezner Kerr 2012). Indeed, despite a national maize surplus since 2007/08 after FISP implementation in 2005/06, there was an increase in rural poverty and food insecurity in 2011/12 (IFPRI 2013b:2).”
  • “The utility of permaculture, as a complex design system, is a reminder that development projects can be multifaceted, complex, and flexible, while still being feasible and effective. I argue that along with other structural interventions, permaculture is a strategy that donors and development practitioners should consider incorporating in livelihood, food and nutrition security, and agricultural development programs.”
  • “In addition, permaculture use has the potential to contribute multifaceted impacts of nutrition-sensitive agricultural programs for households.”
  • “Broadly, the findings of this study suggest that smallholder farmers can benefit from using permaculture and the permaculture model for social change and development may have limited impacts.”
  • “Permaculture education improved farmers‟ adaptive and improvisational capacity to respond to problems and shocks within unpredictable and vulnerable conditions by helping to expand the options they had to solve or cushion problems.”
  • “The fact that permaculture is not dependent on access to money created options for the farmers who learned about and used permaculture. Their expanded skill set increased the options available to them for how to farm, and the changes in farming led to increased food consumption choices. These changes affected farmers beyond material benefits, because food insecurity and impoverishment lead to other forms of suffering such as stress, malnutrition, disease, and death in some cases.”
  • “Amayi Sesani aptly summarized her perception of the difference between resource use in conventional agriculture and permaculture. She said, “Ahh, this ongoing [permaculture] farming, and this type of [conventional] farming that we are seeing nowadays, there is indeed a difference. This other [conventional] type needs more energy from a person each and every time, and also it needs more inputs. While the permaculture one does not count whether I am rich or I am poor. Everyone can use it well,” she emphasized.”

The full dissertation in pdf format may be downloaded here:
Conrad – FINAL Dissertation We are farmers

Related research papers include:

Potential of Permaculture, by Abigail Conrad

The Over-Consumption of Maize, by Abigail Conrad

Permaculture Adoption Among Malawian Farmers: A Positive Deviance, by Hope Thornton

Food Insecurity in Malawi: Do Agricultural Input Subsidies Actually Address Hunger?, by Andy Currier

Radio Interview with Stacia Nordin!

??????????Public Radio exchange (PRX) just aired an interview with Stacia Nordin, Co-Founder of Never Ending Food.

From their description:  “What are the keys to feeding the world sustainably?  Join Food Sleuth Radio host and Registered Dietitian, Melinda Hemmelgarn, for her interview with Stacia Nordin, fellow dietitian and Nutrition Advisor for the United Nations. Based in Malawi, East Africa, for 17 years, Nordin compares and contrasts cultures, describes trade pressures, and offers strategies for creating a resilient food system and healthy environment.  Nordin explains why she rejects mono-cropping and genetic engineering, and favors permaculture, biodiversity, and taking pride in indigenous foodways.”

To listen to the interview click here.

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!