It’s the Dry Season in Malawi, Where’s the Food?

As the dry season comes to an end in Malawi, and people are beginning to look forward to the beginning of the rains, we need to start asking ourselves, “Where’s the food?”  Due to the fact that the majority of agricultural policies in the country are focused primarily on the monocropping of maize (corn), this has created a situation where many farmers try to harvest a year’s worth of food in one month.  When the rainy season begins, people plant their maize seeds.  These seeds, however, take several months to mature into food.  During the most agriculturally productive time of the year–the rainy season–many families find their maize yields from the previous season running short while they wait for harvest time to arrive in April or May.  This has led to the creation of chronic ‘hungry seasons‘ and unacceptable levels of malnutrition as people over-rely on a single staple crop to provide the bulk of their nutrients.  When harvest time comes around, everything is removed from the fields, crop residue is burned, and the soil is left barren and exposed to the sun until the next rainy season.  In essence, the majority of fields in Malawi are not producing food for about 11 months out of the year.

Permaculture reverses this situation by encouraging the implementation of design systems which provide perennial, year-round, and daily access to diversified and highly-nutritious foods.  Permaculture helps families save money by reducing the dependency on expensive agricultural inputs (e.g. synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and commercial seeds).  It also helps people reduce their need to spend money on things like firewood, building supplies, natural medicines, and market commodities.  When money is saved, it can be reinvested into making life better for people.  Diversification also leads to increased access to income generation through food processing, diversified markets, and unique product ideas.  Malawi is blessed with a tropical climate, where plants and animals can thrive for 12 months out of the year, even without the need for expensive irrigation systems.  The pictures displayed above show the results of two different systems.  The top pictures are what many people’s homes and fields look like at the current moment.  They are dry, barren, neglected, and unproductive.  The bottom pictures were all taken this morning (November 14, 2019) here at Never Ending Food and show some of the amazing natural resources that we currently have at our disposal.  Fruits, vegetables, animals and animal products, spices, tree nurseries, etc.  Many of these things (like the mangoes, oranges, lemons, figs, and bananas) are perennial crops which do not require any additional irrigation on our part.  Others, like the container gardens, only require minimal watering which can often be maintained with grey water from household use.  Solutions exist, but those solutions depend upon finding people with a desire to change and a vision for a brighter future!

Role Models of Permaculture!

Jacob Jumpha (left) and Kondwani M’dale (right), have been interns at Never Ending Food for over a year.  During this time, they have been conducting hands-on practicals, participating in community outreach, giving tours, going on site visits, and attending trainings.  This week they officially received their Certificates of Permaculture Design!

In October of last year, they both attended an Introduction to Permaculture course at the Permaculture Paradise Institute, facilitated by Never Ending Food‘s former Manager, Luwayo Biswick.  This course was funded by the generosity of a retired Dietitian from the United States,  Anne Hennessey.  A huge thank you to Anne for helping to make this learning opportunity a reality!

For their final project, Jacob and Kondwani were allowed to use the grounds of a 5-hectare school that is currently being built near Chitedze.  This school, Kusewera, aims to empower and educate children in Malawi through activities such as sports, dance, music, art, sewing and more.  Good Permaculture Design is a 3-step process: observation, mapping, and design.  Jacob and Kondwani spent several weeks observing the existing structures, geographical features, natural resources, and current uses of the school.  They then mapped all of these resources–to scale–to give of picture of what currently exists.  The designs that they created are ideas for the future sustainable development of the school grounds, in coordination with the needs of the school.  Both Jacob and Kondwani created separate designs, but both designs included ideas for water management, renewable energy, increased food and nutrition security, playground areas, eco-sanitation, and an expansion of primary/secondary/vocational school blocks.  When the process was finished, the maps and designs were presented to the school staff for their consideration.

It’s wonderful to see the development of young Malawians, like Jacob and Kondwani, who can envision a sustainable future based upon the use of their Permaculture skills.  Both of them are already incredible role models in their communities, implementing Permaculture at their own homes, working with community groups, teaching groups of students, and even creating income-generating products out of recycled plastic materials.

As Margaret Mead once said:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  We have a great deal of hope for the future when my wife and I have been in Malawi long enough to see children transforming into visionary young adults.  We have personally known Jacob Jumpha since he was 15 years old, and he was already teaching people about Permaculture principles as far back as 2011.  This picture was taken 8 years ago when we took children from our village to learn from Jacob about the designs that he was implementing even at that time.  Malawi now has two new incredibly talented and committed Permaculture teachers to contribute to the nation’s future!  Congratulations guys, you earned it!

Agroecology for the 21st Century Conference!

Never Ending Food had the privilege of presenting at the ‘Agroecology for the 21st Century‘ conference held in Cape Town, South Africa on January 28-30.  We were able to highlight many of the incredible things that are happening with Permaculture in Malawi and the incredible potential that Permaculture has to bring an end to things like ‘hungry seasons’, malnutrition, and poverty.

The conference attracted nearly 200 participants from the region including farmers, academics, advocates, and policy-makers.  The sessions covered a wide range of topics, including: Urban agroecology, health, nutrition, farmer’s rights, seed policy, curriculum development, and extension work.  Malawi was well-represented with participants from Never Ending Food, Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, the Department of Forestry, and academia.

We hope that the inspiring messages from this conference will continue to spread far and wide, helping African countries develop agricultural and social policies which are sustainable, resilient, and healthy!  It is disappointing that many of these incredible ideas and practices are still considered to be ‘alternatives’ rather than the accepted standards.  If we can get enough people working together, we will eventually reach a tipping-point where the world begins to embrace sustainable solutions.  This conference was just the tip of the iceberg, but it was a great step in the right direction.  A huge thank you to all the conference organizers, planners, and volunteers who made this a reality!

Get 20% more food from your ‘Zone 3’!

Ridge-Pathway-Ridge System

In Permaculture, ‘Zone 3‘ is generally the area in which seasonal, rain-fed production is implemented.  These Zone 3 areas often tend to be the areas in which more staple food production might take place (e.g. maize, cassava, millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, etc.)  In Malawi, however, many people have been practicing the monocropping of maize for many years.  Maize is now often seen as the ‘only’ food, and even in years of good harvests, many farmers are only getting one food, from one food-group, giving us one set of nutrients.

When most farmers in Malawi plant maize, they have been taught to make ridges in their fields.  A typical maize field will consist of a repeating pattern of ridge-pathway-ridge.  The ridges are planted with maize, and the rest of the land is left for pathways.  Diversification is one of the greatest keys to successful Permaculture implementation.  One of the ways that people can immediately start to get more food, is to eliminate ridges and move to a ‘bed‘ system.

Permanent Bed System

In Permaculture, many practitioners in Malawi are taking what used to be a ridge-pathway-ridge, and turning it into permanent one-meter beds.  There are many advantages to do this.  First of all, the current ridge-pathway-ridge system is only putting about 50% of land under cultivation for food, while the remaining 50% is being walked on.  The ‘bed’ system puts 70% of land under cultivation, while only 30% is used for pathways.  Maize can still be planted in beds, often down the edges, and then something else can be planted down the middle of the bed.  The middle of the beds can be reached from either side of the bed and can be planted with nitrogen fixers to help the maize to grow better, or with foods like cassava and sweet potatoes which will mature later than maize (giving more access to food security throughout the year), or with groundcovers (such as pumpkins, gourds, or cucumbers) to help suppress weeds and hold moisture in the ground.  Diversity not only helps to increase nutrition security, but also helps to feed the soil, absorb and hold water, provides habitat for beneficial predators, and helps us to mimic the patterns of nature.

In the current ridge-pathway-ridge system, the ground underneath the ridges is continually being compacted.  Each consecutive planting season, the ridges are turned over.  Meaning that this year’s pathway will be next year’s ridge.  By doing this, farmers end up walking on their entire field.  Over time, this causes the soil to become ‘hard-panned’.  When heavy rains come, the water quickly runs off of these compacted pathways, causing flooding.  And then, when there’s a gap in the rains for a week or two, the water has not been absorbed and held in the soil, so farmers quickly move into drought-like conditions.

The permanent bed system helps to eliminate this compaction.  Farmers no longer need to be walking on the areas being planted, which allows the natural processes of decomposition, ants, and worms to begin restoring the natural resilience to the soil.  When heavy rains fall on these beds, every drop is absorbed and held for much longer.  Diversifying crops also allows farmers to access more crops throughout the year from a wider range of Malawi’s 6-food groups.  Solutions exist, be the change that you want to see in the world!

The picture below shows the incredible difference that using the diversified permanent ‘bed’ system can make in years with erratic rainfall.  Both of these pictures were taken on the same day during Malawi’s 2016 ‘drought’ which left an estimated 4 million people facing food insecurity.  The picture on the left was a typical monocropped and ridged maize field, planted with hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers.  The field on the right was less than 100 meters away and received the exact same amount of rainfall.  This field was planted using the ‘bed’ system with free open-pollinated seeds, diversified with nitrogen-fixers, groundcovers, and fed with organic manure. The results speak for themselves and show the incredible potential that every Malawian farmer has to increase food and nutrition security in the face of climate change.  This is true ‘climate-smart’ agriculture!

There is no such thing as a Permaculture ‘garden’

The first stage of implementing Permaculture at a school–Observation

Over the years, Never Ending Food has received numerous requests from schools, organizations, and businesses to help them set up Permaculture ‘demonstration’ gardens.  Unfortunately, no such thing exists.  Permaculture is a holistic ‘design’ system, which takes into account the entirety of the site being designed.  Small areas can be converted to Permaculture practices, but these small areas need to be seen in relation to the ‘whole picture’.  At school campuses, a good Permaculture Designer would begin with a process of ‘Observation‘.  Observation is one of the most important parts of Permaculture design, and many people speak of Permaculture being comprised of about 80% observation and 20% implementation (or 100 hours of thinking for 1 hour of work).  Good observation requires a thorough analysis of things that can be seen, heard, and smelled on the site.  It also a directional orientation of where North, South, East and West are in relation to the site.  This helps to determine sun and shade angles, wind direction, down-wind smells, dust problems, fire threats, and other ‘sector’ influences.  It requires an investigation of seasonal changes in the climate, as well as the identification of micro-climates which may be found throughout the site.  (A micro-climate may be influenced by the presence of water, shade, sun, structures, vegetation, etc.)  Observation also takes into account soil and water considerations (e.g. is the soil healthy and soft or hard, infertile, and compacted; is there slope to the land that may influence the flow of water during rainy seasons; where does the water flow off of buildings, parking lots, or other structures, etc.).  Designing requires a look at how the site is being used and accessed (e.g. what are the main activities taking place; where are the roads, footpaths, car-parks, streams, bridges, etc.; what are the main purposes of the buildings (homes, kitchens, school-blocks, bathrooms, toilets, storage areas, animal pens, etc.); what are the needs and desires of the stakeholders; are their future plans for expansion or changes to the site, etc.).  Observation also needs to take an inventory of plant and animal species (e.g. trees, foods, natural medicines, fuel sources, seed-stock, insects, birds, wild and domestic animals, etc.)

The second stage of implementing Permaculture at a school–Mapping.

When this process of observation has been undertaken (it is never actually ‘completed’, as observation is a continual process even during the implementation process), the next phase is to make a ‘map’ of the site.  This map should be a record of what is already existing on the site.  Apart from the visible structures, don’t forget to take into consideration what is above and below (above may be electrical or telephone lines, and below may be water mains, gas lines, or underground cables).  By mapping these existing resources to scale, it allows a good designer to then assess which areas can be improved in accordance with the needs trying to be met by the site.

The third stage of implementing Permaculture at a school–Design.

The third stage is the ‘design’.  This is where the Designer begins to look at the site in terms of energy conservation.  Through the use of Permaculture ‘Zones’, things that take more work can be located closer to the hubs of energy.  For instance, if a home or classroom (Zone Zero) is using water for mopping, plants which like water can be located close to these sources.  If there is a kitchen with left-over food scraps, things like compost bins, worm-farms, or kitchen gardens may be located in these areas (Zone One).  The further away one moves from the sources of water and energy, the less water and energy should be required.  In Zone Two, a designer may plan for orchards, small animal production, compost making, shade trees, windbreaks, etc.  Zone Three becomes seasonal and rain-fed areas, where water-harvesting, staple foods, or larger animals may be located.  Zone Four is generally comprised of managed woodlots and can be designed to meet the needs of fuel, building materials, income generation, animal grazing, fodder, food, bee-keeping, or even eco-tourism.  Zone Five is the ‘forest’ where areas are allowed to regenerate naturally without much interference from humans.  In agroecology, this is sometimes referred to as ‘rewilding’.

This process of observation, mapping, and design is the very same process that a person would use for a small home, a large farm, a community, or even a large urban area.  The ‘Zones’ may be scaled up or down, but the thinking stays the same.  On one site, a Permaculture Designer may identify or plan for multiple Zone Zeros, Ones, Twos, Threes, Fours, or Fives.  Some Permaculture courses even teach about a ‘Zone Zero-Zero’, which is the human body.  Without good nutrition, natural medicines, fresh air, clean water, etc., it is difficult for our bodies to implement the work required in the other Zones.

So, the next time you hear somebody asking about setting up a Permaculture ‘garden’, ask them if they’ve taken into consideration the ‘whole picture’.