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Soil erosion, irregular rain impacting small holder farmers in Malawi

By Obiabin Onukwugha

Malawi is one of African countries that is suffering the impacts of climate change due to unpredictable rainfall patterns.

Malawi’s climate is generally tropical with warm temperatures between  November and April. The country also experiences equatorial rains and thunderstorms, with the storms reaching their peak severity in late March.

This increasingly unpredictable rainfall and higher than usual temperatures are causing problems for smallholder farmers in the south-east African country.

Agriculture accounts for over 25% of Malawi’s gross domestic product and about 80% of the population depend on smallholder farming for their survival. But the country is now faced with food shortages and hunger.

According to reports, Malawi loses vital soil nutrients due to erosion on degradation of arable land. The declining soil fertility as a result of the land degradation and soil erosion has continued to be one of the core causes of food insecurity among smallholder farm households in the country.

Reports have it that farmers are already struggling financially as many of them are now forced to farm only maize because they can’t easily afford chemical fertilisers that would boost the soil’s fertility and sustain yields.

A recent research report noted that a combination of plants can improve soil fertility and save farmers the stress of having to acquire expensive fertilizers.

The researchers from the University of Worcester, said they conducted trials on farms in northern Malawi where they tested a combination of different crops grown together. “We then measured changes to the soil fertility in each field over a two year period. Our research found that growing maize with cowpea and pigeon pea in raised “deep beds” led to much greater soil fertility.

“We decided to work with smallholder farmers in Msongwe, near the city of Mzuzu, to see if intercropping peas with maize in deep beds would give even better results.

“Our experimental design compared agricultural plots across two growing seasons, one after another. We tried growing different combinations of maize in traditional cultivation ridges (ordinarily sown in lines) and in deep beds, both on its own and intercropped with cowpea or pigeon pea. We then analysed the amount of nitrates in the soil – one of the most important nutrients to help plants grow. We also analysed the amount of phosphates (or phosphorous, another important nutrient) in the soil and measured the amount of maize that was grown.

“Our research found that intercropping improves the soil a lot. Legumes such as beans or peas take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into ammonium and nitrate in the soil. This is a natural fertiliser. It improves soil health and supports better growth for other crops, like maize, that are planted alongside legumes.

“When cereal-legume intercropping is combined with deep bed farming, the results are even better,” the researchers stated.

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