By Rodgers Mwandira, Family Farmer, Mzimba, Malawi, care of FAO-Malawi for the Perspectives Essay Series
I’m 42 years old and married to Harriet who is 41 years. I have seven children – four girls and three boys, the first born being a 23-year-old daughter and last born is a son, aged four. I’m from Mswamphira village, in Traditional Authority Mabilabo, south of Mzimba district in Malawi.
I’m a proud smallholder irrigation farmer, and belong to Mswamphira Irrigation Scheme as a member. I started serious farming in 2001 when hunger struck Malawi. By that time, I was very poor and living in grass-thatched house with nothing to show for wealth, except for my children.
Malnutrition among our children in the village and the surrounding areas was frighteningly high and rampant. As a result, we lost some children to hunger-related illness.
For such children under five, the situation was dire because most of them spent a good time at the nearby hospital’s Rehabilitation Unit. We were all affected and development, at a household level, plummeted significantly because we spent most our time with these children in hospital.
So, I asked myself whether I couldn’t do something to ensure that I have abundant nutritious foods for my children and avert malnutrition and deaths. This was the genesis and motivation for me to go into serious small-scale farming. Since then, I have no regrets at all and, as a family, we haven’t been affected by hunger since then and are living happily.
So how did I start, you may wish to know: I got a small fertilizer loan (two bags each of basal and top-dressing) from Catholic Development Commission (CADECOM), a church development arm of the Catholic Church in Malawi. I applied it to maize and lucky enough we had a good harvest that year.
I paid the loan with ease after selling the surplus maize. From the same profit, I managed to buy a cow, which has multiplied to four now. Of course, I started small by growing maize, Irish potatoes, tomatoes and vegetables like cabbage and continue to grow these crops up to now. I also raise cattle, goats, pigs and chickens. Since that time, I have been selling the surplus at Jenda Market – which is not so near from here because we spend close to K14, 000 ($35) per return trip to take our produce there for sale.
As I speak, I have enough maize to take me throughout the year, for food. I can also count four cattle, five goats, two pigs, eight chickens and an ox-cart – all these are the fruits of farming.
Honestly, we are now making profits from farming. I have even managed to build a house roofed with iron sheets and hope more good things are yet to come. Furthermore, out of my farming business, I have managed to send two children to Secondary School and I hope that the remaining five children will also face no financial hurdles to go for secondary education.
More importantly, I am food secure and eat six food groups all the time, after learning about the advantages of preparing nutritious foods for our children and us adults, thanks to FAO’s “Improving Food Security and Nutrition Policies and Programme Outreach (IFSN)” project with funding from the Flanders International Development Agency (FICA) .
My wife and I, together with our children, are very happy because we don’t buy food these days. That said, I also face a number of challenges in farming. Chief among them is the accessibility to markets. Where I go at Jenda Market to sell produce is far because I spend a lot of money and time on transport and I wish there was a market near-by.
The second challenge is that the price of fertilizers is expensive as it keeps on rising and, this alone, is deterrent enough to most of us small-holder farmers. Related to fertilizers, good quality certified seeds is a challenge and if we find them, they are exorbitantly too expensive to most of us smallholders. And I can’t not talk more enough about the challenge of pesticides and equipment like spraying machines, wheelbarrow and watering canes. In short, infrastructure is a big challenge for me to upscale agriculture production as I wished.
Talking about this year’s World Food Day theme – “Family Farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth”, I think this is a very relevant and appropriate theme for me because it tallies well with what I am doing in irrigated agriculture and the modern technologies we are adopting in our small farms.
It makes a lot of sense that while we want to increase production of our maize and other cereals, as well as livestock, as farmers we should also be thinking of the fields or gardens as well as environment on which our livelihoods depends.
The only problem I have is that much as some of us find sense in conserving the environment, there is a whole lot of irresponsible subsistence farming practices, contrary to what some of us are practicing to ensure healthy environments. There is too much cutting of trees around this area, burning of bushes and burning of bricks for building houses – all of which contribute to destruction of the environment which has a negative impact on agricultural production.
So, in view of that, I think some of us who know the devastating effects of these unfriendly and unhealthy ecological practices have a huge role to enlighten our fellow farmers on proper farming practices to ensure that our children should also find the same environment in good shape. We have a role to spread the message ever more, far and deep enough.
Of course, talk of farming appear cheap and easy to most people, especially those who are not familiar with farming. On the contrary, family farming is big business and requires focus and good planning. You need good understanding and communication between a husband and a wife if you are to succeed as a farmer. You need to plan together and walk through the implementation of the plan together.
Failing to plan is also planning to fail. In my view – which is shared by wife – these are some of salient issues most people don’t know about small-scale farming.
Based on what I have said above, I don’t see the future of farming being that bright unless certain things are addressed. I think the government holds the key to the future of farming for most of us smallholders. The government needs to regulate the agriculture sector by working on reducing the price of inputs especially fertilizers which are too expensive to most of smallholders.
Accessibility in terms of good road network, distance and time-spent to markets is another area government needs to work on. There is no point walking long and expensive distances only to sell produce whose net value roughly equals the cost of transportation.
As for my children, yes, I involve them in farming most of the times. But I encourage them to go to school first because I don’t want them to take farming the way I do as an uneducated man. The future of my children is in education and not farming. There are already too many people in farming and I will not like to see education playing second fiddle to farming, as far as my children are concerned. Not in this age!
Look, much as some of us are privileged enough to get assistance from FAO projects, but if I were to ask for more supplementary help in my farming, I would ask people, donors or the government to address the challenges I have mentioned already – I think these are key. Access to markets, price of inputs and pesticides, equipment like wheelbarrows and canes etc.
And here is an advice to those who are willing to venture into farming: hard work is the mother of farming. Be willing to learn new farming technologies in view of the threat of climate change, these days. Above all, ask where you don’t understand because there are crops for every season and soil. If available, make use of government extension workers or lead farmers near you to become a successful smallholder farmer.
Curated by the FAO Liaison Office for North America with the World Food Day Network, Perspectives is an essay series that digs deeper into the annual World Food Day theme. This year, read different points of view on the value and future of family farming from farmers, ranchers, and leaders in agriculture, research and economics. Two essays will be featured daily starting September 15 through October 16, World Food Day.