Malawi: Letina Gondwe adopts labour-saving conservation agriculture techniques to benefit her health (by Mark Ndipita, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Malawi)

November 26, 2012
A translation for this article is available in French

In Malawi, women do more than half of the farm work. Letina Gondwe is no exception. As a widow, she is solely responsible for her family. Farming was the only way she could provide food and income. But when she tested positive for HIV, she was advised to cut back on farm labour.

While Mrs. Gondwe cared for her health, her maize yields declined. She seemed stuck in an impossible situation until she learned about conservation agriculture – a method of farming that calls for less tillage. With conservation agriculture, Mrs. Gondwe began applying more knowledge and less labour to her field.

Mrs. Gondwe hails from Mwakabanga, a village along Malawi’s northern border. She learned that she was HIV positive five years ago, shortly after her husband died. By then, her body’s immunity had dwindled drastically. She started taking immunity-boosting drugs known as antiretrovirals, which were provided by the nearby health centre.

Mrs. Gondwe regained her strength a few months after she began taking the drugs. But intensive farm labour remained a challenge. A few years later, Mrs. Gondwe began to feel desperate. She recalls: “Life started becoming unbearable because I was becoming food insecure year after year. I contemplated starting [a] small-scale business but I had no capital.” She felt that she had no option but to defy hospital advice and spend more hours in her field.

One year ago, her life turned around. An extension worker introduced her to conservation agriculture. The officer explained the practice to Mrs. Gondwe and other small-scale farmers in the area who live with HIV. Many quickly adopted the new farming methods.

Conservation agriculture involves less tillage – a physically demanding and time-consuming activity. Two alternatives to tillage are promoted. One is called basin tillage. Farmers dig small basins or pits that capture water and soil nutrients. The other is called “ripping.” Farmers use a device that breaks up compacted soil, allowing water and roots to penetrate deeply.

These alternatives to tillage reduce soil loss and erosion. They complement the other principles of conservation agriculture: leaving crop residues on the field as mulch, and rotating crops.

Kossam Munthali is executive director of the Foundation for Community Support Services. This non-governmental organization supports people living with HIV and AIDS in the area. Mr. Munthali praised the farmers for adopting the new, labour-saving approach to agriculture.

Conservation agriculture practices have brought hope and joy to many HIV positive farmers in Malawi. Mrs. Gondwe grows mostly maize, but has added cassava and potatoes. Now she produces enough food for her family with a surplus to sell. With her new income, she buys other nutritious foods to round out her diet. With new-found hope, she says, “I wish all small-scale, HIV positive farmers could adopt this kind of farming.”