Malawi: Farmers improve yields with compost

December 15, 2014
A translation for this article is available in French

Matilida Gwetsa was unable to feed her family, despite growing a range of crops on her one-and-a-half hectares of land. Her yields of maize, rice and cassava were poor. For several years, she was unable to send her seven children to school. Her family was constantly hungry.

Mrs. Gwetsa lives in Tandwe, a village 200 kilometres northeast of Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. She says: “The soil in my area is sandy and [infertile] because it has been overused … as a result, my family has been struggling because of poor income and food insecurity.”

Things started to change for the better in 2012. That year, Nkhotakota Community Radio started a campaign focused on raising awareness of how to make and use compost. Mrs. Gwetsa explains, “I have learned a lot through radio and field days. I am now able to make compost manure and … have seen a tremendous improvement in yield.”

To make compost, farmers use leaves, dry or green grass, livestock dung, vegetable peelings and crop residues. There are different methods of preparing compost. In Nkhotakota district, farmers came to prefer the Chimato method, in which the outside of the compost heap is plastered with mud to conserve moisture. The mud covering also increases the build-up of heat, which speeds the composting process.

This method is less labour-intensive, as the compost does not have to be turned and requires less water. Farmers can further speed the composting process by making air vents at the bottom and in the middle of the pile.

Mrs. Gwetsa also learned how to apply compost to her rice field. She says, “Previously [the soil in] my rice field used to dry out quickly. But now with compost, water retention and moisture have improved.”

Ethel Mwase is an extension worker in Nkhotakota district. She says increased soil fertility is the key to a bumper harvest. She adds: “When the same field is cultivated for many years, the soil loses fertility and crop yields start declining. It is important for farmers to add organic matter through compost to maintain fertility.”

Ms. Mwase encourages farmers to make and apply compost. She explains, “Compost helps the soil to retain water, conserve moisture, and [it] reduces soil erosion.”

Ramadani Saidi makes compost at his small farm in nearby Chota village. He started applying it to his field to protect his soil from drying out when there is little rainfall. He says, “Because I apply compost, [the] soil structure has improved and my maize does not wilt whenever there is a dry spell.”

Zaina Makawa also lives in the village of Chota. She started farming in 1989 and used only chemical fertilizer until she heard about compost on the radio. She says, “Chemical fertilizer is not a solution for our infertile soils. I now use [compost] to prevent erosion and to replenish soil fertility.”

Mrs. Makawa adds that using compost saves her money. She says, “I now use two bags of fertilizer instead of six, saving about $135 U.S. per year.”

Since she started using compost on her three-fifths of a hectare, Mrs. Gwetsa’s maize harvest has almost doubled from 15 to 26 bags. She says: “I also apply compost in my cassava and rice field, and I harvest more … I sell the surplus to buy other household needs such as soap. My children now go to school.”

Nkhotakota Community Radio conducted the radio campaign in conjunction with Farm Radio Trust, and with funding from Irish Aid.