Malawi: Farmers use plant-based pesticides to control Fall armyworm and other pests

March 19, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

Esther Maona has been growing maize and legumes for many years. Until recently, pests tormented her so much that her harvests were too small to support her family. But her story changed when she started using plants like fish bean (Tephrosia vogelii) and violet tree (Securidaca longepedunculata) as pesticides to control Fall armyworm and other pests.

Mrs. Maona says, “We pound and soak the leaves, and then spray the crops that are attacked by pests.”

Mrs. Maona is from Mzika Shonga village in the Mzimba district of northern Malawi. She uses fish bean to fight the Fall armyworms that attack her maize.

She also grows pigeon peas. In the past, she could only harvest a bucket of the crop from one acre because she couldn’t afford to buy the expensive pesticides required to manage pests. She says, “Without any chemicals, it is difficult to harvest anything at all…. It’s the same for beans.”

But, by applying a liquid solution of fish bean leaves to control pests, Mrs. Maona now gets bumper harvests. She explains: “Pigeon peas are most susceptible to pests. Beetles trouble us, [but] to deal with them, we soak the leaves in water.… If you don’t have a sprayer, you apply the concoction to the garden with a broom.” She dips the broom in the leaf solution, then shakes the liquid off onto the pigeon pea plants.

Anita Chitaya is from the nearby village of Mayipi Nyoni. She used to plant fish bean in her field to improve soil fertility, but now also uses it as a pesticide to control pests in the field and during storage.

Mrs. Chitaya says, “When we want to keep our dried maize safe from weevils, we pound dried [fish bean] leaves and add them to the dried grains.”

To control Fall armyworms, Mrs. Chitaya uses a mixture of leaves called muwawani (Cassia abbreviata) and dema (Dolichos kilimandscharicus) in the local language. When she sprays the concoction in the maize field, the Fall armyworms die.

As well as using plants to control Fall armyworm, the farmers also use soil from their gardens. Mrs. Chitaya explains, “The Cassia abbreviata is more effective when the plants are small, but when they are about to flower, we use soil and it is very effective.”

Mrs. Chitaya and the other farmers fill the leaves, joints, and funnels of the maize plant with soil from their gardens. Mrs. Maona says, “When we did this, the Fall armyworms died and all the maize tasseled well without any problems.”

The farmers learned how to use shrubs and trees to control pests through the Malawi Farmer to Farmer Agroecology project, known as MAFFA. Mrs. Maona says they were motivated to learn how to use these indigenous biochemicals because there were so many new and resistant pests in the area that were not controlled by pesticides. She explains, “We can’t find the right chemicals for the pests. They are also expensive for us to buy. [So] we invested our energies in these local biochemicals.”

Lizzie Shumba is the coordinator for the MAFFA project. She says that many farmers used store-bought chemicals before the project started, but stopped after they learned how to use plants such as fish bean as pesticides in their fields and in storage.

Mrs. Shumba adds: “We developed a training centre that has demonstration plots. We are busy collecting all the herbs that work as biochemicals. We are planting them in the fields, so that farmers can see and learn how these plants work and try them in their own fields.”

Using various local plants as pesticides, many farmers in the area now get bumper harvests. The benefits are many: farmers have purchased cattle, bought iron sheets for housing, and paid for school fees. They have also avoided the costs of buying commercial pesticides.

Mrs. Chitaya explains what happened after she used plant-based pesticides to control pests in her pigeon peas: “The insects were effectively repelled from my field. The hospital bought my pigeon peas to feed patients. I bought three goats… I paid school fees for my child. In 2008, I earned 78,000 Malawi kwacha (about US$106). I have educated my child … I have bought and built a house made from iron sheets and I have expanded my garden from one acre to eight acres.”

As for Mrs. Maona, she sold her pigeon peas and bought a goat, something she had been unable to do in the past. She says, “I also built an iron sheet house. I bought a cow in 2014 for 120,000 Malawi kwacha (about US$164).” In addition to these personal gains, Mrs. Maona says the project has given her a chance to promote the use of agroecology to other farmers in the area.

This story was prepared with the support of the McLean Foundation.

MAFFA is a project of Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities (SFHC). FRI would like to thank SFHC for their support in preparing this story.