Malawi: Vegetable farmers switch from chemical to plant-based pesticides

June 11, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

Mary Mdima is about to prepare sauce for today’s lunch. She picks up a small basin and opens the garden gate behind her house, where she grows vegetables using only plant-based pesticides. She quickly picks some tomatoes and okra and heads straight to her grass-thatched kitchen.

Mrs. Mdima lives in Chalula village in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. She says that diamondback moths and aphids used to eat through the stems and leaves of her plants. Pests also transmitted diseases that made the leaves curl up and turn yellow. Some plants died, while others produced stunted vegetables. She couldn’t produce enough to feed her family and cover their expenses.

But Mrs. Mdima no longer worries about garden pests because she uses shrubs and other plants to keep her garden free of pests. She learned about plant-based pesticides in 2014 from a non-governmental organization called The Face-to-Face Project.

She explains, “The use of chemical pesticides… is costly and not sustainable. In the past, I gave up growing vegetables because the chemicals are expensive.”

Mrs. Mdima is happy that she can grow vegetables without chemical pesticides. She says: “I grow different vegetables such as cabbage, onions, okra, tomatoes, rape, and mustard. I am able to do this because I use different plants to control pests, and I do not use expensive chemical pesticides from the market.”

Mrs. Mdima explains she uses leaves from chili, onion, neem, and local plants such as delia (Mexican sunflower), chanzi, futsa, and mpungabwI (local basil) to control pests in her garden. She explains: “I put leaves of these plants into a mortar and pound them. I transfer the mixture into a pail and add water and stir until the water turns green. I leave the mixture for one hour before I start spraying [it] on my vegetables.”

She says that plant-based pesticides are effective: “The pests die. Some fail to eat the vegetables while others run away whenever I have sprayed the mixture on the vegetables. This is a cheap way of controlling pests because I am using locally available [plant] species.”

Madalitso Zulu is the coordinator of The Face-to-Face Project. She says using plants to manage pests is simple. Leaves of plants like onion and chili that taste bitter and smell strong will deter the pests.

Ms. Zulu explains: “What happens is that some pests run away from the strong smell while other pests that [usually] eat vegetables fail to do so because of the bitterness of the mixture sprayed on the vegetables by the farmers.”

Palamila Lufeyo grows mustard, cabbage, tomatoes, and other vegetables in nearby Tchingira village. He stopped applying store-bought chemical pesticides because of the side effects.

Mr. Lufeyo explains: “The pesticides have negative effects because they are hazardous. When we eat vegetables that were recently sprayed with chemical pesticides, we feel stomachache. To avoid these illnesses, I started using different plants as a traditional means of controlling pests in my vegetable garden.”

Farmers can minimize the side effects of chemical pesticides by following the instructions written on the labels of bona fide pesticides. The label tells a farmer the best time to apply the pesticide, and how long of an interval to leave between the last chemical application and eating the vegetables. Farmers can also consult an extension worker.

Violeti Gondwe is a widow from nearby Dima village. She says she cannot afford to pay 3,000 Malawi kwacha (US$4.10) for a bottle of chemical pesticide to manage moths and aphids in her vegetable garden.

She adds that after her husband died, life was hard. She could not grow enough vegetables to feed her family because she was unable to manage pests. But, she says, “After learning how to use different plants to control pests in vegetables, I started growing different vegetables again so that I should not have food problems at my house.”

Mrs. Mdima used to exchange maize for vegetables in order to prepare meals, but now life is better because she has abundant vegetables in her garden.

She adds: “I sell some vegetables to other people who have no gardens, and I use the income to buy groceries such as soap and sugar. All this has happened because I am using [plants] as a cheap way to control pests in my garden. I am now advising other farmers in my area to start growing vegetables using this technique.”

Photo: Mary Mdima