1. Malawi: For good yields, feed the soil (by Gladson Makowa, for Farm Radio Weekly in Malawi)

| August 23, 2010

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Joseph Ole Morijo lost his entire herd of 152 goats and sheep after he fed them spiny cactus. So he was baffled to hear researchers proclaim recently that cactus can be used as animal fodder during a drought.
Mr. Ole Morijo is from Laikipia in the northern drylands of Kenya. He says, “It is a dangerous plant. I know it well and I have seen it ruin our livestock. It has to be eradicated completely.”

Experts from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI, studied the potential of cacti with the scientific name of Opuntia as a fodder crop. In May, they released a report which shows that if the right species of spineless cacti are selected, they offer much needed nutrition for livestock during extreme dry seasons.

Mr. Ole Morijo is not convinced that the spineless species exists, and that it is safe as fodder for his animals. “I cannot believe it until I see it,” he says.

John Kang’ara is one of the lead researchers at KARI. “There are two main types of Opuntia: those with spiny fruits, and the spineless type. Though both of them have similar nutritional value, the spiny type poses a challenge to the farmers,” he explains. “It means that if the spiny types are to be used as animal fodder, then farmers must take their time to remove the spines by burning or scraping them with a machete before feeding them to animals.”

Farmers in Chidzinja village, Thyolo district in Malawi, often get low maize yields. They claim this is because they only have small areas of land to cultivate. But Bulton Bwanali, a farmer from the nearby village of Nangumi, says they cannot blame their hunger on lack of land. Instead, they need to look at the health of their soils.

Mr. Bwanali has more than tripled his yield by paying attention to his soil. One of his gardens occupies a tenth of a hectare. He used to harvest about three 50 kilogram bags of maize from this land. Then he learned about manure from the Story Workshop, a local NGO. He says, “The Story Workshop told me how to make good and nutritious manure and encouraged me to feed the soil and not only the plants with organic nutrients.”

In June 2010, The Story Workshop organized a food festival called Mwana Alirenji, which means “food self-sufficiency” in Chichewa, a national language of Malawi. Mr. Bwanali was invited as a model farmer. He shared his success story with fellow farmers in Chidzinja village.

Mr. Bwanali offered more details about the manure: “The compost manure was made from animal droppings mixed with grass and some ashes and cured for a month. I turned it every week. I then supplemented my maize with liquid manure 22 days after the first shoots appeared. As a result I harvested 14 bags from the same land.”

But Mr. Bwanali’s success was not only due to the manure. He also made contour ridges on his sloping land. He said, “I realigned all my ridges at the same level across the slope and applied organic compost manure as advised.”

Tobias Chova is one of the farmers from Chidzinja who is learning about these techniques. He said that he was happy to learn that soil rehabilitation does not end with making contour ridges, but also includes feeding the soil with more nutrients. He has already built contour ridges on his land. He will now start adding organic manure to his garden.

Mary Phoya is the village headwoman in Chidzinja. She said that this information will go a long way towards reducing hunger in her village. Many people farm about half a hectare of land but harvest less than four 50 kilogram bags of maize. She will continue encouraging the community to conserve the soil with contour ridges and add nutrients with organic manure.

Nani Lazaro is the agriculture field adviser for the area. He emphasized that farmers need to feed the soils with compost even if they can afford inorganic fertilizers. He says that farmers usually add fertilizers to planting holes as they plant the seeds. This first application of fertilizer helps roots to develop and get nutrients from the soil. But he wonders, “Where will the plants get the nutrients from if we are not feeding the soil?”

For more information and resources on compost and soil fertility, please refer to the Soil Health Issue Pack, July 2010:  http://farmradio.org/english/radio-scripts/91-9script_en.asp.