2. Malawi: Vetiver grass is a tool for soil and water management (African Farm Radio Research Initiative Malawi Team)

| May 25, 2009

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It’s the beginning of the dry season in Makombe village. The sun is scorching down on the small fields below. A farmer stands proudly next to her plot. As other farmers gather, she points to a new crop growing.
The object of their attention is not the maize growing tall in the field. It’s the grass growing alongside. The farmer has planted Vetiver grass – a deep rooting grass that helps to prevent soil erosion.

Makombe village is located in Malawi’s Central Region. Its rolling hills have long presented a challenge to farmers. When rains are heavy, water floods over the land. Soil is washed away. But when the rains are gone, little water is retained in the soil.

Over time, some villagers tried planting Vetiver grass. They saw some benefits, but had some challenges tending to the grass. Other villagers were simply not convinced that Vetiver grass was worth the effort.
Now, a radio program is helping villagers learn everything they need to know about Vetiver grass. Mlera Nthaka – or keeper of the soil – is broadcast on Zodiak Broadcasting Station. It is part of the African Farm Radio Research Initiative, or AFRRI. It reaches Makombe and other villages with similar soil challenges. As one Makombe farmer said, “it has changed the way we take care of our fields.”

The Mlera Nthaka program seeks to change some popular ideas about Vetiver grass, such as the misperception that Vetiver grass will overshadow crops or reduce the area that can be used for crops. It also addressed many practical questions: where can farmers buy Vetiver seed? How should they plant it? And how should they care for it to get the greatest benefit?

Rex Chapota is the National Research Coordinator in Malawi for AFRRI. He has seen the changes taking place in Makombe and other villages touched by the Mlera Nthaka program. Farmers are joining together to plant Vetiver grass nurseries. Soon, this new grass will be transplanted to their fields.
Those who have been using Vetiver for a few years are learning how to better care for their grass, and earning respect within their communities.