Life became difficult for Annie Basikolo in 2004 when her marriage ended in divorce. It was a challenge to provide enough food for her children and pay their school fees. She had little money and less time.
But things began to change in 2005 when she started growing okra in her garden in the village of Njovu, near Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe. She grew okra to feed her family. But many Malawians love eating okra as a relish or sauce to accompany nsima, a stiff maize porridge eaten as a staple. When city residents began asking for the crop, Mrs. Basikolo realized that she had a market.
Since then, Mrs. Basikolo has expanded her okra field to nearly a quarter-hectare, a little less than half a football pitch. She plants at the beginning of the first rains, making the most of the erratic water supply in her area.
Because her field is close to a river, she can also irrigate the crop. Irrigation allows her to harvest okra pods for nearly six months. Mrs. Basikolo improves the health and fertility of her soil by applying as much composted manure as she can get her hands on.
Okra has worked well for Mrs. Basikolo. She says it does not take long before okra returns benefits to a grower. She explains: “I harvest tender okra pods using a sharp knife almost daily from two months after planting. I harvest about eight kilograms of okra every day, and this gives me the much-needed income for my home.” She sells her produce to eager buyers at the nearby Area 23 Township Market in Lilongwe.
Joseph Mtengezo is an agricultural extension worker in Lilongwe. He says okra is generally grown as a subsistence crop in Malawi, with less than 100 hectares planted around Lilongwe. But there is great demand from city dwellers, and Mr. Mtengezo believes the crop could transform the lives of small-scale farmers.
He says many farmers have poor harvests because they intercrop okra with maize. He explains, “I encourage farmers to turn to monocropping as opposed to intercropping, in order to realize higher yields.”
John Molosoni is a farmer from Ching’amba village, 60 kilometres east of Lilongwe, who follows Mr. Mtengezo’s advice. He says, “I have seen a major improvement in okra yield after transforming to monocropping from intercropping this year.”
Mr. Molosoni plans to grow more okra in the coming rainy season. He is optimistic that higher yields will mean a better income for his family.
Mrs. Basikolo has only one problem with okra: the pods have tiny spines that irritate her hands when harvesting.
But okra has changed her life. With daily sales of $10 U.S., she can easily pay her children’s school fees of $45 U.S. per term. Her children attend the local government secondary school during the day, and Mrs. Basikolo has food waiting for them on the table when they return home.