Malawi: Farmer profits by raising tree seedlings

| June 8, 2015

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Patrick Kenani used to rely on maize to support his family. But life was difficult; maize didn’t bring in much income. In 2013, Mr. Kenani discovered that tree seedlings offer a better return on investment.

Mr. Kenani now operates a profitable tree nursery near the village of Kawere, 60 kilometres north of Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. He stocks it with Leucaenae and Acacia, leguminous trees which help fertilize the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form of nitrogen that can be used by growing plants. He sells the seedlings to local farmers, who plant them around their homes and in their fields.

Mr. Kenani started the nursery after seeing the deforestation around him. He recalls: “People in my village … cut down trees wantonly without replacing [them]. When I looked around, I [saw] that the population of indigenous trees was diminishing. I knew that if nothing was done, small-scale farmers like me could face more challenges.”

Mr. Kenani saw that deforestation was badly affecting small-scale farmers. He explains, “Soils have eroded and women are travelling long distances to fetch firewood.”

In an effort to reduce deforestation, the government of Malawi and NGOs are trying to educate people about the importance of trees. Vwofugha Msuka is the local extension worker. Mr. Msuka says: “The majority of people cut trees to make charcoal, which is in high demand in towns and trading centres. Some people use trees [to cure] tobacco, while others sell the trees for [domestic] firewood and the burning of bricks.”

Now that the forest cover has all but disappeared, Mr. Msuka is encouraging farmers to plant new trees every year. He says, “They are good for the soil and the environment in general … Trees are very important to farmers.”

Mr. Kenani carefully chooses which species to grow. He says: “I learnt from our extension worker that Faidherbia albida trees [a kind of Acacia] are good because they [increase] soil fertility. Leucaenae and Acacia [leaves can be] fed to cows and goats … I knew that farmers would like them.”

Gerald Nkhata farms in the nearby village of Kawamba. He also discovered that tree seedlings generate good profits. He says: “I learned that [Leucaenae and Acacia trees] grow faster than the local trees. Besides, they are not easily attacked by diseases. People like buying my seedlings … after seeing how fellow farmers are benefiting.”

The profits are good, but managing a nursery is hard work and labour-intensive. Mr. Nkhata must irrigate the seedlings constantly during the dry season. He says, “It is difficult to raise tree seedlings when the water source is very far … [But] I am lucky because I drilled a well which does not go dry.”

Mr. Kenani plans to expand his nursery to meet the strong local demand. In 2014, he earned enough to buy three goats and a solar power system. He says, “I also built a shop—my wife now sells groceries to people from the village and the surrounding area.”

He used to make less than $250 U.S. per year from maize. But now his finances are much healthier. In 2013, Mr. Kenani raised 20,000 seedlings and earned $1,400 U.S. in sales. He says, “Last year I raised more seedlings and I hope [that] by the time I finish selling all the seedlings this year, I will have even more money to support my family.”

Photo: Mr. Patrick Kenani holding his seedlings. Credit: Mark Ndipita