Malawi: Farmer turns tomatoes to gold

| November 9, 2015

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Eliza Biliati has grown maize all her life. It’s the staple food her family depends on. But her harvest was only enough to feed her family, and she struggled to find enough money to purchase household needs.

Mrs. Biliati lives in Tsabango, a village about 30 kilometres northeast of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. For years, she had to carefully manage her husband’s seasonal earnings to make them last through the year. She explains, “My husband sells river sand for construction. Vehicles come only in the dry season because the roads are impassable during the rainy season.”Her husband pays labourers to dig the sand from the nearby Nanjiri River, and makes very little profit from the business.

Mrs. Biliati knew that something had to change. Last year, she realized that, in spite of strong local demand, very few local farmers grew tomatoes. She says, “The few people that grow tomatoes sell their produce quickly.”She convinced her husband they should give the crop a try.

Mrs. Biliati’s husband, Fakeni, helped his wife place stakes in the garden to support the tomato plants. He explains, “This keeps the plants upright, which means they do not break under their own weight. The tomatoes don’t rot because they don’t touch the ground.”Mr. Biliati reckons a single plant can produce about 50 tomatoes over its life. It takes only two plants to fill a crate with the round and juicy fruit, which the couple sells for about US$8.

Mrs. Biliati experimented with the new crop by planting it on just a small part of her field. But now she is convinced that tomatoes are the perfect crop to support her family. She earned about US$100 from the small area the family planted. Her current crop is all but harvested, and Mrs. Biliati plans to grow a much larger crop to meet local demand.

Cosmas Kachepa is Mrs. Biliati’s neighbour, and also grows tomatoes. Mr. Kachepa says tomatoes are profitable, but farmers need to constantly care for the plants. Red spider mites and blight are particularly damaging. He says, “I always make sure that I have pesticides available—I have to protect my tomatoes and ensure that my harvest is of the highest quality.”

Donald Kachigamba is the agricultural entomologist at Bvumbwe Research Station. He thinks farmers should avoid rushing to use chemical pesticides. He advises them to follow a more integrated pest management approach. Dr. Kachigamba says: “Tomato farmers should first try non-chemical methods such as crop rotation, planting in good time, [and] following hygiene practices such as uprooting and removing infected plants. [They] should only use chemicals as a last resort.”

Vendors come to Mrs. Biliati’s farm because local demand for tomatoes is high. The farmer realizes she could get a better price if she transported her tomatoes to the market herself. But she calculates that what she loses in sales revenue, she saves in time and costs such as transport and market fees.

Mrs. Biliati is happy that she started growing tomatoes. The cash she earns from the new crop provides her family with money to pay for their daily needs. She says: “We have seen how good tomato farming is. As a family, we plan to grow more tomatoes to meet the demand. I am also saving money—I don’t have to buy tomatoes for dinner anymore.”

Photo: Eliza Biliati and her husband in their tomato garden. Credit: Mark Ndipta