Small-scale farmers in this southeast African nation are turning to trees to help their crops grow. Killar Kawelama is a farmer from Balaka in southern Malawi. He explains, “These trees have the potential not only to enrich the soils, but also to help keep moisture in my field even if the rains rarely come.”
Many farmers intercrop trees with maize to provide moisture-preserving shade for the growing maize. Others bury tree leaves in the ground to make the soil more fertile and help retain moisture at planting time.
Between April and June, Mr. Kawelama digs planting holes. In them, he places fresh or dried leaves from Gliricidia sepium trees. The fast-growing trees grow close to his house, and do well in a wide range of conditions. When the rains come around September and October, he opens part of each hole and plants his seeds.
The leaves decompose in the ground, and the resulting compost boosts the soil’s fertility and traps moisture around the maize plants like a sponge, helping the crop grow more vigorously.
Kufasi Shela is with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development. She says, “Plants growing in such an environment are more likely to give a farmer a better yield as they don’t wither easily because of (lack of) moisture.”
Bettie Lungu of Mzimba in northern Malawi plants Tephrosia vogelii trees amongst her maize. These trees increase the amount of fertilizing nitrogen in the soil. They do not grow taller than the maize plants, so they don’t over shade and stifle their growth, according to Mahara Nyirenda, an agriculture coordinator for the Development Fund of Norway.
Nyirenda says, “The leaves falling from the trees cover the ground. When it rains, this layer traps the raindrops, preventing them from accumulating into runoff. They also aid percolation into the soil.” He adds that the tree canopies shade the ground in sunny weather and the fallen leaves help keep moisture in the soil.
According to the World Agroforestry Centre, nearly 150,000 small-scale farmers in Malawi are using fertilizer tree systems. Several species are used, though the most popular is Gliricidia sepium.
Killar Kawelama is very happy with the results. When he used chemical fertilizers, Kawelama harvested 20 sacks of maize, each weighing 50 kilograms. Since switching to tree fertilizers, his yields have declined slightly to 18 sacks.
“But I am better off now because I am saving over 24,000 Malawian Kwacha (about $150), which I used to spend on chemical fertilizers,” he explains.