Nelly Bassily | October 17, 2011
Anthony Kapesa has stopped tilling his land. But this farmer from Zombwe village in Malawi still expects a good harvest of maize this year. Faced with worsening dry spells, Mr. Kapesa now spreads moisture-preserving mulch over the surface of his untilled field.
Lack of rainfall during the growing season is an increasing concern for farmers in Malawi. Many people believe this problem is due to climate change.
In the past, Mr. Kapesa’s crops wilted whenever there was a dry spell. He hoed his fields every season. He made ridges on which he planted his maize. But he learned that soil loosened by tilling is more easily dried by the sun.
Now, Mr. Kapesa uses wild grass to mulch his fields. He cuts the grass and leaves it to dry before spreading it. To plant his seeds, he pulls aside a little mulch, digs a small hole, drops in a seed, and buries it.
Mulch protects the soil against the impact of raindrops. It allows rain to soak slowly into the ground. When the rains don’t come, the mulch keeps the soil cool and reduces the rate of moisture loss.
Mr. Kapesa points to a granary full of harvested maize. He says, “Since I started using this system, my crop no longer wilts … as a result, my yields have been more than what they used to be when I planted my crops on ridges.” Before he began mulching, Mr. Kapesa harvested 16 50-kilogram bags of maize. Now the same land produces 43 bags, nearly triple the yield.
Tilling the soil and making planting ridges are traditional farming techniques in Malawi. Chakalipa Kanyenda is program manager for Find Your Feet, a UK-based non-governmental organization. Find Your Feet teaches farmers how to adapt to the effects of climate change. According to Mr. Kanyenda, tilling and ridging can increase moisture loss from the soil. He says that mulching has successfully cushioned farmers against the increasingly erratic rainfall in Malawi. Farmers have eagerly adopted the practice.
Mr. Kapesa has experienced the benefits of mulching directly. The farmer says that, since he started planting in mulch rather than on ridges, his field stays moist even during hot weather. He says, “As a result, my crops keep growing vigorously even during such periods of dry spells.”