Mark Ndipita | December 7, 2015
In Malawi, maize farmers cultivate their fields between November and January so they can plant with the first rains of the new year. It’s a busy period. Farmers like Chikondi Nguluwe clear weeds from their fields, and then plough and build ridges for their maize.
But in recent years, Mr. Nguluwe has added an extra ingredient to his seedbeds. He digs tobacco residues into the soil because chemical fertilizer is scarce and expensive.
Mr. Nguluwe is a small-scale farmer from Chikanda village, in Dowa district, about 30 kilometres north of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. He says farm inputs are becoming unaffordable. He explains: “Many farmers that are not on the government farm input subsidy program are likely to struggle to find money for [chemical] fertilizer. Some will not apply fertilizer and are likely to be food insecure next year.”
Farmers are facing high prices for chemical fertilizers this year because there are not enough government-subsidized farm inputs to meet the demand. A 50-kilogram bag of chemical fertilizer costs about US$30 in Malawi, and the high price is putting pressure on the small-scale maize farmers who grow the country’s staple food.
To reduce his fertilizer costs, Mr. Nguluwe is digging tobacco residues into his soil. As the residues decompose, they release nutrients and organic matter which increase soil fertility. He says, “Fertilizer costs keep increasing every year. I started applying tobacco [residues] to my maize in 2013. Instead of using six bags of fertilizer, I now use three bags.”
Mr. Nguluwe travels every year to Lilongwe’s tobacco markets and processing plants. He says: “We collect these tobacco residues for free. I use my ox cart. I need to do this … because our soils have become infertile and without manure or [chemical] fertilizer, a farmer cannot harvest enough maize.”
Maize farmers have worked out the best timing for applying tobacco residues to their fields. Felix Gama from Chimwanya village explains, “We apply tobacco manure before we make ridges and furrows. I use about 12 ox carts full of tobacco on my [one and a half hectare] field.”
Chapatuka Vakishoni also farms in Chimwanya. He has no money to buy fertilizer. But this year, he collected tobacco residues after seeing how other farmers benefitted from the practice. He says, “I have confidence because I have seen [that] some farmers who had no [chemical] fertilizer managed to harvest some maize.”
Douglas Malasa is an agricultural extension worker in Lilongwe. He says farmers apply tobacco residues because it is cheaper; they save money by not applying chemical fertilizer in the seedbed or as a top dressing. He says, “The tobacco [residue] is easily absorbed by the maize crop, and it is not labour-intensive compared to preparing other types of manure.”
Mr. Nguluwe is relieved that the tobacco residues are working. He uses the money he saves on fertilizer to support his family. He explains, “I used to struggle to find money for fertilizer. I use the money I save to buy groceries and other food items for my family.”