Malawi: Farmers turn to community radio when information about cassava disease is scarce

| April 17, 2017

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Sitting in the shade of her grass-thatched house, Achipera Nankambi recalls how she used to listen to a radio program called Dotolo wa Chinagwa pa Wailesi  (Cassava Doctor on Air), which aired on Nkhotakota Community Radio.  

The program was launched in September 2016, at a time when many farmers had given up growing cassava because of a disease that made the crop unprofitable.

Mrs. Nankambi is a cassava farmer who belongs to Chitontho Farmers Club in Nkhotakota district, in the Central Region of Malawi. She never missed an episode of the radio program. She says, “The program was important to farmers … because cassava was being attacked by a strange disease called cassava mosaic.”    

Mrs. Nankambi grows cassava on a two-hectare piece of land. In 2005, she lost all her crop when mosaic disease first emerged in her area. In subsequent years, she continued to have low yields because she did not know how to deal with the disease, and had no access to an extension worker.

The situation changed in October 2016 with the launch of Cassava Doctor on Air. The program became her best source of information about the disease.

Cassava Doctor on Air was an initiative of Farm Radio Trust and a variety of other organizations. The program focused on preventing cassava mosaic disease by advising farmers about the importance of uprooting infected plants and planting clean cuttings. It also informed farmers where to get disease-free and early-maturing varieties such as Sauti, which is resistant to cassava mosaic disease.

Mrs. Nankambi recalls, “We used to sit in a circle surrounding the radio set, which was provided to us [by Farm Radio Trust]. The messages we heard in the program encouraged us to have interest in ways of dealing with the disease.”  

Mrs. Nankambi explains that because of the radio program, she now harvests more cassava. She adds, “Previously, I suffered great losses because I could uproot half of the field trying to control the disease.”

Chitontho Farmers Club also helped farmers to combat the disease by sharing their experiences on-air. The group members recorded themselves while discussing what they learned on the program and submitted the tape to the radio station. The station aired their voices in subsequent episodes.

Hassam Kalimanjira is another cassava farmer who benefitted from the radio program, although not just by tuning in. Farmers called or sent SMS messages to the radio station to seek more information. In response, the station engaged experts to provide answers to the farmers’ questions.

Mr. Kalimanjira says: “This helped us to get instant information on cassava farming. If we noticed anything strange in our gardens, we simply called or [sent an SMS to] the station. This prompted agricultural advisors to visit our fields and advise us accordingly.”

Edward Kuwacha Banda is the head of programs at Nkhotakota Community Radio. He says the program was successful because the production involved farmers in various ways. He explains, “Apart from providing feedback, farmers were also involved in designing messages that were aired in the program.”

Mr. Banda adds: “In the studio, we had an extension worker to answer questions from farmers through telephone or [SMS] messages. After each program, farmers were asked to call or [to send us a message] to tell us what they have learned. In that way, we knew they were listening to us and actually following what was being aired.”

Stellia Mangochi is the crops officer in Nkhotakota District and was one of the experts involved in the project. She says she is concerned that the radio program is no longer on air. She explains, “This program really helped us. We have few extension workers … but radio reaches to more people at once.”

Mrs. Nankambi says that, with the impact of the radio program, cassava production in her area is slowly getting back to its old glory days.

She says the challenge farmers face now is finding a market for their surplus harvest. She says, “I have excess cassava which I harvested last year. We sell our crop at very low prices and in very low quantities. We sell just to find money for daily needs.”

This story was created with the support of CABI Plantwise through Farm Radio Trust.

Photo: Farmers in Nkhotakota district, Malawi