Malawi: Farmers use airtight storage bags to prevent losses and avoid chemicals

| July 9, 2018

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When Chifundo Banda heard about PICS bags on the radio, he knew he wanted to try them. Mr. Banda farms soybeans, groundnuts, and maize on his five-acre farm in Ligelio village, in Traditional Authority Simphasi in Malawi’s Mchinji district. Like many farmers, one of his biggest problems is post-harvest losses.

Mr. Banda says with a grin: “Before I used the PICS bags, I used to spend a lot on chemicals to control pests. But with PICS bags, I do not need to worry as I can use the same bag for over three years without applying chemicals.”

Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags, or PICS bags, are airtight storage bags that keep pests out without using chemicals.

Recent research shows that some farmers lose up to 30% of their maize after harvest. Grain borers and other pests get into the storage area and eat the maize. To prevent this, farmers try to sell their maize immediately after harvest. This leaves many households without enough to eat.

Charles Singano is a senior scientist with Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research Services. He explains: “The problem is compounded by other factors such as [the fact that] farmers who use crop storage chemicals do not know how to apply the chemicals appropriately. They do not buy from approved agro-dealers and the chemicals are exposed to sun; thus the chemicals do not work effectively.”

In an effort to solve this problem, the US-funded Feed the Future Agriculture Diversification Activity launched two radio campaigns about PICS. The first ran from August to November 2017 on Mudziwathu Radio and the second is airing now, to cover the 2018 market season that ends in November.

The second campaign is airing within a regular farmer program called Tipindule ndi Mtedza komanso Soya, or “Let’s make profit with groundnuts and soybean farming” which airs every Tuesday and Thursday on Zodiak Broadcasting, a station which reaches the whole country. The campaigns are designed to promote the use of PICS bags among small-scale farmers in Malawi.

PICS bags are woven nylon sacks with two inner liners made of high-density polyethylene. Each of the three bags can be sealed separately, making it airtight. With no oxygen, insects cannot survive inside the bags.

PICS bags can reduce post-harvest loss in a variety of grains and legumes. The technology was developed by Purdue University in the US, and tested by Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Agriculture Technology Clearance Committee.

Mr. Banda first learned about PICS bags while listening to Mudziwathu Radio Station.

He says, “l really wanted these bags because I heard that they do not need any chemicals.”

An organization called Catholic Relief Agency Development demonstrated the technology, and gave Mr. Banda two free bags to try. Mr. Banda adds: “I then inquired further where I can get the bags. I was told to go and buy the bags from authorized agro-dealers and managed to buy 10 bags from Kulima Gold, which is located 19 kilometres from my village.”

Like many other farmers, Mr. Banda was worried about the price of the bags. A 50-kilogram bag costs 900 kwacha (US$1.23) and a 100-kilogram bag costs 1,200 kwacha (US$1.64). Mr. Banda hopes that, in the future, the government can subsidize the cost so that more farmers can benefit. He also says agro-dealers need to make the bags accessible even in the remotest areas so that farmers don’t have to travel such long distances to find them.

Mr. Banda has since trained other farmers how to use the PICS bags. He’s part of the Chiziro radio listening club, where 28 farmers meet to listen to the radio program, discuss what they’ve heard, and act on the agricultural technologies they learn about on the radio.

They can also call a farmers’ hotline to ask questions about PICS bags. Tenniess Kamnkhwani is an extension agent at Mlimi Hotline Call Centre. He says: “There have been great volumes of phone calls across the nation enquiring about PICS bags, from 70 to 300 calls per month. I believe this will really help farmers.”

However, Mr. Kamnkhwani says many farmers complain that it is hard to find PICS bags where they live. So the radio campaign is helping farmers find out where to get PICS bags.

Pauline Mbukwa wrote this story while working for Farm Radio Trust in Malawi.