Mathews Phiri is a smallholder farmer living in Mlwale village, eight kilometres from Zomba, in the south of Malawi. For over eight years, 24-year-old Mr. Phiri and his wife Annah have farmed a small area of land, and made little profit. They cannot afford to buy inorganic fertilizer.
Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Program aims to assist vulnerable small-scale farmers. But there are many farmers who, like Mr. Phiri, face hunger but do not qualify for the government subsidy. Now, a new study suggests an alternative for these farmers. It found that farmers who rotate maize and legume crops can cut their fertilizer use in half without reducing maize yields.
Mr. Phiri wanted to avoid becoming dependent on inorganic fertilizers. So, two years ago, he took the advice of an extension worker. Mr. Phiri now plants maize and pigeon peas at the same time of year, on the same piece of land. This practice is known as intercropping. His maize yield has gradually improved over the two-year period since he began intercropping.
Mr. Phiri harvested 18 bags of pigeon peas in 2010. He sells them to large-scale vendors at 27 US dollars per 50-kilogram bag. With the proceeds, Mr. Phiri has managed to buy an ox-cart. He uses it to carry organic manure to his garden.
When asked about his success, Mr. Phiri explains, “I started planting maize alongside pigeon peas soon after I got the advice from the extension worker of my area, Mr. Franklin Nyirenda. It has worked perfectly well for me.”
Since the subsidy program started in 2004, Mr. Phiri benefited twice. But in 2007 he was left out of the subsidy program. So he began looking for alternatives, and decided to grow pigeon pea. Now he does not need to rely on subsidies. He uses manure, practices intercropping and watches his yields increase. Mr. Phiri says, “You know, not every peasant farmer gets subsidized fertilizer … in the past I used to groan whenever my name was not on the list of beneficiaries.”
Mr. Henry Msatilomo is the Agriculture Development Officer in Zomba District. He says that many smallholder farmers now realize the importance of intercropping. Mr. Msatilomo explains that intercropping helps farmers increase their yield while at the same time improving soil fertility. This is especially the case when one of the crops is a legume, like pigeon pea.
The scientists who conducted the study on crop rotation found that slow-maturing and shrubby legumes like pigeon pea and mucuna spend more time in the ground producing nitrogen. And the ground stays covered longer, another benefit for the soil. Dr. George Kanyama-Phiri is co-author of the study. He says that rotating with legume crops complements, but does not replace, fertilizer use.
Although Mr. Phiri is intercropping, rather than rotating his crops, he has already benefitted from planting legumes. He is proof that farmers can save on fertilizer costs by planting pigeon peas, at least in the short term.
Dr. Kanyama-Phiri cautions that local differences in farming practices may affect the benefits of legumes. For example, in the southern region, farmers construct maize ridges later in the season. This may expose legumes to damage from sun or hungry goats.
Before Mr. Phiri started intercropping, he sold his maize to get cash for his family’s needs. But with intercropping, he no longer has to do this; he can rely on the proceeds from pigeon peas. For Mr. Phiri, buying an ox-cart is a major achievement. And it’s all because of intercropping.