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Malawi: Profitable winter farming requires lots of work and water

The sun is about to set, but 65-year-old Morris Chimutu and his wife and son are busy carrying 10-litre watering cans from their well to the field to irrigate their maize. Mr. Chimutu looks happy: the maize is tasseling and he can spot small cobs that give him hope for a good winter harvest. He has been winter cropping for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Chimutu is from Nnewa village in the Mitundu area, about 30 kilometres south of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. After the rainy season ends in May, he grows irrigated maize and sells it to support his family during the dry winter season. For him, maize is easy to grow and fetches a good price, especially when it’s green and fresh.

He explains, “In winter [from May to July], there is no extreme sunlight. [In summer], harsh sunlight can affect the crops if there isn’t enough water for irrigation. This is an advantage.”

Mr. Chimutu also grows orange, mango, banana, and sugar cane. To save on input costs, he applies composted manure on his 1.3 acres of land. He explains: “I do not apply [chemical] fertilizer, but only [composted] manure because the soil is already fertile. The soil here is protected by fruit trees and plants around the garden.”

During the August and September harvest, Mr. Chimutu sells his green maize to Lilongwe city residents who like to roast or cook it when it’s fresh and green. He says, “Every year I earn at least 200,000 Malawi kwacha (US$274) from winter farming.”

Although winter cropping is profitable, Mr. Chimutu says irrigating the whole garden with watering cans is a lot of work. He explains, “My son, wife, and I usually spend half the day irrigating maize. We start in the morning, then take a break for lunch and finish in the evening.”

Mr. Chimutu says that when a lack of rainfall leaves him without enough water for irrigation, his crop suffers.

He adds, “Since the rainfall has not been [as plentiful] as in the past, sometimes our wells dry up fast, which makes it difficult for crops to grow well.”

Moses Mayaya is another local farmer who grows winter maize and uses composted animal manure as fertilizer. He says he has benefited a lot from winter farming: “I have managed to build a good house and buy four pigs and two cows from winter cropping income.” But he worries because water is becoming scarce around his garden as rainfall decreases.

Chrissy Gelemani is a widow with four children who also practices winter farming in the area. She grows maize and vegetables. Mrs. Gelemani avoids middlemen in order to keep more of her profits for herself. She says, “I go and sell the produce myself. That’s why I benefit a lot. I pay school fees for my boy with money from the sales of my vegetables and maize.”

For Mr. Chimutu, growing winter maize has improved his income and his family life. He is now rearing cows, pigs, and poultry, which he bought with income from his winter maize. He says, “I have managed to pay school fees for my children and built a good house using money from [winter] maize crops.”