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Malawi: Widow harvests prosperity with cassava

It is a hot sunny day and Agnes Kandodo is busy inspecting the crops in her cassava field. The widowed mother of two uproots a cassava plant and smiles. The tubers look mature, big enough to eat and ready to sell. She puts them in a basket and returns home to prepare the afternoon meal.

Mrs. Kandodo lives in Kumayani, a village about 25 kilometres southwest of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Her cassava has taken her from poverty to prosperity.

Mr. Kandodo died in 2000, leaving his widow almost destitute. Mrs. Kandodo says: “My late husband left me with two daughters. We could [no longer] afford city life and we were forced to move to Kumayani where my late husband [had] bought a piece of land.” The family slept in a chicken coop because there was no house on the land.

Mrs. Kandodo needed a reliable income to support her family. She recalls: “At first I thought of poultry farming, but I realized that feed was very expensive. I then planted cassava because it does not require fertilizer.”

In 2001, there was no cassava within 15 kilometres of her farm and Mrs. Kandodo had difficulties finding planting materials. But, 20 kilometres away, she managed to find a large enough supply to start her plantation. She carried 25 heavy bundles of cassava cuttings all the way to her farm.

After her first harvest, Mrs. Kandodo sold the tubers and replanted her field. She harvested more than enough cuttings to plant her entire plot, which is about the size of a football field. Then she sold the remaining cuttings to farmers who became interested in cassava after seeing how Mrs. Kandodo was profiting from the crop.

David Zakariya started growing cassava in 2004. He also farms in Kumayani. Mr. Zakariya explains: “In 2003, we had poor rains, but Mrs. Kandodo managed to harvest cassava. She sold [tubers] to many people in our area and she never lacked food at her house. This impressed me. [I started] growing cassava because [my] maize had poor yields.”

Mr. Zakariya says cassava is in high demand in the area. He adds, “Buyers come to us and buy cassava right on the farm … we do not [shoulder the] transport costs to sell our cassava.”

Hodges Nkhoma is the government agricultural extension worker in Kumayani. He says, “Climate change has made the weather and rains unpredictable. Hence, farmers should diversify by growing different crops, including drought-resistant crops such as cassava.”

But Mr. Nkhoma warns cassava farmers about mosaic disease. The disease is especially common when planting cuttings that have been used for a number of years. He says: “Farmers should always uproot, bury or burn cassava crops that have signs of disease such as discoloured leaves and stunted growth. Such plants will not produce tubers and may affect others.”

Since 2004, Mrs. Kandodo has been steadily reinvesting her profits in land, and now has 18 hectares. She still grows cassava, but also plants maize and raises chickens, pigs and goats to boost her income. She built a house with solar electricity and can afford to pay for her two daughters to go to school.

What is her secret? Mrs. Kandodo explains, “I sell cassava during the rainy season. It’s easy to harvest by hand, the [cuttings] can be easily replanted and they germinate well.”