Mixed vegetable farming under irrigation gives a year round income

Malawi Fruits has a growing reputation for taking an innovative approach to farming in Malawi. I am very happy with this view of what we do, although what we are doing is applying established farming practices from other countries to the Malawi context. Agriculture in Malawi is largely made up of two extremes:

  • Hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers scraping a living from a small patch of ground. Most are farming under rain-fed conditions and are at the mercy of the climate. We have improved outcomes a bit by providing solar irrigation pumps.
  • At the other end of the scale there are large plantations – tea, rubber, sugar, macadamia, chillies – and these are huge farms, owned by foreign investors. The treatment of workers is variable and the profits invariably leave the country.

So, an area of interest for us is The Missing Middle – Farms of 10 – 50 hectares where we could have all the advantages of larger scale farming but ownership and profits can remain with Malawian people. There are very few farms like that and most are under-developed.

On Friday I visited a farm like this. The owner has 48 hectares but is only farming about 12 hectares because he doesn’t have the working capital to pay enough staff and cannot raise the funds he needs to irrigate the whole farm. He is harvesting water using dams he has built – capturing water in deep gullies during the rainy season and then pumping this to tanks on higher ground which feed the farm by gravity. He has also sunk two boreholes for additional water.

This level of infrastructure to capture water is really hard to do for small smallholders, but makes sense where there is at least 10 hectares of ground. The farm is producing cabbages, red lettuce, beans, soya, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, onions and carrots. This mixed produce reduces the risk for the farmer in terms of one crop facing a disease or a slump in the market for that particular crop. This scale of farm also enables effective use of mechanisation and the farmer has invested in rotovators and crop spraying equipment, to reduce labour but also to ensure planting is done at the right time and insect attacks are responded to quickly. This is all about driving up quality and yields and, therefore, incomes.

So I think this is the next step for us. We have high yielding greenhouse farming and we want to supplement this by supporting Malawian farm owners to do the same on irrigated farmland. With a growing population to feed, and the same cost of living crisis as we are facing in Scotland, the imperative to modernise is strong.

Sunflower, inter-cropped with beans

Sunflowers are so poignant just now, because of their association with the Ukraine and there is a small crop of sunflower inter-cropped with beans on the farm. The impact of that conflict is being felt here with sunflower oil prices up by 100% and fertilisers by 50%. A loaf of bread has also doubled in price since I got here two weeks ago. All reasons why Malawi must work towards being self-sufficient on food. Addressing the missing middle will certainly have a part to play.