How Livingstone Links are helping Malawian farmers go for growth

By Charles Henderson

Published in The Scotsman 21st March 2009

The way of life in villages along Malawi's Masanjere escarpment hasn't changed much since David Livingstone sailed up the nearby Shire River in 1859.

Most men here are subsistence farmers, and may have an acre of land they call their own.  At half the size of a football field, this 70x70 metre patch generates a livelihood for him, a wife and their children.  It must generate sufficient food, energy and cash to buy clothes, education, transport and medicine. 

Women help with farming, and have childcare and households to maintain, too.

About 4% of households in Malawi are connected to the electricity grid. Most take their energy from wood and charcoal, collected from the hillsides.  This goes for the cities, too. Trucks, laden with charcoal ‘cubes', slowly make their way from Masenjere, up the hill, past the tea and tobacco plantations, to Blantyre, the country's largest city (named after Livingstone's birthplace in South Lanarkshire).

With these forests coming under increasing pressure, erosion and flash floods are worsening in this region.  Unpredictable weather, brought about by climate change, is aggravating the situation.

The Nyangu village group sits towards the eastern end of the Masanjere escarpment.  Six villages, the largest giving its name to the group, have 1030 families between them.

Now, thanks to its historical connection through Livingstone, it is here that Scotland is playing its part in establishing a new sustainable farming model, called JANEEMO.

The Scottish Development Fund is supporting this innovative new concept, based on ethical biofuels and their by-products.

It has at its heart the objective of a long-term enterprise, providing an additional resource to food and other crops.

The tree species, JAtropha, NEEm and MOringa (giving the JANEEMO acronym), are being grown by farmers on removedal land. The trees are fast growing, easy to manage and require very little water. The programme also overcomes the main objection, as it does not displace other food crops.

The JANEEMO trees have complementary uses. 

The seeds of jatropha are particularly oil-rich, and may be pressed easily to make fuel and soap. Jatropha is not palatable to livestock, and its bushes grow to form strong and impenetrable fences.  The moringa tree produces a highly nutritious leaf and oil.  Neem is a natural medicine, and is used to create nutritional supplements, salves and lotions.  A well-managed neem tree is also a valuable source of firewood.

I am lucky enough to be part of the JANEEMO project team, which is led by Aberdeen's Macaulay Institute.  Last week, I visited the Nyangu villages to learn more and see the progress for myself.  Already, since mid-November, 380 men and women have qualified as ‘JANEEMO farmers', by planting 600 of these crops.  This far exceeds expectations. Only 20 participating farmers were envisaged by now.

An innovative seed pass-on scheme, with each farmer training ten others, is helping to propagate the scheme.  This fits with local custom, for which there is a saying: "A seed in the soil is worth ten in the basket".

Some of the farmers told me what the new enterprise means to them.

Noah Daswanda, who has a wife and two children, has planted a jatropha perimeter fence near his house, and moringa in his garden.  He told me: "At the moment the crops are growing. Their benefits will come in the near future. I am looking forward to producing jatropha oil so I can make soap and sell it."
Dorothy Nduna started planting neem some time ago, and has started with moringa and jatropha. Her neem trees have grown high, and she is managing them carefully.  "We are using the wood for fuel.  We know we can make medicine from neem, it is good at treating malaria - we hope to sell it too." She added: "Encouragement from the JANEEMO team has helped us learn how to plant and manage the crops."

Nelio Makudzo has nine in his family, including children and grandchildren.  He told me:  "We are intercropping moringa with maize, as this helps fertilise the soil. We also have a moringa nursery. This area is fenced in, to protect it from goats." This small garden, about 10 square metres, will help him provide all the supplementary food needs of his family all year round.

Mr Mazamza's jatropha plants come up to knee height.  He told me: "I am looking forward to harvesting his jatropha oil, next month, to use for lamps.  At the moment, I am buying paraffin up to three times a week."

Avoiding the need to spend cash on fuel is a big bonus. The Malawi government identified over 75% of households in this District as extremely poor.   140 Kwacha a day (a dollar), is not an unusual income equivalent in rural areas.

JANEEMO lamps, made from boot polish lids and a simple wick, have the potential to help with education, too. With a pupil to teacher ratio of 103:1, diligence with homework is especially important. A jatropha lamp provides a long-lasting, smoke free portable light.

The team on the ground is also demonstrating seed pressing and lamp making at local schools.  We visited a secondary school at lunchtime, where the children are planting herbs to add to food and flavour their jatropha soap.

Our lunch included cooked moringa relish. I talked to six women preparing the meal, stripping the moringa leaves from their branches.  They were quick to talk up its benefits: "It is nutritious and contains a large number of vitamins", one said.

We ate it mixed with a small amount of tomato and oil. It was delicious, a cross between curly kale and spinach.

Unlike some development projects, JANEEMO has the potential to become a long-term enterprise, which the muzungos (white faces) can step away from once it is up and running.  A JANEEMO association has been set up with the local community, who will eventually sign up farmers, develop markets for products, and take over day-to-day management.

Karen Edwards, who works for Edinburgh-based development agency, LTS International, has been an overseas development worker for 18 years. Straight talking and with an infectious sense of humour, she understands the practical issues in getting things done in Africa. She is seconded as advisor to the Malawian forestry department.

She explains: "Charles Henderson

Topics: edie
Tags: | biofuels | children | education | FITs | food | football | Scotland | training | transport | water | weather
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