MTENGOUMODZI, Malawi – One does not see much agricultural activity along the dusty road that goes through Kunenekude, in the Mwanza district in southern Malawi, en-route to the border with. But as you reach the frontier, there is a sudden diversity of livestock and well-planted fields.
It hasn’t always been like this in Mtengoumodzi, a drought-prone border village.
“The rains are erratic. We were becoming victims of perennial hunger because we depended on rain for our agricultural activities in the past,” explained Elia Julius, a farmer on the Malawi side of the village.
He said children were malnourished and families were spending a lot of time seeking medical care at a small clinic 16 kilometres away.
Two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas in Mozambique, dependent on agriculture for a living, according to government figures. Just over a third of households are food insecure and face frequent episodes of hunger.
Mozambique, like most Southern African countries, has been faced with drought conditions in recent years. The Ministry of Agriculture in Mozambique indicated in February 2010 that 605,00 hectares of crops were lost to drought. This represents fully 13 percent of all the maize planted across the country and an estimated 11 percent of the national cereal production.
In Malawi, as much as 85 percent of the country’s 13.1 million citizens depend on agriculture. Last year, the country produced 3.7 million metric tonnes, but President Bingu wa Mutharika said at the beginning of the year that he expected a 30 percent decline in yields.
The Mtengoumodzi Agriculture Cooperative was formed in April 2008 after farmers on either side of the border realised that they could complement each other’s efforts to improve agricultural activities.
The farmers from Mozambique brought the idea of growing drought-resistant crops to their counterparts across the border while the Malawian farmers taught their colleagues irrigation techniques, according to Mozambican Maria Chidetsa.
Maize is the staple food in both Malawi and Mozambique. But changing climatic conditions are no longer favourable to growing it. The farmers here have turned to growing drought-resistant crops and early maturing crops.
“We now grow more bananas, millet, sorghum, cassava, cotton and pigeon peas. These crops do not need as much water as maize does. They are easy to grow even if the rains are not enough,” Chidetsa told IPS.
The members of the cooperative also rear goats, pigs and chickens, both for their own consumption and to sell in the area. “We sell eggs and goat milk to the communities around us,” said Chidetsa.
Small gardens, irrigated with watering-cans and treadle pumps, are a common sight. Crops such as potatoes, vegetables, maize, beans, and sugarcane abound in the small fields scattered around the border village.
“These small gardens supplement what we grow in the bigger fields. We irrigate the gardens and grow different kinds of crops. We still grow maize on a small scale and these small gardens are ideal for that,” explained Chidetsa.
She said the farmers have dug wells adjacent to a number of streams that go through this area from which they are able to draw water even during the dry season
“We are able to water our gardens when there are no rains, and this allows us to grow different types of crops throughout the year,” Chidetsa told IPS.
The cooperative, comprising 17 farming families, puts all the produce from their different fields in one basket after every harvest and allocates food to each family unit according to its size. The rest of the cop is taken to the market and the profits are used to buy farm inputs such as seed and fertiliser.
The farmers collectively made a profit of about $2,500 in 2009, according to Chidetsa. Apart from buying farm inputs such as fertiliser and seed, they used part of the money to buy a piece of land which they are using as a demonstration plot to put new varieties on trial.
“We have planted maize which is drought-resistant. We want to see if this is indeed workable,” said Chidetsa.
The woman farmer explained that another reason that she and nine other Mozambican farmers joined their Malawian counterparts was to get access to the Malawi produce markets.
“The markets on the Malawi side, at Mwanza town centre, are closer to us than those in Mozambique. It is more difficult for us to sell our agricultural products within Mozambique because the nearest vibrant town is very far away,” Chidetsa told IPS.
The nearest market in Mozambique is nine hours away, transporting produce on a bicycle; the Mwanza market is nearer, but still a hard four hours each way, she says.
Mutharika, who is also the current African Union chairman, said the AU is working on encouraging its farmers to be more innovative. Speaking at the opening of a national agriculture fair on Aug. 26, he said the AU wants Africa to reverse its current dependence on imported staples and supply food to the whole world in the long run.
“The idea to form an African food basket has the support of G8 countries which has set aside $22 billion to assist in improving agriculture in Africa,” said Mutharika.
Equally important to the dream of Africa exporting food to the rest of the world will be the energy and initiative of farmers like the Mtengoumodzi group.