Resilient Planting Method Excites Rice Growers

Resilient Planting Method Excites Rice Growers

As crop yields dwindle due to climate change, rice growers in Karonga are discarding traditional planting methods to harvest more from their small plots.

Geoffrey Mkandawire, a father of two girls and four boys in Mwenewise Village, now saves seed and gets a bumper harvest by planting a single seedling per station.

“I was born here in 1969 and grew up growing rice as the main cash crop, but we used to waste seed until we learnt to transplant one seedling per station. Now I use just 3.5kg on an acre that once required up to 40kg when I was using the broadcasting method,” he explains.

Mkandawire is among 883 farmers in the paddies of Karonga who acquired certified seed from the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) for the new system of rice intensification, called SRI.

Since 2017, he has almost doubled his yield using younger seedlings singly spaced and typically hand weeded. The new planting system helps beat the effects of water stress created by erratic rainfall at the northern tip of Malawi, but requires a large amount of work.

However, Mkandawire says the benefits by far outweigh the big task of transferring two-week-old seedlings from seedbeds to his waterlogged plots in the floodplain.

The lead farmer adopted the high-yielding planting method after trainings and field demonstrations supported by NASFAM with funding from Irish Aid. He shared the skill with 140 peers he used to mentor in the farmer-to-farmer learning initiative to close information gaps created by shortage of extension workers in rural areas.

The group has since been halved and about 51 of them have emulated SRI to boost their yields as the rainfall pattern becomes unpredictable.

“With SRI, we plant in lines and the yield is high because the crop does not scramble for sunlight, air and soil nutrients. It grows freely,” Mkandawire explains. “By the time we transplant the seedlings, they are mature enough to withstand the heat and water stress when dry spells occur,” he says.

Just like that, the farmer with a 3.5-hectare rice field harvests about five 90kg bags from a plot quarter the size of a football ground.

“SRI requires more hands, but there is no sweet without sweat. I harvest more from a field which is divided into four plots per acre. Each plot produces about five bags, up from just two previously,” he says.

Mkandawire mostly applies manure from his 12 cows and decomposed crop residues to boost soil fertility and moisture retention in his plots.

In June 2021, he harvested 1.5 tonnes which were sold to NASFAM.

PHOTO: Mkandawire and his wife storing their produce

“Many farmers are embracing SRI because I’m leading by example,” he brags. “I made K950 000 from rice sales and bought a second oxcart, two ox and two calves.”

The farmer was speaking in the shadow of a three-bedroom house currently under construction.

“I’m building a decent home because you cannot take farming seriously if a lead farmer lives in leaky grass-thatched hut,” he says.

Mkandawire also provided tuition and essentials for two children who sat Junior Certificate of Education examinations at Kaporo and Baka community day secondary schools in the rice-growing district.

“Apart from fees worth K15 000 per term, the Form Two learners required food, uniforms, examination fees and pocket money. I didn’t struggle to meet their needs because I harvested more,” he says.

And the cattle mewing in his homestead mirror a family on the rise.

“In our rural setting, if you have cattle, you are your own boss. You can plough your fields without enduring the hardship caused by a back-breaking hoe or borrowed ox-drawn ploughs that cost K5000 per acre. Now I have two ploughs,” he explains.

PHOTO: Mkandawire with his wife in Mwenewise Village, Karonga

Last year, Mkandawire sold a cow at K180 000 to pay a K120 000 instalment for the new oxcart worth K195 000 at NASFAM’s Innovation and Productivity Centre in Karonga. He used the remainder to buy food for his household.

Thanks to improved harvests, he fully paid for the oxcart.

“I have achieved so much because I follow what extension workers teach us, and I budget before harvesting. Now I want to buy a car and a motorcycle that will operate as taxis between Karonga town and Songwe Border,” he states, urging farmers to adopt high-yielding farming methods to beat hunger and poverty worsened by climate change.

Ralph Kasilika, field officer for Kaporo South Farmers’ Association, says with financial support the Government of Norway, as well as the Government of Ireland, NASFAM is building farmers' resilience to climate change by empowering them with climate resilience technologies. He says gradually farmers are switching to from traditional methods to SRI because “it guarantees them bumper harvests” amid climate-related weather shocks.

“Even when the rainfall amount is low, the farmers produce more. With quality seed, they produce the quantities and quality required by the buyer, who offers them a market they can trust,” he says.