Farming Life editor Ruth Rodgers travelled to Malawi in November with Christian Aid to see some of the projects in two of the most vulnerable areas in the southern part of the country.
She spent a day visiting irrigation projects in Melo and Mbenje communities based in Njsange in the southernmost part of Malawi where she spoke to families and communities on how they have benefited from access to clean water and irrigation projects.
She also spent a day at an irrigation project in Fombe, Chikwawa where she met with communities and village leaders to find out how the irrigation scheme has broken the cycle of hunger.
Malawi, often described as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, is a country struggling with the effects of drought and flooding.
A largely agricultural country, it is making efforts to overcome decades of underdevelopment, corruption and the impact of an HIV-Aids problem, which claims the lives of tens of thousands every year.
Most Malawians rely on subsistence farming, but the food supply situation is precarious because of the climate.
Since 2007 Christian Aid has been working from the country’s capital of Lilongwe targeting projects at the most vulnerable in a bid to improve the sustainability and resilience of communities through schemes around health, nutrition and food production.
Christian Aid Country director Pansy Katenga runs the office in Lilongwe which has a staff of 32.
She explains that only 11% of the population is on the national grid and as electricity is mainly supplied by hydropower the frequent droughts that they have endured are having an effect on supply. Power cuts are frequent and the country is now moving towards the renewable sector - particularly solar - in a bid to ease the problem.
Pansy explained: “One of the projects that we are looking at is to extend the grid into communities where there is a school. Mini grids are the way to go and the government needs to understand that. This is what we see to be the future for Malawi.”
Malawi has a very high incidence of children who are under height so Christian Aid health projects are driving home the importance of the first 1,000 days - the time from when a woman conceives to when the child is two.
Pansy again: “A thousand days is what is being promoted for nutrition to produce better health outcomes. Poor nutrition has a big impact on the cognitive ability and affects education. Christian Aid is running mother and child health projects for pregnant and lactating mothers.”
Often it can be a distance of 40kms to the nearest clinic, so Christian Aid are also setting up village clinics to shorten the duration of travel and in some cases have provided an ambulance.
Pansy explained: “A lot of the work is to do with prevention of malnutrition so we have provided a lot in nutrition. The projects educate communities on the food groups that are required and the frequency that you have to feed their children. For example they are taught that sweet potatoes are very high in vitamin A - there are a lot of cases of Vitamin A deficiency. Potato leaves have iron. They are taught to provide the right meals so that they don’t become malnourished. Some people are getting food rations to meet current need, but we don’t want to get to a situation where people are supplementary fed.
“We depend so much on the rains so production levels are very low and that results in malnutrition. If we establish irrigation projects people are not dependant on the rain. When the rain stops, they have this scheme to go to.”
Pansy says people involved in irrigation schemes are now producing up to three cycles of harvest so there is no time when they don’t have food.
She added: “They are also producing drought resistant crops. The rainy period is shorter so these crops can grow and mature during the shorter rain time. We were depending on the rainfall and that period is shortening. There are areas that are dry for a very long time.
“If you have only 23 days of rainfall, how do you maximise that time? There are also market groups and post harvest management, storage of maize etc and we are trying to address the issue of post harvest losses. We are looking at investing in solar driers to dry the vegetables and pack them. Sun takes away a lot of the nutrients but solar system dryers preserve and retain nutrients. They can then be sold or eaten later,” added Pansy.
“Last year was a bad drought and the people involved at the irrigation sites received resources from Scotland and Ireland to safeguard the assets to keep the people working on the schemes rather than them leaving the area. Cash transfer was provided for four months until the crops were ready. Others who didn’t have assets received it for nine months.”
People in Malawi are always battling against the climate and other risks in an effort to feed their families.
“From November to March 2015 there were serious floods with a total wipe out of crops. Last year we had a drought - 6.7m people were affected and an additional 8.5m were at risk.
“This year we are being affected by Fall Army worms which is a big, big threat. It has affected some harvests. At least last year we still had a very good harvest but this is a threat for this harvest. We still haven’t found out how to deal with it and pesticides haven’t worked so far,” added Pansy.
Christian Aid also does a lot of work in Malawi in terms of governance.
Pansy explained: “We provide a lot of input to politicians to make the government listen. We lobby for changes, and are involved in budget analysis etc. We are able to influence where the finance goes in relation to health care.
“I was lucky to have joined the UN offices in South Africa. I left Malawi and returned two years ago after being away for 20 years. I eventually decided that with the experience I had gained throughout my career, I could be working within my own country and after discussing it with my husband, who is from South Africa, I took up the role of country manager.
“Some of my former class mates are policy makers and advisers so I can make an input to influence the way that things are done. The real change has to happen at policy level and I think that has been my main achievement. I love what I do,” added Pansy.
“Malawi is a very poor country with high illiteracy. It is very patriarchal, there are very few women in leadership, and very few blacks at leadership level.
“I am beginning to see myself as a role model for people, to inspire them. I believe in telling young girls at school that if they work hard they can be like me and that they can make a real difference in their own communities.”