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Could pigeonpea be a life changer for Malawi’s drought-stricken farmers?

by Alina Paul-Bossuet | ICRISAT
Friday, 9 October 2015 12:38 GMT

John's son eats their harvested pigeonpea. The drought tolerance of this high protein pulse has been a life changer especially when other crops were blighted by delayed rains

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In Chambogho in Karonga district in North Malawi, 31-year-old John Msuku and his family insist pigeonpea has transformed their lives. When John first left school, he rushed to the southern city Blantyre to find a ‘proper job’. “My parents wanted me to stay and make a living out of fishing like them. But they had always struggled and I wanted a career where I would not be poor.”

Like so many other young people craving the urban dream, John failed to secure a steady income in town. He decided to come back home and try his luck at farming. “I had never thought of agriculture having a business potential. I always saw it as being something you did just to survive, not to get rich,” he says. “I am happy to admit now I was wrong. Hard work and making the right choices has meant farming has brought us fortune and a good life.”

It was access to good pigeonpea seeds that got John into farming. This high protein pulse has proved to resist El Nino’s disastrous effects. The drought at the end of 2014 followed by floods has wreaked havoc with crop harvests this year.

The FAO has estimated that cereal harvests have decreased by up to 27 percent compared to last year and the U.N. World Food Programme recently announced that 2.8 million people in Malawi will face hunger in coming months due to food shortages. However pigeonpeas and beans have seen a slight increase despite the chaotic weather. This stresses the need for greater diversification on farms to boost food security.

ICRISAT, an agricultural research institute specialising in dryland farming and part of the CGIAR network, has been working with smallholder farmers in Malawi to do just that. In partnership with the Malawi government, their seed production and distribution programme has benefited 2.2 million families since it started in 2008.

John started off with 1 hectare of land, where he grew a new variety of pigeonpea which matures in six months rather than nine. Being less exposed to water stress and risk of being eaten by livestock, John’s healthy harvest meant he could re-invest his income from surplus sales to increase his production.

He became part of ICRISAT’s smallholder farmer seed production clubs and began growing high-yielding certified seeds which contributes to the successful seed distribution system. This unique agribusiness model means smallholder farmers are contracted to grow certified seed which are then loaned out to other smallholder farmers. John keeps aside grains for his own needs.

"Nothing goes to waste," he says. "I use the stalks as fodder which feeds my animals, and the leaves are good for fertilising the soil." Pigeonpea’s drought tolerance was a life changer especially when other harvests were blighted by delayed rains. The key for him was to diversify and keep evolving. He bought a car which he rented out as a taxi to nearby villages. It also served as a free ambulance service for his community.

His wife Linley helped build the pigeonpea empire. “We now have two houses and 6 hectares. I have running water at my doorstep, oxen, pigs and goats. We have nutritious food to eat and a good life,” she says. Their next plan is to trade in their car for a pickup truck to transport harvests.

John’s success has been contagious. "I too have built a new house," says his neighbour Chancy Mkandawire. "Young people want quick money so they leave for the city. Of course most won’t find a job as there aren’t many. Instead of loitering about doing nothing, they should come back to their village and make something of themselves like we have done. What we need is training and capital – then more people will invest in agriculture and our country will not be hungry."

Malawi is in dire need of a rural revolution. The World Bank’s most recent data shows the country is the poorest in the world. Agriculture employs 80 percent of the people but is crippled by a reliance on the single erratic rainy season, droughts and poor soil fertility. There is limited rural infrastructure, low diversification, and poor access to credit, quality seeds and markets. The government is eager to change this. Plans are being made for training centres to improve skills and focus on agro-industries and value addition, while the youth enterprise fund aims to help credit access.

Farmers also need ways to buffer themselves against climate hazards and poor soils. Increasing pigeonpea farming will not only boost soil fertility but also the chance of a harvest when rainfall is low. ICRISAT is also working with farmers to grow another drought-tolerant, soil fertility-boosting legume, chickpea, and early results are very promising. Despite the lack of rain since planting the seeds earlier this year, farmers have produced healthy crops showing the plant’s ability to use residual moisture in the soils.

John knows he is fortunate as many other farmers have suffered badly due to the erratic weather. “I only harvested  600 kg of maize this year as the drought destroyed most of my harvest. But I harvested 2,000 kg of pigeonpea which will go to other farmers through the seed distribution system. In some way I am supporting others for the next year. My family kept aside an additional 200 kg which we ate as green peas while the crop was still in the field and have now stored as dried peas after harvest. Our good choices have saved us from disaster. Farming is so risky, especially here in Malawi. We have to diversify in the right ways so we survive whatever the weather is.”

Photos https://flic.kr/s/aHskip2Hic