Guest Blogger Day 2....into the weeds

Planting the seeds… Day 2

(Spoiler alert – I am going to go “into the weeds” in this entry to attempt to explain the details of how Africa Windmill Project does what it does)

It was with great anticipation that I got into the SUV that was going to take us out to the first village where we would get to see the results of almost 4 years of development of the Africa Windmill Project. Just as in Uganda as we drove along there were any number of women walking with large bundles balanced on their heads, or goats foraging for food, or men on bicycles with wood placed in a L shaped frame that was stacked so high that it hung over their heads. The two lane paved main road was in mostly good condition, with speed limits signs rarely posted and police blockades spaced out periodically to check on vehicle registration and safety issues concerning mini buses primarily. We could also see the various stages of the construction of buildings using the local bricks. The soil is of the right consistency so that with the use of straw and other materials it is possible to make your own bricks. Buildings made out of bricks are logically considered a step up from the traditional mud huts. But there are two types of bricks – the ones that dry in the sun and the ones that are dried in an oven. The oven dried ones are more durable, but require extra steps and are more of an up front investment, plus they are a redder color – so you can tell by looking at the building whether it was oven dried or not. The next step is to be able to put a metal roof on your house instead of straw.

We reached the turn off and headed down an unpaved, narrow “road” towards Mziza. As we pulled into the village – which was a collection of buildings consisting of a communal well – don’t think of the Wishing Well, but more of a hole in the ground with a bucket to draw the water, round huts woven out of the local straw to store maize, small buildings for latrines, a little larger building for the kitchens, goats, chickens, pigs, women, children, old men – we were greeted by the chief of that village and some other men who were members of the village agricultural club.

Over the past 4 years and through much trial and error is has been determined that the first step in creating the environment for success is to identify the lead farmer or farmers in the village. This is done through consultation with the local chief. This is someone who already is successful using the traditional methods of farming. That farmer is then taught about food security – which as I understand it involves determining the best practices as far as how much fertilizer is appropriate for the size of your garden, proper preparation of the soil, how to create a compost pile, planting other crops in -between your rows of maize – the sorts of information that will allow the farmer to be as efficient and productive with what land he or she has available. Farmers also learn about the use of water for year round food production.

The water table is higher in Malawi, unlike other parts of Africa. So each farmer can either dig his/her own well or have help. The well is basically a keyhole shaped hole in the ground with a sort of ledge or shelf in the narrower end of the well hole that the person getting the water out can stand on. During the wetter season that shelf is not visible, but as the water level goes down you can see the shelf. In the beginning days of the project the lead farmer was given a hand pump to use in extracting the water from the well. I have several pictures of the pump that I will include as an attachment. The water can then be channeled throughout the garden to water the crops. The original hand pump was built on a wooden stand. After it was used for a while it became apparent that a more stable platform needed to be developed along with other improvements. This is one of the reasons I am so impressed with AWP – the expectation all along was that it was a good thing to experiment and try an idea out in the field (literally). If it works great, but if not- then try something else! So now the pump is installed on a metal frame with a tweaking of some of the materials used in other parts of the pump – like an empty soda bottle that is now being used because the plastic part that was being used for the plastic rope to move around was causing the rope to wear out! Part of the trip today involved evaluating the newer version of the pump – with the result that there will be more adjustments made to make it even more stable. The channels for the water are elevated banks of soil with an indentation that allows the water to flow. Simply physically creating a break in the channel or placing a barrier directly on the channel to stop the flow in that direction can redirect the water. It can be just as easily repaired and moved again the previous direction. I will talk more about the irrigation system later on, because I am digressing…

The first year is taken up with helping the lead farmer maximize his crop yield. The second - year there are a hand full of equally motivated farmers are added to the original one or two farmers. The lead farmers are expected to train and help the new farmers with the combination of determining correct fertilization amount, composting, and irrigation and crop management. By the third year if there is enough interest expressed additional farmers can join – with the maximum number being around 11. This was another lesson learned – originally there were almost 30 members. Over time that number of people dropped to around 13 because of a lack of ability to effectively manage that many people, because not everyone was equally motivated and a variety of other reasons.

The agricultural club is now formed from this group of farmers. The original lead farmer or farmers become the chairman and vice chairman of the agricultural club. It is the goal to have these leaders eventually take over the administrative function of the club. The members will work together to encourage and prod each other to continue with the information that they have learned from AWP, government run agricultural extension programs, other non-governmental organizations that may be able to help, and from each other. This past year a loan program was developed through AWP that allowed the club as a whole to get money to purchase either fertilizer or seeds. The amount of fertilizer or seed that would be necessary was developed in conjunction with Christopher, the club chairman and the participating farmer – this method prevented the previous practice of getting a loan or voucher from the government and using it to get the most fertilizer and using it all whether it was needed or not. While we were out today each member of one of the clubs who were given loans presented their payments to the agricultural chairman who in turn gave it to Christopher, who wrote up a receipt for each payer. The whole club is responsible for the total amount of the loan. It then becomes incumbent on everyone to make sure that everyone else is successful in his or her garden so that the loan can be repaid.

What we saw today were men like Japhet. Japhet is married with 6 children. He is a lead farmer. After his participation with AWP he now has a larger house, with a metal roof and he was able to build a separate house near his for his son to live in with his family. This is his retirement plan – in Africa the children take care of their parents in their old age. He proudly showed us his two - room brick house, to include a bag of extra maize from his garden that he has stored.

At this is point I must confess that my recollection of what order we looked at which garden is very blurry, so I apologize if I have the order wrong. We then walked a little over a half a mile to see the first garden. We walked through the empty, dry fields of the villagers who are not in the agricultural club. It was very easy to spot the farmers who are participating. The contrast is dramatic – the green color, the neat rows of beans, tomatoes, stalks of maize with beans co - planted in between the rows, onions are testimony to the effectiveness of the use of irrigation. Some of the farmers have added a dwarf version of banana trees in the garden – they can also grow mangos, guava, papaya and sugar cane. Bee- hives have been added to the gardening areas to help with pollinating the crops and of course providing the honey from the bees and wax from the combs.

I got to operate a hand pump – it is very easy to use. The farmers talked about the dramatic difference the hand pumps make in their lives – in addition to less labor involved in accessing the water, the plants only have to be watered an average of twice a week versus watering every day with a water bucket. This means that time can be spent doing other things. The farmers who had been in the club longer had been able to increase the amount of land farmed, with the result that they had more crops available to store up for use later in the year, or to sell. Japhet was so successful with his onion crop that he made a little over $200 – this is in a country where the average yearly income per capita is $178! Other farmers have been able to buy bicycles, put metal roofs on their houses or pay the fees for their children to go to school. Just the knowledge that they do not have to worry about what they will have to eat each day is worth more than we can imagine!

The farmers who do not participate in the AWP rely completely on the rainy season for the crop production. Some may also try farming with the use of buckets during the rest of the year, but this is very labor intensive and the results are very discouraging. Once the maize that was stored up is gone the farmers may be able to get food through relief programs, but the amount is rarely sufficient to provide a good nutritional balanced diet. The stomachs may be full, but the nutritional value is very limited.

The last village we visited was Mpombe. This village is in the beginning stages of having just identified the lead farmer. We got to meet him today and see where he is developing his garden to begin the irrigation process. This village is close enough to Mziza that the guidance will be provided from one of the lead farmers.

Before we headed back we visited the demonstration garden that has a windmill on site. This has been an evolving process also – the windmill now very closely resembles the windmills that you see particularly in the mid west and western states in the US. This is a windmill whose purpose is to harness wind power to pump the water out of the ground and into a containment pool. The stored water can then be directed out into the garden to provide irrigation. The beauty of this is that water can be stored whenever there is wind available – the farmer doesn’t have to be present to catch the water and store it somewhere. The down side is that it is large, costs more to build and is really designed for larger gardens – its estimated at anywhere from 1 to 1 ½ acres. The farmers that AWP works with do not have gardens that large. Right now there is one with an organization that has a large compound with people living on site who may have the demand for that much water – so this is very much a work in progress.

I know I went into more detail in this entry – and I haven’t even covered all of it. I’m sure I left many things out that I wished I had included in the days and weeks ahead. The things that stand out in my mind are the pride with which the farmers showed us what they had accomplished, the dramatic differences in the year round gardens and the dried, neglected looking rainy season only gardens, and the smiles of the people that we met along the way.