Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The struggle of freeing the hoe

Agriculture experts agree that farm mechanisation is the way to go for Malawi, a country with its basic economy largely dependent on agriculture.

But despite government having developed the National Agriculture and National Irrigation policies which President Peter Mutharika launched last year, farmers are still struggling to mechanise their activities because of the huge expenses that the methods demand.

The two policies are aimed at boosting agriculture investments, among others, and ensure the country maximises land use through modern technologies in a sector that accounts for one-third of Malawi’s gross domestic product (GDP).

And to the smallholder farmer, who has been trapped in a vicious circle where every effort is particularly for the assurance of daily bread, the struggle to dump the hoe seems never-ending.

Even some simple machinery used for tasks like shelling and winnowing are not being accessed by smallholder farmers who look up to government and other stakeholders to effectively manage their endeavours.

“I have had a chance to interact with farmers from other countries who say they are producing more than five times on a piece of land like mine with minimal efforts because almost every process is being mechanised,” says Mike Mulewa, a tobacco farmer in Ntchisi.

Mulewa claims that he has heard before that government is endeavouring to ensure mechanisation is a reality for Malawian farmers, but he doubts if he will benefit from the initiative in his lifetime.

One of the country’s most successful farmers, Felix Jumbe, who is also a member of Parliament (MP) observes that farming manually was supposed to be a thing of the past as different forms of technologies have been developed to ease crop production.

However, Jumbe concedes that farm mechanisation needs a lot of money such that most farmers cannot afford it because of their low levels of income.

“We are supposed to move from the current traditional methods to where we produce more with little efforts. Using hands in processes like winnowing, cleaning farm produce and tilling was supposed to be a thing of the past.

“But how many farmers can afford a tractor or even a simple winnowing machine? How many farmers have the technical capacity to use farm machinery? A lot needs to be done if agriculture is to be improved,” says Jumbe.

He adds that farm mechanisation needs a lot of land, which most smallholder farmers in Malawi do not have.

According to Jumbe, while using machinery works effectively on huge pieces of land of up to 50 hectares, most smallholder farmers have less than three acres.

“Another thing is that most of our land is not fit for mechanisation. The terrain is not even, making the use of machinery like tractors practically impossible. In other countries like Brazil, South Africa and Zimbabwe, they had to flatten pieces of land for easy mechanisation,” says Jumbe.

The lawmaker hopes that agriculture financing will one day be established in the country so that farmers—who contribute a huge chunk of Malawi’s economy—should move from manual processes to the use of machinery.

“Otherwise, as is the case now, there is no clear programme for this country to move away from traditional methods of agriculture. We have talked a lot about mechanisation but nothing is happening,” Jumbe laments.

During his recent tour of Alliance One tobacco company farms, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Aggrey Masi, admitted that the country needs to move towards agriculture mechanisation to revamp the sector.

In fact, such sentiments have been made several times by successive ministers of agriculture and officials under them.

Alliance One significantly uses machines in its production processes starting from tilling to irrigation through harvesting and baling.

“There is a lot that smallholder farmers can learn from how you have mechanised your agriculture endeavours. A lot of energy and time is saved while production is maximised,” said Masi to Alliance One officials who were present during his tour.

He further appreciated the fact that because of mechanised irrigation, the tobacco company is able to maximise land use by planting new crops immediately after harvesting.

“That is what we need to do as a country. Growing crops three times a year is an ideal way of maximising land use. If this can be replicated in several other places, the country will no longer be talking about hunger,” Masi added.

But the Alliance One irrigation machine which Masi was marvelling at costs more than K30 million, an amount which very few farmers can afford.

It even needs technical expertise to operate, and according to Jumbe, farmers must be allowed to easily acquire the expertise from departments like the Agricultural Development Divisions (ADDs) so that they can operate farm machines available for hire “in a few places”.

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