Meet the Climate Hackers of Malawi

When it comes to growing food, some of the smallest farmers in the world are becoming some of the most creative farmers in the world. Like Judith Harry and her neighbors, they are sowing pigeon peas to shade their soils from a hotter, more scorching sun. They are planting vetiver grass to keep floodwaters at bay.

They are resurrecting old crops, like finger millet and forgotten yams, and planting trees that naturally fertilize the soil. A few are turning away from one legacy of European colonialism, the practice of planting rows and rows of maize, or corn, and saturating the fields with chemical fertilizers.

“One crop might fail. Another crop might do well,” said Ms. Harry, who has abandoned her parents’ tradition of growing just maize and tobacco and added peanuts, sunflowers, and soy to her fields. “That might save your season.”

It’s not just Ms. Harry and her neighbors in Malawi, a largely agrarian nation of 19 million on the front lines of climate hazards. Their scrappy, throw-everything-at-the-wall array of innovations is multiplied by small subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world.

Alexander Mponda’s parents grew maize. Everyone did — even Malawi’s founding President, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, an authoritarian leader who ruled for nearly 30 years. He goaded Malawi to modernize farming, and maize was considered modern. Millets, not.

Hybrid seeds proliferated. Chemical fertilizers were subsidized.

Maize had been promoted by British colonizers long before. It was an easy source of calories for plantation labor. Millet and sorghum, once eaten widely, lost a market. Yams virtually disappeared.

Tobacco became the main cash crop and maize the staple grain. Dried, ground and then cooked as cornmeal, it’s known in Malawi as nsima, in Kenya as ugali, in Uganda as posho (likely derived from the portion of maize porridge doled out to prison inmates under colonial rule.)

So Mr. Mponda, 26, grows maize. But he no longer counts on maize alone. The soil is degraded from decades of monoculture. The rains don’t come on time. This year, fertilizer didn’t either.

“We are forced to change,” Mr. Mponda said. “Just sticking to one crop isn’t beneficial.”

The total acreage devoted to maize in Mchinji District, in central Malawi, has declined by an estimated 12 percent this year, compared with last year, according to the local agricultural office, mainly because of a shortage of chemical fertilizers.

Mr. Mponda is part of a local group called the Farmer Field Business School that runs experiments on a tiny plot of land. On one ridge, they’ve sown two soy seedlings side by side. On the next, one. Some ridges they’ve treated with manure; others not. Two varieties of peanuts are being tested.

The goal: to see for themselves what works, what doesn’t.

Mr. Mponda has been growing peanuts, a cash crop that’s also good for the soil. This year, he planted soy. As for his one acre of maize, it gave him half a normal harvest.

Many of his neighbors are planting sweet potato. Similar farmer-led experiments have begun around the country.

At 74, Wackson Maona, is old enough to recall that up north, where he lives, near the border of Tanzania, there used to be three short bursts of rain before the rainy season began. The first were known as the rains that wash away the ashes from fields cleared after the harvest.

Those rains are gone.

Now, the rains might start late or finish early. Or they might go on nonstop for months. The skies are a mystery now, which is why Mr. Maona takes extra care of the soil.

He refuses to buy anything. He plants seeds he saves. He feeds his soil with compost he makes under the shade of an old mango tree (he calls this his “office”) and then manure from his goats, which helps to hold moisture in the soil.

His field looks like a chaos garden. Pigeon peas grow bushy under the corn, shielding the soil from heat. Pumpkin vines crawl on the ground. Soybean and cassava are sown together, as are bananas and beans. A climbing yam delivers year after year. He has tall trees in his field whose fallen leaves act as fertilizers. He has short trees whose flowers are natural pesticides.

Down south, in a district called Balaka, Jafari Black did all the things.

When a heavy rain began washing the topsoil off the land a few years ago, he and his neighbors dug a new channel to let the water out. They planted vetiver and elephant grass to hold the riverbank in place.

Last November, Mr. Black spent good money on hybrid fast-yielding maize seeds. For good measure, alongside the maize, he planted some sorghum, too. Rain or no rain, sorghum usually did well.

But then, the rains refused to stop. His maize failed. Sorghum, too.

He rushed to plant sweet potato vines. Cyclone Freddy washed them away.

His field was now just mud and sand. A new stream ran through it, deep enough for children to wash clothes in.

Mr. Black stood in the mud one afternoon in late March and wondered aloud what more he could do. “I can’t just sit idle.”

All he had were sugar cane stalks saved from a previous harvest. So he put those in the ground.

The cyclone presented Ms. Chabvuta’s own family with a painful decision.

The storm punched through the house her grandfather had built, the one her mother had grown up in, where Ms. Chabvuta had spent childhood holidays. It inundated the fields. It washed away six goats. It left her uncle, who lived there, devastated.

This hit hard because he was always the resilient one. When a previous cyclone knocked down one wall of the house, he pushed the family to rebuild. When he lost his cattle, he was undeterred. “He used to say ‘We have history here,’” she recalled. “This year he was like, ‘I’m done.’”

The family is now looking to buy land in a village further away from the riverbank, shielded from the next storm, which they know is inevitable.

“We can’t keep insisting we live there,” Ms. Chabvuta said. “As much as we have all the treasured memories, it’s time to let it go.”

Golden Matonga contributed reporting from Malawi.

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