5 April 2002

From city desk to organic success

Malawi in central Africa is a country where agrochemicals are seen as a vital input for

successful crops – even on very small farms. But one man has rejected modern

agricultural inputs and believes his organic system is a far better option for a

sustainable, profitable future. Emma Penny reports

WEALTH doesnt always mean security, and in Africa it doesnt always mean you can buy food either. It was that need for food security that persuaded Glyvyns Chinkhunta to give up his job as a government clerk and turn to farming, even though he had no agricultural background.

Now, 20 years later, he runs one of Malawis most successful organic farms, producing enough from the intensively-run 20ha (50 acres) to feed his extended family as well as supplying produce throughout the country. Hes also trying to set up a marketing organisation for organic food and is due to host a project funded by the Rockerfeller Foundation.

The journey from city desk job to successful farmer hasnt happened by accident. The Chinkhuntas – Glyvyns and his wife Christine – started with only 100sq m, 20-miles north of Lilongwe on May 1, 1982. "I came here then with the intention of approaching the village head man to ask if he could give me some land for raising my family," says Dr Chinkhunta. "When I came here I didnt have a single sq cm of land – this is what he gave me."

&#42 Extended family

The reason for asking for the land is that in Malawi extended family systems mean that families often have to look after aunts, uncles and cousins, which greatly increases their financial requirements. Dr Chinkhunta, already part of a large family, married one of five sisters who also had two brothers.

"I had worked as a sales manager with a publishing house, and in the public and private sectors, but in 1982 I thought that if I carried on working for someone for 20-30 years there was no way I could earn enough to keep my family comfortable.

"I chose farming as my future because it would provide food security and economic welfare. Other occupations might pay, but I would still have had to look for food, and there was the risk that I might not get any, even with my pockets bulging with money."

So while many other farmers chose to grow cash crops such as tobacco and maize, the Chinkhuntas decided to grow horticultural crops which they could consume themselves and sell.

But they first had the job of reclaiming the land, which was swampy and degraded. Installing drainage and terracing to stop soil erosion were the first tasks, but building an irrigation system became the next priority. The system he chose is based on pools which collect rainwater, dispensing water when required via a system of channels.

"Theres a great need for irrigation here, but its all done without pumps or motors. We capture rainwater which would otherwise just degrade our soils, and the irrigation system is based on soil gravity. There are no measuring instruments used – its all done by eye and a sense of balance – and it doesnt cost us anything."

The gardens now produce a huge range of horticultural crops – sugar cane, maize, bananas, citrus fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs and spices. Growing such crops is labour-intensive but in a country with a huge rural population there are plenty of people willing to work on the farm.

"I prefer to spend more paying local people than giving the money to a chemical corporation overseas," says Dr Chinkhunta. "We have helped achieve economic security for communities round here. If you buy fertiliser you pay for everyone involved in its production and transport, and they are usually from much wealthier countries."

&#42 Scepticism

Going organic has met with some scepticism from other Malawian farmers, he says. "Agrochemicals have been here for about 50 years and many farmers belong to a generation that hasnt seen succulent green maize crops grown without fertilisers or chemicals. Its hard to convince them to do things naturally."

Its equally as hard to find markets which pay a premium. Much of Dr Chinkhuntas produce is currently sold at the same price as conventional produce, although its high quality means he receives good prices. He is also working on developing specific markets, and these currently include the Meridien Capital Hotel in Lilongwe, as well as Malawi Catering Services which supplies in-flight meals.

He is also working towards setting up a marketing co-operative which will sell produce from local farmers who have adopted organic techniques after working with him.

&#42 Natural ways

But persuading farmers in Malawi to return to more natural, less capital-intensive ways of farming may become easier with increasing interest from the government and non-governmental organisations, he believes.

The latest organisation to become involved is the Rockerfeller Foundation, which is to fund a research project. Its essential that research is accessible and understandable, as it is often too technical to be practical, he says. "We want to entice people here to hear about research they can use on their farms, rather than just attracting desk-top agriculturalists."

Visitors to the Rockerfeller project will add to those who have already come to hear about his system – extension workers, college students, and farmers from Malawi, Leshoto, Mozambique and Zimbawbe.

From humble beginnings to last years award of an honorary PhD in agriculture from the University of Malawi, Dr Chinkhunta is proud of what he and his family have achieved. But he stresses that he hasnt developed a new system: "Its not converting; its reverting to the old system, and its something that Malawian farmers should find easier to contemplate now they are feeling the pinch from rising input costs."

Emma Penny went to Malawi to see the work of Transaid Worldwide, a UK-based charity which provides training and technical help to improve transport and distribution in developing countries.

Population pressure

Malawi – which was known as Nyasaland until 1963 – is in central Africa, and borders Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Its a long, thin country, roughly 550 miles long and between 50 and 100 miles wide.

Malawi has a rapidly growing population. At an estimated 10.3m, its about the same as Mozambique but spread over a tenth of the land-mass, giving it one of the highest population densities in Africa.

World Bank statistics estimate the number of births/woman is 6.4, with 48% of the population being under 15. About 14.3% of the population live in urban areas, with about 54% living below the poverty line; 48% of children are estimated to be chronically malnourished.