30 September 2020
Breaking News

Reforestation casts light for sweet potato farmers

Written by  Sam Majamanda
Chipewa-profits are down Chipewa-profits are down

Phalombe, August 14, 2020: "Nkhulambe farmers have been feeding Phalombe and a good part of southern region with sweet potatoes for the past years, but now this is no longer the case," a Phalombe resident, Harrison Chipewa has claimed.

He made this sweeping statement against a background that countless Lorries and trucks flock to Phalombe district, particularly to Senior Chief Nkhulambe's area during sweet potato harvest season to buy in bulk from farmers in the area.

This has been good business since time immemorial and a lot of farmers managed to improve their lives through sweet potato farming as Chipewa further claimed.

"This was why a sweet potatoes market naturally formed itself at Nawale where the exchange used to happen most and now it continues to be a potatoes sale point even now after potato production has drastically dwindled in the area," he added.

The area of Group Village Headman Mchenga under Sub Traditional Authority (STA) Phweremwe is practically distributed in halves between residential area and sweet potato fields where the people proudly say their gold lies.

According to Chipewa over the past years people of the village and surrounding villages enjoyed good production which translated into lucrative business for them.

He referred to brick houses and iron sheeted houses as some of the milestones of sweet potato production which undoubtedly forms a great part of the people’s history of the past three decades that could clearly be recalled.

“Since the time I started realizing things, about 20 years ago, I can recall that my grandparents and parents were all potato farmers. We have grown up surviving on money from the potatoes. That is a likely common life story of every young person that you can talk to around, that is why sweet potato farming matters to everyone,”  Chipewa who has never been employed before as he has no education explained.

It is common knowledge among the locals that irrigated production of the Sukasanje gold is the one that earns them honourable proceeds, hence the unbreakable relationship between the potato fields and Sukasanje River which feeds all the fields with surface water for irrigation.

However, amid being the people’s great companion in household economic development, one thing that has been breaking their hearts over the past five to six years is that sweet potatoes’ production is currently facing challenges due to the slow drying up of the mother source of water to the fields; Sukasanje River.

Another farmer, Thomas Maudzu said it was common knowledge that the complete drying up of the river equals the death of potato irrigation farming in the area and the obvious closure of their surface mine.

“This River was not the way you are seeing it today. It used to have a lot of water and every farmer downstream benefited the way they wanted because the water was plentiful, but currently all that has changed because soon after each rainy season the river gets reduced to a width of not more than two meters and a depth of less than a meter,” he said.

Maudzu added that this has put most farmers in an uncertain position concerning the future of farming and their ability to sustain their economy.

“Rain fed potato farming is not profitable because during harvest of such potatoes is usually too much produce, so the high supply affects our prices that we almost make no profit when you calculate literally everything,” he said, adding that the irrigated produce was the one they use to compensate the rain fed produce losses.

Group Village Headman, Mchenga was worried for his people whose good population he said knows no other money making way than farming.

He said most of the youth in the area are equally engaged in the farming because they know that in the end they used to earn a smart living.

Mchenga pointed out that the gradual death of production; most of them would abandon the trade and begin to engage in immoral ways of getting money.

Realizing these and many other challenges that awaits the people of Nkhulambe, the death of potato farming, people of Sukasanje during Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) 3 implementation attempted reforestation along the River aimed at reclaiming their once cherished water, according to Robert Namame, a member of Nkhulambe Catchment Management Committee (CMC), the trees never survived.

“From that time to present the situation has worsened. People physically fight for water at the farm fields to an extent that it resulted into a sad event where two men hacked each other with a panga knife in a fight for water,” he disclosed.

Nkhulambe Police Unit Officer In-charge, Elton Magombo confirmed having handled a case involving the two fighters.

“So people have decided to utilize an opportunity that has risen from the National Local Government Finance Committee (NLGFC) facilitated Enhanced Public Works Programme (EPWP) to replant trees along Sukasanje River in hopes that the intervention will retain water in the River and solve all their problems,” Namame added.

He said in the community’s understanding if there were many trees along the River the extent of drying up would not have been worrisome and everyone would have been able to access water for irrigation in the fields.

Agribusiness Officer at Phalombe District Agriculture Office, Aaron M’mwala said the problem was genuine and his office has been aware of it.

He said although his office does not have statistical information on how sweet potato production has been affected over the years due to the Sukasanje River problem.

The Officer said one thing was clearly notable was that the water problem has affected people’s livelihood in the area by crippling irrigated potato production.

“When it comes to summer produce the Sukasanje area relies on surface water which comes from Sukasanje River whose current low water supply directly means low production,” M’mwala said.

District Forestry Officer (DFO) for Phalombe, Moses Mtambo said it was the best long lasting solution they could ever hope to find.

He said planting trees along the river line helps reduce evaporation because when they grow, the trees provide shade to the water in the river so the water is not exposed to direct sun heat which facilitates evaporation.

The DFO added that trees help in reducing surface runoff which leads to increased infiltration of the water into the soil.

“So in the end there is a lot of water underground and the water table rises thereby allowing the surface land to have more water. When that happens then you can be assured that the land will have water throughout the year,” Mtambo emphasized.

While the people of Sukasanje are at the verge of losing their source of livelihood to nature related problems, the solution they have sorted lies in nature itself.

Now, there is hope that through replenishing and conserving nature the people will once again get their lives back.

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