MZUZU, Malawi (AlertNet) – Confronted by worsening dry spells that have damaged his crops, farmer Anthony Kapesa has had an unlikely reaction: he’s stopped tilling his land.
Kapesa, from Zombwe village in northern Malawi, has long hoed his fields each planting season, making ridges of earth in which to plant his maize seeds.
But as Kapesa has learned, soil loosened by tilling is more easily dried out by the sun. In the past, whenever there was a dry spell, Kapesa’s crops wilted, drastically decreasing his yield.
Lack of rainfall during the growing season – a problem believed to be associated with climate change - is an increasing concern for farmers in Malawi .
Now Kapesa no longer toils in the field with his hoe. Instead, he spreads moisture-preserving mulch over the level surface of his untilled field.
The mulch is made from wild grass that grows locally. Kapesa cuts it and leaves it to dry before spreading it.
When he wants to plant his seeds, Kapesa pulls aside a little mulch, digs a small hole, drops in a seed and buries it.
When it rains, the mulch absorbs the water, allowing it to soak slowly into the ground. And when the rains don’t come, the mulch shields the soil, reducing the rate at which moisture is lost from the ground.
“Since I started using this system, my crop no longer wilts as it used to do before during the times of dry spells. As a result, my yields have been more than what they used to be when I planted my crops on ridges,” Kapesa said, showing off a granary full of harvested maize.
Before he began mulching, Kapesa used to harvest 16 bags of maize, each weighing 50 kg, from the acre of farmland near his house. Now he says the same land produces 43 bags, nearly triple the yield.
Tilling the soil and making ridges for planting are traditional farming techniques practised throughout Malawi each June to September.
But tilling and ridging promotes moisture loss from the soil, according to Chakalipa Kanyenda, programme manager for Find Your Feet, a UK-based non-governmental organisation that teaches farmers ways of adapting to the effects of climate change.
Kanyenda said mulching has proven to be an excellent buffer against more erratic rainfall in Malawi, and has been eagerly adopted.
In its first year of operation, Find Your Feet targeted 5,000 farming families in the districts of Karonga, Mzimba and Rumphi in Malawi’s northern region to promote mulching. Now 25,000 families have adopted the technique, Kanyenda said.
Mulching fields not only helps the ground retain moisture but also gives the crops an additional source of nutrients, he said.
Kapesa has experienced these benefits directly. The farmer says that since he started planting in mulch rather than on ridges, his field has been moist even during hot weather.
“As a result, my crops keep growing vigorously even during such periods of dry spells,” he said.
Karen Sanje is a Malawi-based freelance writer with an interest in climate issues.