Food and water are topics of genuine concern to many people in Malawi - still one of the under-served countries in the world. Most Malawians are smallholder farmers, meaning they farm on only a very small piece of land, and they can often only rely on unpredictable rainfalls as a source of water for their plants. Given a large number of smallholder farmers and the many challenges they face, improving irrigation is an essential step to strengthen food security in Malawi.
aQysta started serving Malawi with its sustainable zero-fuel Barsha Pumps about a year ago. In collaboration with aQysta, an MSc. water management student of TU Delft, Ruben van Dijk, conducted extensive research on understanding the factors that influence the farmers’ decision to adopt certain irrigation technologies. This tests included the Barsha Pump.
Ruben was interviewed by aQysta’s communication officer Alisha. He stated his opinion on the irrigation status of Malawi and how zero-fuel pumps can help local farmers to meet their irrigation needs and increase their harvest substantially.
Alisha: How is the on-the-ground reality of agriculture in Malawi?
Ruben: Malawi faces high climate variability and many agricultural challenges. Its economy is predominantly dependent on agriculture with the sector generally contributing more than a third of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With a fast-expanding population, this means that agriculture directly supports around 14 million people. Unfortunately, the production increase has failed to keep pace with population growth which has led the country to experience food shortages during times of poor rainfall.
Three-quarters of the total agricultural production in Malawi is contributed by smallholder farmers, of which, most do not irrigate and purely rely on rain as a source of water. The rain-fed smallholder farmer agricultural production, therefore, determines the food security and socio-economic growth of the country to a large extent. This production is, however, highly uncertain under rainfed conditions. Given the large number and dependency of smallholder farmers in Malawi, intensification of their crop farming is a key to ensure local food security.
Alisha: What is your observation on the current status of irrigation? Apart from rainfall, are there any irrigation technologies farmers have been using?
Ruben: Just like in many other regions in Southern Africa, the irrigation culture in Malawi predominantly takes place in an informal or semi-informal smallholder setting, meaning that the existing systems were developed without or with little external governmental or technical support, or have had no (governmental) support, supervision, and control for years.
In some cases the government or development organizations have invested huge amounts of money into constructing or rehabilitating underperforming formal irrigation systems, most of the farmers that irrigate their land are using watering cans or treadle pumps. A few farmers, or farmer groups, that can afford, have opted to use petrol pumps. They, however, bear an initial investment, high operation, and maintenance costs because of continuous use of expensive fuels, that are often not available near rural irrigation sites, resulting in relatively high break-even yields. This has caused them to often be too expensive for many individual smallholder farmers.
Alisha: Out of curiosity, what is the gender ratio of the farmers like? Are there more female farmers or male farmers? What about the youths?
Ruben: Most of the farmers in Malawi are female. The males try to find sources of income elsewhere. Farming, however, no longer done solely for subsistence, but as a means to generate income, and when irrigation technology is purchased or introduced, males suddenly seem interested and get involved.
The youth prefers to stay away from farming and want to find jobs elsewhere. There are, however, a few groups of adolescents that I have met during my trip that are very interested in farming and which made me realize that if proper thought-out agribusiness strategies are applied, farming can be developed into a lucrative business in Malawi.
Alisha: Do you think, a water-powered pump like aQysta's Barsha Pump could help improve the situation?
Ruben: The main problem that farmers in Malawi are facing is an attainable cost-effective irrigation solution. Although cheap, watering cans and treadle pumps are very tiresome technologies that realize only a small portion of irrigated land. The petrol pumps come with high running costs and maintenance and are not manageable for most of the Malawian farming population. Solar pumps are technologies which only the very wealthy can afford or is only implemented through development projects.
Barsha pump can really help these communities to increase their production by efficient irrigation. It operates 24/7 at zero operating cost. Also, farmers in Malawi can pay for it in installments. Paying in installments gives the farmer a lot more flexibility and gives the Barsha pump here in Malawi a massive advantage. It is the only irrigation solution available on the market with this sort of payment option. For many farmers, it is impossible to pay the whole amount to purchase a Barsha pump, or any of the other available alternative technologies, in one go.
Alisha: Apart from inefficient irrigation, what are some of the other problems do you think smallholder farmers in Malawi face?
Ruben: Smallholder farmers face many challenges linked to the shortage of land, poor soil fertility, lack of investment capital, price fluctuations, expensive labor, lack of extension services, access to expensive agricultural inputs, poor road infrastructure, access to markets and crop diseases and so on.
Even though access to water is not the only factor challenging smallholder farmers, improving irrigation is an attractive opportunity to secure smallholder farmers’ production.
Alisha: I heard that you and your family and friends contributed a few pumps to the needy ones. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Ruben: Because I experienced with my own eyes what kind of difference a Barsha pump can make in the life of a small farmer, I figured I would really like to engage my friends and family to help me finance two Barsha pumps at a location where people don't have the means to pay for it.
In addition to the fact that the pump has a hugely positive impact on the food security of an entire community, I realized that the implementation can also further demonstrate the functionality, potential, and usability of the pump in a poor, smallholder farming community. In the future, I hope that this will help convince development organizations and the Malawian government to implement the Barsha pump in development projects elsewhere.
With the help of a lot of people, we have been able to help 3 farming communities. Not only with a Barsha pump, but also with a “starter pack”, consisting of pipes, water reservoirs, sprayers, water rights, seeds, and fertilizers. The whole system makes them independent of extreme drought and enables them to develop themselves and provide for their loved ones. However, a small portion (15%) of the whole package was paid by the communities themselves. This was done to create a sense of ownership and commitment in the community and this is essential for the sustainability of the entire system.
Alisha: What were farmers’ perceptions regarding a pump that is powered by water?
Ruben: Well, after educating them about the pump, the farmers think it is genius and very cost-effective.
The research was extensive but the most frequently visited places for the report were Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba, Mwanza, Ntchisi, Mzuzu, Rumphi, Dowa, and Dedza districts. These districts were selected because of good communication and cooperation with the Malawian Irrigation Extension officers of those respective districts.