by Luwayo Biswick
Malnutrition is a serious challenge in Malawi. Despite the fact that we have twelve solid months to grow food and live in a country where 85% of the population consists of rural, predominantly subsistence farmers, nearly 60% of our people experience year-round food insecurity. Today nearly 13% of children under the age of 5 are underweight, while 47% of them are developmentally stunted. With these high rates of malnutrition in rural areas, both rural and urban farmers depend heavily, if not solely, on corn for income. This makes them vulnerable to fluctuating markets and environmental factors. Economic dependence on expensive inputs keeps farmers in a perpetual cycle of debt. In addition, Malawians’ average daily caloric intake is 54% corn, which contributes to nutrient deficiencies. Sweeping and burning around homes is leading to high rates of erosion, soil nutrient loss and lack of crop diversification, making the villages more susceptible to droughts, floods, and other natural phenomena outside of their control.
The food crisis in Malawi is an issue very close to my heart, as I was born into a family of 12 and grew up with the all too familiar sensation of hunger. Food was scarce and it was difficult for my parents to feed our large family. The little money we did have went to food, so I failed to complete my tertiary education because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my fees. The days we went to bed with empty stomachs outnumbered the days we could get something to eat. I know now that this was a result of the monoculture farming we were involved in. Until I was 17 years old, I lived on the tobacco farms where my parents worked. I frequently wondered what we must have done to deserve such a difficult life.
Then in 2009 I discovered permaculture through a friend working part time with the Never Ending Food project. Every time I went to visit my friend I was impressed by how much food was growing without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The abundance I saw in his garden inspired me to create my own garden, but I still didn’t understand fully the concepts of permaculture. Without any training, knowledge, support, or money, I started growing corn under the clothes line and soon was not able to hang my clothes. I also had a lot of pest problems because I was only growing one crop.
I kept visiting my friend and soon he came to my home and offered some advice and resources like books and open pollinated seeds from his plants. When I started diversifying crops at my friend’s suggestion, my pest problems subsided. I planted organic passion fruit, lima beans, chaote and never needed to use fertilizer or pesticides.
Meanwhile, everyone around me thought I was going crazy. Things like gathering mulch and planting right outside of the house were not typically done. It was the first time in their lives they had seen someone gather organic matter and plant garden beds directly outside the house to grow food. They told me that the front yard was for sweeping, and what I was doing did not fit with what was considered normal behavior. At first my parents also thought I was acting strange. They were even concerned that I would never be able to find a wife. They had spent money to send me to school and expected me to be employed as soon as I graduated, but when I told them that I wanted to focus on permaculture, they did not see how it would get me anywhere in life. This was a difficult time, but I resisted the stigma of my neighbors and family until I was able to show them the encouraging results of my labor.
Now they have caught on. All around my village people are applying the same techniques to grow their own gardens. It is truly amazing to see the neighboring villages. People who I do not even know are planting organic gardens where front yards were once barren. Now there are young girls and boys, the chief of our village, and many neighbors coming to me to learn about permaculture. They are composting, planting companion plants, and generating an income from selling vegetables.
My parents have also benefited from my persistence and vision. Around their house we have good air, clean water, beautiful landscape, fruits, and vegetables. Before we used to eat Nsima, which is our staple food made from maize, with a little bit of relish. Now my parents have plenty of fruits and greens. We also have plenty of firewood, shade, and protection against the winds. The soil is healthy and filled with nutrients. Instead of buying fruits, vegetables and firewood we can use our own freely available resources that are all around us. Now that they have seen the results and continue to grow and nurture the land, they have become the permaculture teachers in my village and I have gone on to work with Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology (the largest Permaculture training and demonstration center in Malawi) as a Lead Permaculture trainer, designer and consultant. This role has given me the opportunity to share this knowledge with many communities in my country.
But there is still so much work to be done. In October of 2015, I began a permaculture diploma program with Gaia University. During my program I am working on establishing a unique permaculture rain-fed paradigm in remote areas in the western part of Malawi where no one has demonstrated permaculture before and many people have failed to find success in this kind of rain-fed agricultural model. In this area, the earth is sandy and holds very little moisture or nutrients. Like many people in Malawian villages, the people don’t own their own land, rather they rent land to grow their food. The fields are separated from the villages and the farmers must walk long distances to tend to their crops. These villages are also surrounded by big tobacco farms that disseminate messages that promote monoculture farming which leads to even more soil degradation, malnutrition, hunger, poverty, and climate change to name but a few consequences. By introducing permaculture into these communities, I hope to demonstrate how solution based approaches can save lives and heal the earth.
Bio Luwayo Biswick has 6 years of experience as a Permaculture Facilitator, Consultant and Designer. He was the first Malawian to become accredited as an international Holistic Land Management Professional Educator by the Savory Institute, and has worked with local and international organizations, schools, hospitals, local villages, communities, churches and individuals on Permaculture and sustainable land designs for food production, holistic health, integrated land management, poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, rehabilitation of degraded chaotic landscapes, has produced a variety of permaculture teaching materials in his local language including videos and manuals, (uploaded on you tube, facebook and Kusamala website, www.kusamala.org), has conducted a variety of permaculture programs both on local radio, television and international radio (BBC), and is the co-founder of New life Permaculture youth group dealing with recycling of plastic bags, making them into lots of things such as mats, lags, hats and much more. He is also the co-author of 15 simple step by step Permaculture manuals in both his local language and in English.