Prospering together with rice


“I have a small body but a big brain,” brags Fulale Mbinga, poking her head as she feeds a cow she bought after selling rice last year.

The mother of five knows how livestock helps farmers overcome hunger and poverty when crops fail amid devastating effects of climate change.

“I think about the future,” she says. “Throughout, I was dreaming of owning cattle which could give my family milk and meat for sale during financial hardship.”

Mbinga and her husband, Ronex Kapatuka Sichali, have been producing rice for a decade, but had little to show for it.

They blame the lost years on overreliance on recycled seed they used to scatter in their rice field.

“The recycled seed wasn’t pure kilombero. It was contaminated by other varieties, so we were harvesting grain of different sizes and colours,” she says.

Not any longer.

Since 2018, the family has been accessing certified seed from the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (Nasfam), making rice nursery on seedbeds and bearing the burden of transplanting two-week old seedlings one per planting station. Nasfam promoted the system of rice intensification (SRI) under the climate-smart agriculture project with support from Irish Aid.

The planting system has boosted Mbinga’s yield just when farmers hooked to traditional planting methods, especially broadcasting recycled seed, are concerned about low, and poor quality yields.

“I harvested nine bags and a half from less than an acre,” she says.

She bought a cow at K100 000 after selling some rice to Nasfam. She also acquired a radio receiver to follow current news and a phone which helps her connect with people as well as save, send and receive money.

Mbinga also purchased a bicycle, biking away from long walks to the food markets, hospital, church and public meetings. She is happy not to financially depend on her husband nor jostle for his bicycle.

‘It’s a game changer’

The enterprising woman is one of 30 farmers mentored by her spouse, a lead farmer for the area. The lead farmer is happy that eight of the farmers he leads have adopted SRI, which helped him yield almost a tonne from plots that previously produced just about 500kg.

“One-one [SRI] is a game changer because we harvest more even with erratic rains which vanish too early for rice which requires adequate water,” he says.

By following the tips from field officers deployed by Kaporo North Farmers Association, Sichali harvests up to 12 bags weighing 90kg each from plots dedicated to SRI.

“In June, I harvested 10 bags and sold 5 of them at K175 per kg. I bought iron sheets and roofed my house at Karonga Boma.

The house is already occupied by a tenant who pays K8 000 a month.

“The price will more than double when we install water supply and electricity,” he states.

Sichali’s house in Mwahowoke Village, Traditional Authority Kilupula, emits the scintillating aroma of kilombero rice from the remaining bags stacked in one of the rooms.

Sichali plans to sell the remainder between October and March, when many Malawians run out of food. He expects to cash in on spiking demand during the lean months, as the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee projects that 1.2 million people in the country will require food aid before the 2022 harvest.

“Rice is our main cash crop here in Karonga North, so I cannot just let it go on the cheap. After all, SRI gives us quality grain compared to the mixed seed many broadcast in their plots,” he says.

Improving lives

The lead farmer envies Timothy Sichali, his cousin and one of the farmers he mentors, who has bought a motorcycle which ferries commuters between Karonga Town and Songwe Border Post at a fee.

“I want to buy mine because Timo makes thousands every day with the motorcycle taxi he bought after a bumper harvest from an SRI plot. Some have built decent houses and others started businesses,” he says.

His wife is optimistic that the shared dream would come true in “a year or two”.

He states: “Our incomes and livelihoods will keep improving if we continue to access profitable markets, so that farmers aren’t swindled by vendors who manipulate scales to buy our grain. “We will get poorer if we keep our produce in homes, in the absence of decent prices.”