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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Proving Mutharika right
by Gospel Mwalwanda, Malawi News Agency, 14 December 2005 - 05:39:00
President Bingu wa Mutharika and Francis Singini may be worlds apart in status, but the two have one thing in common — their determination to rid Malawi of hunger.
Mutharika has repeatedly told the nation that he does not understand why Malawi continues to experience hunger when the country is endowed with perennial rivers such as the Shire.
The President is convinced that hunger would be a thing of the past if the nation fully utilised its water resources to irrigate crops, and stopped relying on rain-fed agriculture.
And Singini is eager to prove Mutharika right.
As district agricultural development officer for Neno, Singini wants Mtengula Irrigation Scheme, located in the district some 19 km north of Zalewa road block, to be a model agriculture project.
To irrigate crops, the scheme diverts water from the nearby Shire River, using a canal that will cover 12.5 kilometres when excavation work is completed.
Mutharika visited Mtengula scheme last August, and what he saw highly impressed him, prompting him to remark that Malawi would be safe even in times of poor rainfall if only people all over the country emulated the initiative.
“It pleases me that while other people are thinking only of drinking beer, you thought of setting up this scheme,” he said when he addressed farmers after inspecting the scheme.
“Government won’t leave you alone,” the President assured the people.
At the time, Mtengula scheme covered 20 hectares of land, benefited 150 farmers, and the canal was 1.5 km long. Mutharika learnt during his visit that the scheme’s water intake was not effective because it had not been completed for lack of funds.
Thus, the scheme needed funds for the completion of the intake, to enable the canal to be extended so that more farmers could be brought into the scheme.
Mutharika, who is keen to emulate the country’s first President, the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s achievement in agriculture, pledged to help. Among other things, he promised to give the farmers cement and a motorised pump
The President has since fulfilled his promises. The scheme received 50 bags of cement, reinforcement brick wire and bars for the completion of the intake, and a motorised pump.
“He pledged to help us and he’s done it,” Singini told Mana when this writer visited Mtengula Village recently.
“We are grateful to our leader. Other people should follow his example,” he said.
And thanks to the President’s gesture, the scheme now covers 30 hectares, the canal having been extended to 3.5 km. The number of farmers has also doubled.
At full capacity, the scheme will cover 342 hectares, and production of maize, the major crop grown, is projected at 4,104 metric tonnes annually.
From the 30 hectares, the scheme is expected to produce 280,000 kg, or 280 metric tonnes of maize per year from three harvests. And with the acquisition of the motorised pump, yields are expected to increase significantly.
“The pump can irrigate up to 20 hectares. We are grateful to the government for the assistance,” Singini said. “Now that we a have a pump, our projection is that 100 hectares should be under cultivation next year.”
But for the scheme to achieve its full potential, its canal will have to be extended by another eight or so kilometres, and Singini is confident it will be done, although no excavators are involved.
“If the scheme’s potential 342 hectares have to be realised, we will have to extend the channel to cover 12 km,” says Singini. “We may be ambitious, but that’s our target. Since it’s manual work, we should cover 12 km in three or four years at the pace we are going.”
Excavation of the canal began in 2002 using Highly Indebted Poor Countries (Hipc) funds, and then World Vision International came in with a food-for-work programme.
The Malawi Social Action Fund (Masaf) has also provided funding for the construction of the canal, under Local Assembly Managed Projects.
Malawi requires about 2.1 million metric tonnes of maize annually, but was able to produce only 1.2 million metric tonnes this year. An estimated 4.8 million Malawians need food aid. Initial estimates put the figure at 4.2 million.
The food shortage is the worst since 2001 when there was a shortfall of 400,000 metric tonnes of maize. President Mutharika declared a state of disaster in October.
There are about 31,460 households in Neno, of which 12,589 are in Lisungwi Extension Planning Area. Mtengula scheme will support about 3,000 households once it covers 340 hectares.
Maize is grown three times in a season, using the Sasakawa technique. The technique involves planting maize — usually of hybrid variety — at a spacing of 25 centimetres, ridges at 75 centimetres, and one seed per station.
And with the technique, fertiliser is applied during planting, and holes are spaced in between the planting station, as opposed to the traditional method whereby one station may contain as many as three seeds. And farmers are assured of maximum yields.
“It’s advantageous because with the increase in population, there’s more pressure on arable land. As such, small land holdings will be able to supply enough food,” Singini told Mana. “We want to treble harvests, and intend to start planting by March.”
As the scheme expands and its benefits become evident, people around Mtengula village have realised that irrigation farming is not only a solution to the country’s chronic hunger problem, but can also empower Malawians economically.
Within the three years the scheme has been in existence, some enterprising locals have already acquired property, bought with money realised from selling green maize, resulting in countless farmers expressing their desire to join the scheme.
“Work is progressing well. People are showing great interest in the scheme. Some farmers have bought iron sheets for roofing, cattle, and bicycles,” Andrew Matokoso, assistant irrigation officer for Neno, told Mana.
Matokoso said: “We now want to teach them to diversify. Apart from maize, they should also grow other crops on a large scale for sale.”

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