When it comes to growing food, some of the smallest farmers in the world are becoming some of the most creative farmers in the world. Like Judith Harry and her neighbors, they are sowing pigeon peas to shade their soils from a hotter, more scorching sun. They are planting vetiver grass to keep floodwaters at bay.
They are resurrecting old crops, like finger millet and forgotten yams, and planting trees that naturally fertilize the soil. A few are turning away from one legacy of European colonialism, the practice of planting rows and rows of maize, or corn, and saturating the fields with chemical fertilizers.
“One crop might fail. Another crop might do well,” said Ms. Harry, who has abandoned her parents’ tradition of growing just maize and tobacco and added peanuts, sunflowers, and soy to her fields. “That might save your season.”
It’s not just Ms. Harry and her neighbors in Malawi, a largely agrarian nation of 19 million on the front lines of climate hazards. Their scrappy, throw-everything-at-the-wall array of innovations is multiplied by small subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world.
This is out of necessity.
It’s because they rely on the weather to feed themselves, and the weather has been upended by 150 years of greenhouse gas emissions produced mainly by the industrialized countries of the world.
Droughts scorch their soil. Storms come at them with a vengeance. Cyclones, once rare, are now regular. Add to that a shortage of chemical fertilizers, which most African countries import from Russia, now at war. Also the value of its national currency has shrunk.
All the things, all at once. Farmers in Malawi are left to save themselves from hunger.
Maize, the main source of calories across the region, is in trouble.
In Malawi, maize production has been battered by droughts, cyclones, rising temperatures and erratic rains. Across southern Africa, climate shocks have dampened maize yields already, and if temperatures continue to rise, yields are projected to decline further.
“The soil has gone cold,” Ms. Harry said.
Giving up isn’t an option. There’s no insurance to fall back on, no irrigation when the rains fail.
So you do what you can. You experiment. You grab your hoe and try building different kinds of ridges to save your banana orchard. You share manure with your neighbors who have had to sell their goats in hard times. You switch to eating soy porridge for breakfast, instead of the corn meal you’ve grown accustomed to.
There’s no guarantee these hacks will be enough. That was abundantly clear when, in March, Cyclone Freddy barreled into the south of Malawi, dropping six months of rain in six days. It washed away crops, houses, people, livestock.
Still, you keep going.
“Giving up means you don’t have food,” said Chikondi Chabvuta, the granddaughter of farmers who is now a regional adviser with the international aid group CARE. “You just have to adapt.”
And for now, you have to do it without much help. Global funding to help poor countries adapt to climate hazards is a small fraction of what is needed, the United Nations said.
Alexander Mponda’s parents grew maize. Everyone did — even Malawi’s founding President, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, an authoritarian leader who ruled for nearly 30 years. He goaded Malawi to modernize farming, and maize was considered modern. Millets, not.
Hybrid seeds proliferated. Chemical fertilizers were subsidized.
Maize had been promoted by British colonizers long before. It was an easy source of calories for plantation labor. Millet and sorghum, once eaten widely, lost a market. Yams virtually disappeared.
Tobacco became the main cash crop and maize the staple grain. Dried, ground and then cooked as cornmeal, it’s known in Malawi as nsima, in Kenya as ugali, in Uganda as posho (likely derived from the portion of maize porridge doled out to prison inmates under colonial rule.)
So Mr. Mponda, 26, grows maize. But he no longer counts on maize alone. The soil is degraded from decades of monoculture. The rains don’t come on time. This year, fertilizer didn’t either.
“We are forced to change,” Mr. Mponda said. “Just sticking to one crop isn’t beneficial.”
The total acreage devoted to maize in Mchinji District, in central Malawi, has declined by an estimated 12 percent this year, compared with last year, according to the local agricultural office, mainly because of a shortage of chemical fertilizers.
Mr. Mponda is part of a local group called the Farmer Field Business School that runs experiments on a tiny plot of land. On one ridge, they’ve sown two soy seedlings side by side. On the next, one. Some ridges they’ve treated with manure; others not. Two varieties of peanuts are being tested.
The goal: to see for themselves what works, what doesn’t.
Mr. Mponda has been growing peanuts, a cash crop that’s also good for the soil. This year, he planted soy. As for his one acre of maize, it gave him half a normal harvest.
Many of his neighbors are planting sweet potato. Similar farmer-led experiments have begun around the country.
Malawi has seen recurrent droughts in some places, extreme rains in others, rising temperatures and four cyclones in three years. As in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, climate change has dampened agricultural productivity, with a recent World Bank study warning that climate shocks could shrink the region’s already frail economy by 3 percent to 9 percent by 2030. Already, half its people live below the poverty line.
Eighty percent of them have no access to electricity. They don’t own cars or motorcycles. Sub-Saharan Africans account for barely 3 percent of the planet-heating gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere.
That is to say, they bear little to no responsibility for the problem of climate change.
There’s only so much small farmers in a small country can do, if the world’s biggest climate polluters, led by the United States and China, fail to reduce their emissions.
“In some regions of the world it will become not possible to grow food, or to raise animals,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr, a Cornell University professor who has worked with Malawian farmers for over 20 years. “That’s if we continue on our current trajectory.”
The Heirloom Seeds
At 74, Wackson Maona, is old enough to recall that up north, where he lives, near the border of Tanzania, there used to be three short bursts of rain before the rainy season began. The first were known as the rains that wash away the ashes from fields cleared after the harvest.
Those rains are gone.
Now, the rains might start late or finish early. Or they might go on nonstop for months. The skies are a mystery now, which is why Mr. Maona takes extra care of the soil.
He refuses to buy anything. He plants seeds he saves. He feeds his soil with compost he makes under the shade of an old mango tree (he calls this his “office”) and then manure from his goats, which helps to hold moisture in the soil.
His field looks like a chaos garden. Pigeon peas grow bushy under the corn, shielding the soil from heat. Pumpkin vines crawl on the ground. Soybean and cassava are sown together, as are bananas and beans. A climbing yam delivers year after year. He has tall trees in his field whose fallen leaves act as fertilizers. He has short trees whose flowers are natural pesticides.
“Everything is free,” he says. It’s the antithesis of industrial agriculture.
Planting several trees and crops on one patch of land often takes more time and labor. But it can also serve as a kind of insurance.
“The maize can fail. The cassava can do better. The sweet potato can do better,” said Esther Lupafya, a nurse who used to work with malnourished children at a clinic nearby before switching her attention to helping farmers like Mr. Maona grow better food. “So you can eat something.”
She has seen diets improve. Even after a battery of climate shocks — terrible drought in 2019, incessant rains this year — she has seen farmers keep trying. “They could have given up,” Ms. Lupafya said. “They will not give up.”
Down south, in a district called Balaka, Jafari Black did all the things.
When a heavy rain began washing the topsoil off the land a few years ago, he and his neighbors dug a new channel to let the water out. They planted vetiver and elephant grass to hold the riverbank in place.
Last November, Mr. Black spent good money on hybrid fast-yielding maize seeds. For good measure, alongside the maize, he planted some sorghum, too. Rain or no rain, sorghum usually did well.
But then, the rains refused to stop. His maize failed. Sorghum, too.
He rushed to plant sweet potato vines. Cyclone Freddy washed them away.
His field was now just mud and sand. A new stream ran through it, deep enough for children to wash clothes in.
Mr. Black stood in the mud one afternoon in late March and wondered aloud what more he could do. “I can’t just sit idle.”
All he had were sugar cane stalks saved from a previous harvest. So he put those in the ground.
‘We Have History Here’
The cyclone presented Ms. Chabvuta’s own family with a painful decision.
The storm punched through the house her grandfather had built, the one her mother had grown up in, where Ms. Chabvuta had spent childhood holidays. It inundated the fields. It washed away six goats. It left her uncle, who lived there, devastated.
This hit hard because he was always the resilient one. When a previous cyclone knocked down one wall of the house, he pushed the family to rebuild. When he lost his cattle, he was undeterred. “He used to say ‘We have history here,’” she recalled. “This year he was like, ‘I’m done.’”
The family is now looking to buy land in a village further away from the riverbank, shielded from the next storm, which they know is inevitable.
“We can’t keep insisting we live there,” Ms. Chabvuta said. “As much as we have all the treasured memories, it’s time to let it go.”
Golden Matonga contributed reporting from Malawi.