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Joseph Scott

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Irrigation Puts Hunger in Check in Malawi

Posted: 02/04/11 11:33 AM ET

The month of January is usually the busiest in Chitukula, an agricultural community situated in rural Lilongwe in central Malawi. With the onset of the rains, most farmers in Chitukula are busy in their fields, determined to make the most out of the heavy rainfall.

Contrary to the surrounding hub of activity, Wellington Kachigamba's pace has slowed. On this usually labor-intensive Wednesday morning, he sits with legs outstretched on his tobacco shed verandah whilst stringing together his first crop of tobacco into bunches for drying. He looks up at the hundred or so bunches perched on the trusses of the shed and smiles with satisfaction.

"I am now living a life free of worries," says Kachigamba, 46, as he lays down another neatly stashed bundle of green tobacco leaves. "This time last year, I would have been busy in other people's fields working for food."

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Kachigamba, a member of Concern's irrigation group in Chitukula, Malawi. Photo: Malawi, Concern Worldwide

Kachigamba's change of fortune came last year when Concern -- through its partner organization, Hope for the Heart -- encouraged poor farmers in the area to join the newly-established Chipeni irrigation club.

Concern supported club members by providing an easy-to-use treadle pump and spraying machine. Irrigation equipment is loaned out to each of the members for a day, so that all members are given the opportunity to improve their crop production. As Kachigamba explains, the initiative has led to a dramatic transformation in the lives of club members.

"In the past, I used to face food problems," Kachigamba recalls. "I had nowhere to get food and had to make my family work cultivating other people's fields so that we could survive. We could buy only barely enough to feed ourselves and my children would go to school on an empty stomach."

Now, however, Kachigamba has a different story to tell.

"Being a member of the club has helped me a lot," he says. "I have harvested seven bags of maize from my field this year and I still have time to tend my tobacco crop. My children are performing better in class because they are no longer hungry."

Chitukula is predominantly a tobacco farming zone. Farmers such as Kachigamba rely on the cash crop for their livelihood. From the proceeds, they send their children to school, buy food and use the rest of the income to invest in their crops for the next season. In the past, unreliable rains resulted in wilted crops and chronic hunger for many families.

"Irrigation farming has shielded us from the perennial hunger that we experience every year," says Regina, Kachigamba's wife. "Even if the rains fail this year, at least we have something to keep us going from our harvest."

Regina adds that the availability of food in her household has made them concentrate on their farm: "Both our tobacco and maize crops are doing much better because we now have enough time to prepare our fields. Currently we are pruning the first leaves of our tobacco plant which we will sell to vendors. We will use the money to supplement our food stocks and pay school fees for our children."

Isaac Ndevuzamwayi, another beneficiary of the irrigation scheme, says he sold his produce as green maize and made MK 15,000 (nearly $100).

"Vendors from town came to purchase my maize in bulk," says Ndevuzamwayi. "From the sales, I managed to buy food for my family, seeds and fertilizer for my field and saved a little for the future," said Ndevuzamwayi."

Like Kachigamba, Ndevuzamwayi's household has always experienced food shortages, forcing him to abandon his livelihood to look for work elsewhere.

"I used to work in other people's fields, but whatever I got could only provide me with a hand-to-mouth existence," he says. "At the end of the season, I had nothing to show for it."