With heavy clouds looming behind the forested hills of his farm’s Liwonde Forest Reserve backdrop, 42 year old Samuel Kosimasi hums to himself and leans over a long ridge of soil as he expertly inserts leafy vines. Even without equipment, apart from his steady hand and even stride, the vines above the dirt’s surface appear to be perfectly spaced. He knows nutritious sweetpotato roots will soon start forming under the soil, as the vines grow vigorously above the surface.
Samuel is not the only farmer tending to his field this morning. In the surrounding fields, other farmers are applying urea fertilizer to their shoulder-high maize fields. They planted their maize fields at the first hint of the rainy season, in mid-November. As they carefully apply the expensive fertilizer to each maize plant, they say a silent prayer that their crop will still yield enough food for the year. This year’s rainy season started earlier than the past couple of years, but its inadequate rains and sporadic dry spells have only compounded the effect of Malawian farmers’ new worst enemy, the Fall Armyworm, a pest that has eaten through maize stalks and leaves.
When the others celebrated the early rains and rushed to plant their maize, Samuel patiently waited. As the rainy days passed, his neighbors warned him that if he did not plant soon, his family would go hungry. But Samuel had a plan; he nodded knowingly when he heard their warnings, but still he waited. His patience paid dividends last year, and he was confident it would do so again this planting season. While he waited to plant his own field, Samuel made money by working in other families’ fields and by constructing houses.
But now that he and his family reflected on their fruitful 2017 and welcomed 2018, he was ready. Today was planting day.
Earlier this morning, Samuel carried his machete to his wetland garden known as his dimba and cut the vines that he carefully kept alive in the hot dry months before the start of the rain. Then, he and his wife, Eliza, piled the vines atop their heads and walked to their main, rain-fed field. There he started to hum to the rhythm of his planting.
Samuel and his wife had always planted sweetpotatoes, but until the USAID-funded Feed the Future Malawi Improved Seed Systems and Technologies (MISST) and Protecting Ecosystems and Restoring Forests in Malawi (PERFORM) projects taught Samuel and 2,337 other farmers around Liwonde Forest Reserve the benefits of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes (OFSP) and trained them in proper planting techniques, they did not dedicate much of their land to the crop. Once the International Potato Center (CIP)— lead for the sweetpotato component of MISST— and PERFORM explained the nutritious vitamin A and drought tolerant attributes of OFSP, Samuel signed himself up to take part in the project and try OFSP for himself.
Besides training, Samuel and Eliza received three bundles of 100 vine cuttings about five months before the 2015-16 rainy season. They systematically planted the cuttings about a foot apart in the dimba and watered the vines until the rains began. After planting the new orange-fleshed varieties Kadyaubwerere and Chipika, the couple monitored the vines carefully.
Remembering PERFORM’s explanation of OFSP leaves’ nutritional value, Eliza cooked a new dish of steamed sweetpotato leaves to accompany the family’s maize staple food, nsima. The family agreed; the OFSP leaves were much sweeter and tastier than their old, white-fleshed sweetpotatoes’ leaves. Eliza started cooking this dish more and more often. The first year’s OFSP roots were also so delicious that the couple kept vines growing in their dimba even after they harvested the sweetpotatoes.
Near the beginning of the 2016-2017 rainy season, their sweetpotato vines were flourishing and Samuel and Eliza made an unconventional decision. Instead of planting maize on one of their farm plots, the couple decided to save the land for planting OFSP.
Machinga district, where the couple lives, has historically been one of the most food insecure districts in Malawi due to the area’s vulnerability to both floods and drought. Nevertheless, farmers in Machinga plant maize as their main food crop. Samuel and Eliza, remembering MISST and PERFORM’s promise of “drought tolerance,” decided to change their family’s tradition and plant something other than maize.
In January 2017, the family planted OFSP on 0.25 acres of their farmland. While the maize fields around them were stunted by drought and attacked by Fall Armyworm, Samuel’s field of OFSP comfortably grew beneath the soil protected from these pests and the drought.
When the couple began to gradually uproot the sweetpotatoes, they found they really had grown. The Chipika variety especially grew into a giant sweetpotato. The Chipika sweetpotatoes were so big that Samuel and Eliza nicknamed the variety “Chipona” or “Giant.” The couple began to trade their sweetpotatoes for maize. Under their exchange system, three Chipika roots or seven Kadyabuwere roots were traded for a heaping bowl or approximately 1.5 kg of dried maize.
Three Chipika roots or seven Kadyabuwere roots were traded for a heaping bowl of maize.
By June, the couple harvested and exchanged their OFSP for seven 50 kilogram bags of maize. Samuel estimates that with the drought and Fall Armyworm conditions of the season, “I would have only harvested three to five bags of maize from the field had I planted maize last year.” Instead, he had seven bags for his family and had saved money by not buying fertilizer, as the sweetpotatoes performed well even without those costly inputs.
Eliza and Samuel did not trade all their sweetpotatoes, however. They also kept some for their household. Eliza likes to serve them for breakfast. She either boils them or makes the traditional “futali” dish in which she mixes boiled sweetpotatoes with salt and peanut flour for an extra nutritious breakfast. She likes knowing that OFSP are giving her four children the vitamin A they need. When asked which variety she prefers, Eliza will tell you the giant Chipika or Chipona/Giant variety – “One sweetpotato feeds my whole family!” she exclaims.
Realizing the giant potential of this new, nutritious crop, the couple immediately planted more vines back into their dimba. There, they used watering cans to water the plants every day to keep the vines alive for not only the following rainy season, but also to cultivate more sweetpotatoes for consumption and sale.
When businessmen from nearby markets heard there were OFSP in the area, they travelled to the garden to buy them directly from the source. Smartly, Samuel calculated that a 50-kilogram bag of sweetpotatoes usually sold for about $10 but by selling the sweetpotatoes by the heapful, he could make an additional $5 per bag.
By November, without spending any money on transport to or from the market to sell the OFSP, the couple sold all their sweetpotatoes. With their profits, they were able to pay secondary school fees for their niece to attend the government boarding school she had qualified for, and to buy a pregnant goat. In that way, USAID’s investment in farmer training and 300 OFSP cuttings transformed into giant behavior changes, a new family tradition and business, an education and gained livelihood assets – two goats – for Samuel and Eliza.
Samuel, proud of his new spending power, reported, “We will continue to grow OFSP, because we see a lot of future in OFSP as healthy food and business.”
And today, he is keeping to his word as he confidently walks the lengths of his ridges and buries another leafy vine into the soil. Today is planting day.
Story by Gina Althoff, Communications and Outreach Specialist for the USAID-funded PERFORM Project with contributions from Daniel VanVugt, Project Manager - MISST at CIP.