Kulima Better: Sowing Seeds of Hope

MAYBE YOU haven't heard about this project dubbed the “Better Extension Training Transforming Economic Returns (BETTER) - Kulima” You should have!

(PIX: The Chiumia Family of Nkhata Bay)

There’s a new, bold, and real project to teach a hungry nation to produce its own food, and empower local communities!

MAYBE YOU haven't heard about this project dubbed the “Better Extension Training Transforming Economic Returns (BETTER) - Kulima”.

You should have!

It’s an ambitious project whose goal is to increase resilience, food, nutrition and income security of 400,000 smallholder farmers in 10 KULIMA districts across Malawi.

A collaboration between 5 NGOs-Self Help Africa (Lead), Action Aid, Evangelical Association of Malawi, Adventist Relief & Development Agency, and Plan Malawi- the project is funded by the EU to the tune of 15 million Euros.

From top to bottom, it is almost producing incredible results.

I know.

"Give a man a fish, and you've fed him for a day," reads the old proverb, "but teach a man how to catch fish, and you've fed him for a lifetime."

How often is this proverb the policy in the implementation of many a projects?

Rarely!

But in the districts of Chiradzulu and Nkhata Bay I found remarkable example of positive NGO and local community cooperation: the “Extension Training Transforming Economic Returns (BETTER) - Kulima”.

(PIX: A Kulima Better Project signpost in Chiradzulu)

It’s all about building a strong foundation.

The project, which first opened its doors to the farmers in the two districts in 2018, embodies the vision and drive of local communities.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, deep in rural Chiradzulu district…we are witnessing a unique success story.

Virtually deep in the rural area part of Chiradzulu, Kambewa village in Traditional Authority Nchema is turning into a beacon of prosperity amidst economic national turmoil.

Here we meet members of Kachere Farmers Field School, one of the 13,400 FFS that ActionAid and its partners are working with under the Kulima Better Project in 10 districts across Malawi.

(Mary Mgodi, a CBF in Chiradzulu)

Mary Mgodi is both a participant and community-based facilitator in the Farmer Field School (FFS).

“The Kulima Better Project has steadily assisted us build up our personal income and general public welfare about modern farming techniques since its inception in 2018, as previously we used rudimentary ways of farming,” she says.

Mgodi says her 14-member all-women Kachere Farmers Field School has seen tremendous progress in the course of two years, at both individual and group level.

“Through the FFS and support from the local agriculture extension worker, Mr. Mphatso Katama, we have learned a number of techniques for improved cultivation of groundnuts, maize and other crops. We have also been introduced to improved varieties and taught how to cultivate them.”

No mean feat, considering that previously these farmers were dogged by never ending problems.

(PIX: Members of Kachere Farmers Field School in Chiradzulu)

But Mgodi says although the group has blazed a remarkable path of economic development, there are some hiccups that need be ironed out.

“Currently, we’re running a village banking group, but then lack expertise in how to ensure we’re doing the right thing. We call anyone or any group to come to our aid.”

This is not all: Mgodi cites lack of interest of men in joining the groups as another problem in the area, as far as the project was concerned. She says this sometimes causes friction between spouses.

“Again, we’ve problems with some men who bar their wives from joining the FFS, something that we think is detrimental to both individual and community development.”

Nevertheless, Mgodi says the group is optimistic of its growth because of the great advice from the leadership of ActionAid, government support, and people's willingness to work toward economic independence.

True to Mgodi’s words, we met the Bonongwes: Sam and Loveness...an example of a rags to riches story here.

Sam and Loveness are of the families that say have the benefits of the ActionAid-run farmers field schools under the Kulima Better Project in the area.

(PIX: The Bonongwe family of Chiradzulu)

The couple says the Kulima BETTER Project, in its second year now, has immensely helped them as it has given them access to information to guide their production decisions, which is often a key constraint for many farmers in Malawi.

The two, together with their family, lived in a rather flimsy-looking mud house which had three rooms, with practically no furniture.

“For many years we were living in this mud, dilapidated grass-thatched house, because we could not afford to build a better one,” Loveness says.

“Most of the times, especially during the rainy season, we were always worried whether we would find everything in order whenever we were away. But this is not the case anymore, as we have built a better and stronger house, thanks to the training we’re getting from the FFS.”

Soft-spoken Sam says at first he was reluctant to allow join the FFS, mainly because it was a new concept in the area.

“When my wife told me about the FFS, I didn’t hesitate but encourage her to join, and from the look of things, it wasn’t a bad decision, because here we’re today: we’ve managed to build a better house after benefitting from the various farming techniques we learn in the group,” he says, while buttressing a point made by his wife, Loveness.

So, here the catch: Through the local FFS, Loveness borrows money from the village savings bank, which she gives to her husband who does various businesses.

“I always make sure that we pay back the loan in time so that we borrow more in future,” Mr. Bonongwe says.

The Bonongwes say their participation in the Kulima BETTER Project has also seen them managing to pay school fees for their three children, something they say could have been an uphill task before.

Some members of Kachere Farmers Field School have also ventured into animal husbandry, to not only supplement their income, but also take care of their nutritional needs.

Take the family of Margret Maganga, for example: she says her family now rears goats, something she says they never thought could have been achieved without the help from the Kulima BETTER Project.

(PIX: Margret of Chiradzulu)

“Previously, our family was facing endless financial problems, but all this ended after I joined the local farmers field school, where, among other things, I was allowed to become part of the group’s village savings bank,” she says.

(PIX: Goats belonging to Margret’s family)

She says through the loans she was getting from the village bank, her husband boosting his business of selling goats at the local market.

This is not all: Margret also applied what she was learning from the farmers’ field school.  

“As a result, this year we have managed to increase yield of our harvest to sixty 50 kg bags of maize, while all along we used to harvest around fifteen 50 kg bags of maize. This has helped us pay school fees for our child who is at secondary school.”

From the proceeds of their toil, the Magangas have also managed to venture into animal husbandry, rearing goats and rabbits.

From TA Nchema, now, let's have yet another look at remarkable and proven success story — in Madzuwa Village TA Mpama, where we meet members of Chigwirizano Farmers Field School, yet another vibrant group.

It is a big day here, too, what with the sharing of the piglets, which means one thing to the recipients: assurance of a bright future.

One by one, six members of the farmers line up to get their share. It’s a story they will live to tell their children and grandchildren for years to come.

(PIX: Catherine of Chiradzulu)

Over the moon, Catherine Jake, is one of the six female members who have gotten their share of the piglets, and she says what they always most needed were not alms-givers but teachers — practical, unsentimental teachers to guide them.

Catherine says, “We needed to develop our own economy shaped to our psychological requirements. We needed recognition of our usefulness and dignity as human beings, and not handouts.”

It is a dream coming true for her---and other 24 members of the FFS.

(PIX: Some members of Chigwirizano Farmers Field School in Chiradzulu)

“I know that through pig farming, I will now be able to make ends meet, and achieve a number of goals. I really encourage those who are hesitant to form similar groups being set up by ActionAid Malawi in the Kulima Better Project in the area.”

Benito Njolinjo, is the Community-based facilitator here, and says as a facilitator, he is extremely happy members of Chigwirizano Farmers Field School have swallowed the Kulima Better message, hook, line and sinker.

“When ActionAid Malawi introduced the Kulima Better Project to us in 2018, we instantly became interested and joined. We formed Chigwirizano Farmers Field School. And, together with other farmers, I have learned modern farming techniques for improved cultivation of our crops, including animal husbandry,” Njolinjo says.

(PIX: Njolinjo of Chiradzulu)

“In my case, I have managed to harvest twenty five 50 kg bags of maize from the same piece of land where I used to harvest about ten bags of maize, thanks to the modern farming techniques we are learning at the FFS carried out on the fields of farmers.”

Before we live the village, we had to see yet another miracle, according to Rosemary Francisco.

“Thanks to ActionAid, through Kulima Better Project, am now a proud owner of a pig, something that I never dreamed could happen in my lifetime. And I thank our community-based facilitator for choosing animal-keeping as our activity in our group,” she says, while smiling.

We found her feeding her pig that she had just received as a member of Chigwirizano Farmers Field School.

It’s another day: This is Mweneya Village, TA Nkalo: the excitement over the achievement as a result of Kulima Better is the same here, as members of Tigonjerane Farmers Field School welcome us.

The 30-member group has some success stories to tell us too, from gardening to animal rearing.

Meet Hamilton Muthupi, who has literally taken horticulture head on, against all odds.

(PIX: Muthupi of Chiradzulu)

Muthupi says, with the help from the project, they are now taking great strides toward real self-sufficiency, and could now, with continuing help, achieve just that in the not so far away future.

“In my case, I have delved into horticulture because I have noted that it’s profitable: for example, last year alone, I got K650, 000 ($878) after selling my tomato. From this amount, I bought a motorbike, something that I was always dreaming of,” Muthupi says.

This year, he says, he has grown over 3, 000 tomato seedlings, and is so optimistic that he is going to earn more money than last year.

Quizzed on what would be his message to doubting Thomases, Muthupi says, actually, all along he was one of those who were skeptical with the project.

(PIX: Muthupi on his bike)

“Honestly, the Farm Field School by ActionAid has taught us how to put hunger and poverty behind us, and now I encourage everyone to join such groups. Thanks to the FFS, I have managed to buy a motorbike, something that was a far-fetched dream with this project.”

Any challenges?

“I wish I could get a better sprayer because the one am using right now is not durable, and also I wish some organization would come to our aid by providing us with soft loans to boost our farming business,” he says.

“My dream now is buy a car, if all goes well.”

Another farmer, Felina Matengula, says Kulima Better Project has been a life-saver.

(PIX: Matengula of Chiradzulu)

“Through the farming techniques we learned at the FFS, in 2019 I managed to make K150, 000 ($200) after selling tomato. From this amount, I bought a cow for K108, 000 ($145), and I ploughed back the rest of the money into my farming. This year, I managed to make K200, 000 ($270) from my tomato. I have managed to buy iron sheets from my houses,” Matengula says.

Such is the good news with the Better Kulima Project in the area.

Henry Banda, the community-based facilitator of Tigonjerane Farmers Field School, says-although at first things were tough- now the future looks bright, thanks to the Kulima Better Project.

Banda, himself a successful farmer, says, “It’s exciting that all the 30 members of the group have embraced the concept of the project, and are fully applying the lessons of modern farming learnt over the years, reaping the benefits depending on their effort and type of farming they’re engaging in.”

We witness more success stories: Now we are in Liwawanya Village, TA Kadewere, and members of Kanyani Farmers Field School can’t hide their excitement too…with plenty of success stories to share with us.

Take Margret Paipi, for example: despite being a widow with three children, she has embraced the Kulima Better Project message, and is now reaping the benefits.

(PIX: Paipi, Chiradzulu)

Well, if there is one farmer who has been converted by this gospel, then it is Margret who was quick to sense the backyard garden's worth, and then boldly stepped out so she could be one of the first people to reap the benefits of this wonder that she says has been providing her family of three with vegetables that are high in quality protein, oil, vitamins and minerals.

“Personally, I have benefited a lot from the backyard garden that I have set up just as a way of meeting one of the goals of the Kulima Better Project, which is to promote the adoption of legume and small-scale vegetable production including backyard gardening,” Paipi says.

“Apart from harvesting the vegetables for consumption, I also sell some to buy other food stuffs to supplement our nutritional requirements as a family.”

Paipi, who wishes everyone in her area joined such groups, says backyard vegetable gardening has really promoted the food-based approach to improved dietary quality and quantity through diversification for members of Kanyani Farmers Field School.

Labson Tembo, the local government agriculture extension workers, also known as master trainers, says, “The coming of the Kulima Better Project in the district has easy up their job as extension workers, because it’s now easy to reach out to as many farmers as possible, something that was hard in the past.”

The rapid success of these agricultural villages has won acclaim from officials who visited them on this day.

Fatsileni Kunsiya, the ActionAid District Facilitator in Chiradzulu, says they are happy the project is bearing fruits in the district.

(PIX: Fatsileni, AAM, Chiradzulu)

“The FFS approach is really working because the farmers are able to make their own decisions as to which farming technology is best for them, unlike in the past when some technologies were forced unto the farmers,” she says.

“Am glad that, through the Kulima Better Project that we are implementing in the district, farmers are now benefitting in a number of ways; for example, famers have managed to increase their crop yields, adopt household consumption of nutritious foodstuffs, and participating in village banking.”

However, Fatsileni, who has been with ActionAid since the inception of the Kulima Better Project in the district, says despite the strides achieved so far, there are still some pockets of challenges dogging the implementation of the initiative in the area.

“The biggest challenge has been dropouts from the groups as some people thought they will be immediate benefits or handouts, which is not the case. FFSare about learning and nothing else.”

Again, Fatsileni says she feels more sensitization should have been done to ensure everybody comes on board.

Though being implemented by ActionAid Malawi in Chiradzulu, Kulima Better Project also works with local government agriculture experts.

Mphatso Kutema, the government extension worker working with ActionAid Malawi on the project in Chiradzulu district, says he is amazed with the positive results the project is producing among members of the farmers’ groups.

(PIX: Kutema, extension worker, Chiradzulu)

Kutema says, “From the look of things, most farmers who are members of the Farmers Field Schools have fully grasped the concept of the project, which, among other things, is to strengthen agricultural extension services through these FFS groups in order to secure effective and productive services for smallholder farmers.”

But Kutema is worried there could still be some farmers who are still failing to grasp the concept of Kulima Better Project as they are dilly-dallying in joining the groups.

ActionAid Malawi is implementing the Kulima Better Project in Nkhata Bay as well, so next, we went there to appreciate some success stories in the district.

Here, we first meet members of Ulimi ndi Business inSingo Village, TA Kabudunduli, one of the farmers’ field schools under the Kulima Better Project in the district, and from the look of things, the group is on the right path to success, as they carry out a number of initiatives.

Rearing pigs is one of the initiatives the group is carrying out, as explains Samantha Banda, the community-based facilitator here.

(PIX: Samantha Nkhata Bay)

Samantha says they took up pig farming to ensure an increased nutritional intake of their members.

“In addition, we also grow various crops as a group, sharing the profit after selling. Since the formation of the group in 2018, we have seen major strides both as a group as individually,” says Banda.

This is not all: members of Ulimi ndi Business are also deeply involved in gardening, both individuals and as a group.

The group's tomato garden looks promising, as members prune them.

Taking the lessons imparted by their facilitators seriously, John Kasambara is now a proud owner of vegetable garden, which he says helps him make ends meet, as well supplement his dietary requirements.

(PIX: Kasambara Nkhata Bay)

“I grow vegetables which not only help supplement the dietary requirement of my family, but I also make money from the vegetables, although the market is not good enough,” he says, showing us around his garden teeming with fresh vegetables.

From Singo Village, welcome to Jopilo Village, TA Kabunduli: here we meet members of Japilo Mtayajembe Farmers Field School.

Kwanja Nyirenda, the community-based facilitator of the area, says the group is embarking on a number of farming activities, including pig farming which he says is not only a popular business but also a very lucrative one.

(PIX: Kwanja Nkhata Bay)

“We first started working with ActionAid in the Kulima Better Project in 2018, with the provision of farm inputs to boost family incomes,” Nyirenda says.

“We have also started rearing pigs, and have plans to open a shop where we will be selling pork, if all goes according to our plans.”

Expressing happiness with our visit to his area, Jopilo Village Headman says, “ I am happy to have an EU-funded project, through ActionAid, which is improving the nutrition of my subjects through production of crops like maize, soya beans, and rearing of pigs.”

From Jopilo village, we headed to John Chiumia village in TA: Meet Yotamu Chiumia and Victoria Manda, the proud banana farmers in the area.

(PIX: The Chiumias of Nkhata Bay)

A member of Chigomegzo Farmers Field School, Chiumia says, “We have so far managed to plant over 1,000 banana plants, and we’re now taking farming seriously, thanks to the Kulima Better project in the area.”

(PIX: Some banana plants belonging to the Chiumias, Nkhata Bay)

This is not all.

“We have also planted plant in our garden, and expect to get about K500, 000 after selling the green maize which we have grown on a one acre piece of land,” John says.

In TA Malengamzoma, ActionAid Malawi is supporting a Village Savings and Loans group called

Merai Kasaka Banda is one of the beneficiaries of the village bank, thanks to the support from ActionAid Malawi.

“In the main, I have benefited from the village bank of the group as I have managed to extend my house, which initially small. Through the group, I have also managed to start a small family business for our day to day needs,” she says.

She says she has so far managed to extend her house and even started a small business to improve her family welfare.

The last destination during our visit was Chitemwa Farmers Field School, where Henry Mkandawire, the local community-based facilitator, says is over the moon with the Kulima Better Project.

(PIX: Nyirenda, Nkhata Bay)

“As a group we decided to engage in horticulture and fish farming, reaping immense benefits along the way,” he says.

He says he has also engaged into fish farming as an individual, starting with 600 fingerlings.

“Am proud to say right now the fish have multiplied, estimating that they should be around 2000 fish in the pond to date.”

Sebastian Luwayo, the ActionAid’s Nkhata Bay District Facilitator, says,“The project that we are carrying out here has managed to fill the gap of shortage of agriculture extension workers, as farmers are able to teach each other after attending the farmers field schools.”

(PIX: Sebastian, AAM, Nkhata Bay)

“The project also appears to have brought sanity in the agriculture sector in the district as farmers are able to get farm inputs like seeds in time, unlike before.”

The ActionAid’s Kulima Better Project Coordinator, Greshan Kamnyamata says they have tried their best to implement the project in the Chiradzulu and Nkhata Bay according to the project document.

(PIX: Kamnyamata, AAM Project Coordinator)

“The project wishes to help farmers achieve three pillars; namely, nutrition, income and resilience to climate change by the end of five years. And from if what we have seen during the tour is anything to go by, then we can confidently say the local farmers have been properly educated in agriculture know-how.”

Kamnyamata cites Mr. Hamilton Muthupi, the tomato farmer of Chiradzulu, as a good example of how these famers have immensely benefitted from these "self-help" schools which offer the much-needed training to the farmers.

“Mr Muthupi has managed to buy a motorbike through the proceeds of his tomato sales, after getting skills from the Farmers Field School in Chiradzulu.”

According to Kamnyamata, similar success stories have been observed in numerous Farmers Field Schools in the two districts where ActionAid is implementing the Kulima Better Project.

While Kamnyamata says while the project has hopefully ground the beneficiaries in the elements needed to develop their families in the two districts, there have been some challenges along the way.

“One of the challenges that we faced in the early stages of the project was the delay in the procurement of the farm input, but this, thankfully, has now been rectified,” he says.

Kamnyamata says COVID-19 has not spared them as well, especially the tough restrictions that government put in place.

“Right now we can’t meet in large groups as per government measures, which has affected our work. On the other hand, as a project we have also come in to help our farmers by providing them with soap. So far, we have provided them with 26,880 soap tablets, with each farmer getting 14 tablet.”

Clearly, the EU-funded Kulima Better Project is sowing seeds of hope in the catchment areas where it is being implemented, as Kamnyamata says, it is only hoped that the project will be replicated elsewhere in Malawi so many farmers can benefit.

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