Is Permaculture the Key for Escaping Poverty in Malawi?

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MADRID, Spain — Malawi has a long history of famine, HIV outbreaks and corruption. Every year the country ranks amongst the world’s poorest countries according to the United Nations Developmental Program. Poverty in Malawi is so critical that of its 15.9 million citizens, almost 12 million live below the international poverty line. However, Malawi is trying to improve. 

National Development Challenges

Two of the significant constraints to Malawi’s national development are malnutrition and food insecurity. The country has high child mortality rates due to undernourishment, anemia and Vitamin A deficiency. The food shortage directly impacts its economy. More than 10.3% of the country’s GDP is lost annually to child undernutrition.

Agriculture in Malawi

Agriculture covers nearly 40% of the country’s GDP and provides an estimated 64% of rural Malawian’s total income. In fact, out of a population of 19 million, 11 million Malawians are subsistence farmers. While most do not produce enough to trade, they rely on agriculture for their families’ daily food intake. Unfortunately, Malawi’s current agricultural practices have become part of the problem rather than the solution.

As the third-highest consumer of maize per capita globally, Malawi’s dependence on non-native plants with low micronutrient quality has led to sustained issues of malnutrition. Synthetic and cheap mineral fertilizers that promised bigger harvests had left the soil in terrible condition. Farmers lack the revenue to buy the new seed fertilizer that is needed every year. They find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Permaculture As A Solution

In the face of a rapidly changing climate and deteriorating soil health, farmers are now looking to permaculture as a more sustainable alternative with promising results. Permaculture is a design-based agricultural practice that mimics natural processes to maximize production and minimize labor. It optimizes the use of available local resources, including plants, animals, soils, water and labor. Consistently following a strict ecological ethic, permaculture is based on ecosystems whereby all resources keep one another in balance. So this reduces the use of external inputs that are detrimental to the environment. This worldwide movement can make people self-reliant while caring for the earth and empower local communities to control, manage and benefit from natural resources.

Approximately, 80% of Malawian workers are smallholder farmers. Along with that, only 16% of the population resides in urban areas. The farmers are the perfect target for this sustainable approach. It is accessible to households across the economic spectrum. The local farmers that have adopted permaculture so far have planted nearly twice the number of vegetables and over twice the number of fruits and legumes as conventional farmers. They also ranked higher in diet diversity and nutritional intake. 

Additionally, households using this approach can access nutritious produce all year round, helping to turn the “hungry season” into a time of abundance. Furthermore, Malawi can use permaculture to combat public health issues such as vitamin A deficiency and empower children affected with HIV by building a healthy immune system. People with the virus need to have a balanced, nutritious diet to improve treatment outcomes and mitigate side effects. 

The Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology

The Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, a Malawian-run NGO that promotes permaculture in Malawi, has successfully implemented this practice by providing the tools to assist thousands of local farmers from poverty. Founded in 2009 and home to Malawi’s largest permaculture demonstration site, Kusamala educates individuals and communities on improving nutrition and environmental health. Recognizing that low-cost improvements to family farms could ameliorate household food security in Malawi, Kusamala implemented the Red Soil project in 2012. The project creates local farmer networks that share strategy, knowledge and resources around permaculture practices. The site was so productive that it started to run its own box scheme. They deliver weekly boxes of fresh produce to the capital’s residents. Kusamala is a shining example of what can be achieved in Malawi. The institute can train and equip local farmers for a self-sufficient, sustainable life, whilst reducing poverty in Malawi.

Potential of Permaculture

Numerous international efforts have tried to help Malawi over the years. Everything from the International Monetary Fund planting eucalyptus trees to the G8 New Alliance for Food Security. Although each left its mark, permaculture has the potential to help address Malawi’s soil degradation and food insecurity challenges. This is achieved by adequately utilizing existing agricultural resources. However, permaculture does not only combine poverty alleviation with food security. It also ensures that poverty eradication is nature-inspired. Permaculture can help humanity once again become conscious about the earth and the environment. It shows that we humans can benefit from it at every level of our existence.

– Alejandra del Carmen Jimeno
Photo: Unsplash

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