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Waste not Want Not

Spreading affordable Integrated Agriculture- Aquaculture in Malawi, Sub-Saharan Africa

Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries, with many of its 12.1 million population in need of food and medical assistance. Its food security situation is precarious and the country is prone to natural disasters of both extremes -- from drought to heavy rainfalls -- putting it in constant need of thousands of tonnes of food aid every year.

The country's single major natural resource, agricultural land, is under severe pressure from rapid population growth. And tens of thousands of Malawians die of Aids every year. After years of silence, an official program to tackle HIV-Aids was launched in 2004.

Malawi has to boost its food output to meet the daunting challenge of feeding a growing population. But slash-and-burn cropping has degraded much of the soil and the land. Limited resources and low fertility of farms are serious problems.

Many Malawians are subsistence farmers, growing everything their family will need during the year on less than one-hectare of land. Many face hunger everyday, trying to make their crops last until the next harvest. Often the food runs out. Malawians call it the “hungry times”. A leading cause of infant mortality is malnutrition.

WorldFish is working with Malawi's Fisheries Department to help farmers get much more out of their land, generate enough cash to buy fertilizers, and make the farming system truly viable, so eliminating the hungry times.

This is being done through Integrated Agriculture-Aquaculture (IAA) in a US Agency for International Development-funded famine mitigation project. Thousands of rural-dwellers in Bangladesh have already adopted this form of affordable aquaculture as a result of WorldFish's efforts. It recycles resources and wastes nothing.

Aquaculture, Malawi

Under this integrated system of farming, farmers set aside a small amount of their land for fish farming. Such farms are more sustainable and durable than traditional farms that rely on slash-and-burn cropping -- as well as more productive and profitable.

It lets farmers produce some 1,500 kilograms of fish a hectare a year, providing high-quality protein for their families and giving them cash they never had before. The net farm income of IAA adopters exceeds that of non-adopters by 60 per cent. Their farms are also some 18 per cent more productive than traditional ones during times of drought, increasing farm resilience and food security. 

The techniques used in IAA are simple and low-cost: turn farm and kitchen wastes into food for fish species such as tilapia. Fish are fed maize bran and household leftovers, while manure from goats, chicken and rabbits helps fertilize the ponds.

This is a boon for resource-poor farmers, especially women, for whom “fish in the pond is like money in the bank”, says Jessie Kaunde, a farmer and widow in Mangwengwe village, Zomba district, southern Malawi.

In addition to using water from the ponds to irrigate maize fields (the traditional crop) and vegetables such as cabbage and tomatoes in their garden during the dry season, farmers grow cash crops like bananas and guava around the banks of their ponds. They use the water from the ponds directly or utilize the effect of seepage to provide moisture for their crops. Some farmers have also found that the ponds are fertile ground for growing rice.

Pond sediments make great fertilizers. Research by WorldFish has shown that replacing inorganic fertilizers with pond sediments as a top dressing in maize fields is effective in boosting productivity, and that in good years farmers need apply it only once a year during the wet season to get the best results.

In times of drought, farmers can grow vegetables in the residual moisture in pond bottoms or use pond water for emergency irrigation of seedling nurseries. In years with normal rains, IAA farms can produce fish and vegetables of higher nutrient quality and which are more marketable.

WorldFish and partner institutions have trained over 200 extension staff and researchers in IAA methods and some 5,000 farmers have adopted the system in Malawi and Zambia . Work is continuing to extend IAA to other sites in these countries as well as to Cameroon.

To build self-reliance, WorldFish encourages farmers to innovate and solve production bottlenecks on their own. As a result, many farmers have started to exchange tilapia fingerlings among themselves to reduce inbreeding and maintain high growth performance in the fish.

WorldFish is seeking funding to extend this very successful integrated agricultural practice to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world's poorest regions.

IAA has strong potential to boost agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Based on the results from the work in Malawi , if the system was replicated on as little as 1 per cent of the almost 250 million hectares identified by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization as suitable, 3.75 million tonnes of fish per year could be produced. This is four times the catch from all capture fisheries in the region.