A couple of weeks ago I went on the first site visits to the village. Several of the staff members who graduated from the RSP/Kusamala Garden Demonstration and Permaculture Training this summer live in the nearby village of Landscape. No one here knows exactly when the village was established, but it started as a living quarters for landscapers at the State House years ago, hence the villages name. The population estimates for the village range from between 1,500 to 7,000 people, there is no power for residents although it's located across the road from large modern housing development, and there is limited access to water.
Free ranging local chickens eating out of a garbage pit in the village centre.
Typical of many village settings there are small brick houses crowded together on land that has very little vegetation and a lot of exposed earth. There are trees to be found, but most ground level vegetation has been destroyed largely due to the free range grazing systems people use for goats, sheep, chickens and ducks. The livestock left unattended and poorly managed strips the land of vegetation and prevents people from planting gardens.
A walk through town leads passed the popular soccer pitch that’s often crowded by the local soccer league and off to the side there’s a basic market and a food concession area selling fried potatoes and occasionally grilled meat. A quick tour of the market items gives a good understanding of the local household incomes. There are several produce vendors selling small piles of fresh tomatoes staked in 4's, local greens, dried fish, mango and banana from blankets on the ground. Not much else fresh is available here. Dry goods are sold in small shops in single serving quantities, like a single package of sugar or a single package of matches and cellphone time is sold in 15 Kwacha increments, which amounts to about four cents.
The Landscape soccer pitch.
Most of the people living in Landscape work at either Kumbali Lodge or the State House and they likely earn near minimum wage which is approximately 300 Kwacha or $1/day. To put that into perspective, a bunch of 3 medium tomatoes costs about 50 Kwacha, a small bunch of bananas 200 Kwacha and one live hen is about 1,500 Kwacha, or 5 days wages.
The first home we visited on the tour was Loda’s. She lives on the edge of town on a plot of land owned by her family. She has a relatively large area to incorporate into a permaculture design and she has access to land at both the back and side of her home.
Loda’s front yard and house with a living fence and small potted plants. Additionally, the house has a tin roof which is superior to grass, but more expensive.
To start with she’s implementing an intensive garden plot for vegetable production. This garden is going to be located near the home as it will require protection from free range livestock in the village and daily watering in the dry season. She’s planning to construct a fence using old mosquito netting and incorporating her trees as living fence posts. If she wants to produce enough food to feed her family she will need to make sure she can keep the village livestock from eating the garden.
Here you can see the trees Loda will use in her living fence design. Living fences provide much stronger posts that won't be eaten by termites. They also provide shade from the intense sun helping to conserve water in a home garden design.
Loda also has access to an area for a staple field. Unlike the vegetable garden that will need daily tending throughout the year, staple fields are used seasonally to grow starchy foods during the rainy season. Commonly in Malawi, and East Africa people plant cassava, maize, pumpkin, sweet potato and ground nuts (peanuts) in these fields.
The ridges in this field demonstrate the popular way to plant staple fields. Each year the ridges are hand formed to establish the beds for maize (corn) and other staples.
The way seasonal fields are farmed is one of the biggest problems with the current agricultural system. The fields are tilled each year and then left barren for months at a time. During this time the soil is exposed to the suns rays which destroy the beneficial soil organisms, as well as exposing it to the extremes of wind and rain erosion. With no life and no nutrient added back to the soil this farming system becomes dependent on expensive chemical fertilizers in order to produce. Soil degradation has become so serious that here in Malawi the government issues fertilizer subsidies in order to maintain its agricultural production, which accounts for 80% of their export revenue. Expensive subsidies hardly seem like a sustainable solution for sub-Saharan African countries.
A staple field with mounds for planting. Mounds are commonly used, but require yearly tilling and hilling up, a process which is very labor intensive for farmers and destructive to the land. The right side of this picture has been newly mounded in preparation for planting with the December rains.
Looking to the principle of permaculture, one of the keys is to observe nature and see how natural systems behave and thrive. In nature it is not natural for the earth to remain bare for long periods, and most certainly not for season after season.
The alternative and more naturally based system is to plant hardy local crops that grow well through the dry season while protecting the soil and returning nutrients back. Several hardy plant varieties can be used in a crop rotation that improve soil nutrients. These plants known as a “green manures” are so nutrient dense that at the end of the dry season they can be cut down and incorporated into the soil as fertilizer before the wet season crops are planted. This helps to build the soil before the rain season crops are planted and protects the soil from excess sun exposure and erosion during the dry season.