By Catherine Carlton
Catherine and Clement prepare the truck for the weekly vegetable box delivery as a part of the garden’s CSA program that delivers fresh, organically grown produce to Lilongwe residents.
As some of the other blog posts in this month’s newsletter have described, there are a number of challenges to being a locavore in the United States. Most of the food in our grocery stores comes from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. While farmers markets, urban farming, and home gardens are taking off in popularity, it is still difficult to provide for an entire family solely through these outlets.
In the small, Southern African country of Malawi, the challenges to being a true locavore are significantly different, though no less difficult to overcome. Between eighty and ninety percent of Malawians are subsistence farmers. Their families depend on the food they are able to grow within walking distance of their homes. However the vast majority of the crops grown in Malawi are conventionally produced staple crops (primarily maize), grown for sale rather than home consumption. Very few Malawians grow their own fruits or vegetables. Furthermore, the country does not have the infrastructure to import or distribute fresh produce. In Malawi, there is not only a lack of locally produced fruits and vegetables – there is a lack of produce entirely.
The Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, which houses Nature’s Gift Permaculture Centre, where I currently live and work, is seeking to improve this situation through trainings and demonstration sites that promote permaculture techniques. As Eston, our in-house Malawian permaculture guru, told me on my first day at the Centre, permaculture is a system of agricultural design that integrates people and nature for mutual benefit.
On a tour of the Centre Eston further explained that permaculture designs focus around six zones. At the Centre, zone 0 is the living area; zone I is intensive vegetable production, primarily annual plants; zone II is a food forest that utilizes vertical space and perennials to maximize production and minimize labor inputs; zone III is our rain fed staple crop field; zone IV is a managed woodlot; and zone V is an unmanaged wilderness area. The zones are generally designed radiating out from the living area, with areas that require the most labor closest to the house. In addition to energy and resource efficiency, permaculture generally, and the Centre specifically, emphasize utilizing readily available, local resources with the overarching goal of improving the environment, both ecologically and for human use.
Chickens are rotated around the vegetable plots to help add nutrients, remove pests, and aerate the soil.
At the Permaculture Centre, this has taken many forms. Inheriting a 20-hectare plot of land that was formerly used as a horse stable left much to be desired in terms of soil structure and fertility. As many sustainable agriculture philosophies can tell you, and as we’ve learned first hand, soil is the most important resource in a farm or garden. We integrate a number of strategies to improve the health of our soil – utilizing a nearby dairy for compost materials, rotating chickens around the garden to add nutrients, remove pests, and aerate the soil, planting locally available agroforestry species to increase soil nitrogen, and implementing crop rotations designed to provide the soil with a variety of nutrients.
The proud gardener’s pose with their recently completed compost piles. After 6 weeks the compost will be ready to work into the vegetable beds.
While vegetable production is my current focus here, the Institute also has projects aimed at carbon sequestration and soil nitrogen fixation through sustainable woodlots, planting jatropha trees for biofuel production, and a medicinal garden. Utilizing the different permaculture zones, the Centre is striving not only to become self-sufficient, but also to improve the surrounding environment and to substantially reduce our ecological impact.
As a demonstration center, training site, and facilitator for workshops in more remote villages, the Institute focuses on ensuring that the principles of sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship do not end at the borders of its 20-hectare plot. By demonstrating the success of sustainable agricultural practices and by finding passionate farmers that are willing to try new approaches, the Institute plans to help diversify the local food economy while at the same time improving nutrition and reducing farmer dependence on expensive, petroleum-based chemicals.
The vegetable gardens and staple fields at the Kusamala Institute are by no means perfect; we are constantly trying new things, some of which succeed and some of which do not. We are working to improve both the environmental quality and the quality of life on our own plot of land and in Malawi – it is an endless growth process. It is perhaps this never-ending learning process that I love most about the path I’ve found in sustainable agriculture.
Catherine Carlton began her career in international development and sustainable agriculture as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia after graduating from Stanford University in 2006. Upon returning from Zambia, Catherine competed her Master’s Degree in International Environmental Policy, with a focus in conservation and sustainable agriculture. She is currently working as a program associate at the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology in Lilongwe, Malawi. You can visit her blog here.