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Sharing on air - Malawi's farming forum

Listeners have greater trust of information from their own community (© Story Workshop)
Listeners have greater trust of information from their own community
© Story Workshop

"Knowledge is like fire; you get it from your neighbour," explains Malawian radio producer Gladson Makowa, based in Blantyre. He should know; his radio programme, Mwana Alirenji, is the only media programme in the country to provide a national forum for dialogue amongst ordinary smallscale farmers, encouraging thousands to become food secure by listening to each other.

In a country where, on average, around 100 people inhabit a single square kilometre of land and three quarters of the population are dependent on agriculture, intensive farming methods have led to severe soil degradation. Yet hardly anywhere are ingenious local initiatives to combat these challenges rewarded and talked about; with illiteracy rates at almost 30 per cent, radio has proved to be an ideal medium for that purpose.

Farmer to farmer

Aired weekly on Malawi's national broadcasting station, Mwana Alirenji is a Malawian proverb meaning: "There is nothing a child can cry for when food is plenteous." With funding support provided by the European Union, the programme is produced by an NGO called Story Workshop, which Gladson runs, and which matches messages to media by using a range of communication formats, including theatre and holding festivals. A wide range of topics is explored, from nutrition and the impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture to appropriate technologies, crop diversification and food preservation and marketing. "There are generally good ideas in one community but people in another community may have never heard of them," says Gladson. "We focus on problems and solutions as farmers see them, and steer the dialogue towards soil, forest, land, water and long-term management of wildlife," he says.

Despite its focus on intensive agriculture, the programme features step-by-step advice on sustainable farming methods, which protect the environment while maximising production on small farming plots. Examples are making low-energy briquettes from sawdust collected at lumber mills instead of chopping down trees for charcoal, and utilising sloped land by planting nutrient-rich trees, such as Gliricidia fabaceae.

Songs, dramas, poems and competitions add entertainment to the programme (© Story Workshop)
Songs, dramas, poems and competitions add entertainment to the programme
© Story Workshop

In the spotlight

Fifty-four year old Martha Matumbo from Balaka district in the south of Malawi is an example of the programme's success. After struggling to get a coupon for subsidised fertiliser, she heard about manure making on Mwana Alirenji and came up with her own recipe: called Matumbo 9 manure, it's made from chicken or goat dung. With it, she has increased her harvest to over 100 50kg bags from a 2.13 hectare field, and trained six other farmers in manure making.

Hastings Jalavuka Msiska in the northern region of Malawi had long suffered with poor soils on his farm when he heard an episode on Mwana Alirenji about agroforestry. Since then he has planted Sesbania sesban, the leaves of which can be composted to restore soil fertility, and has rotated crops such as groundnuts, sweet potato and beans with maize to replenish the depleted soils. "I think the best way to replenish soil fertility is to plant trees and leguminous crops. Once fertility is back you will always achieve what you need in life," he notes in a letter to the programme.

The programme is popular because it utilises a colourful mix of entertainment and education through radio dramas, poems, competitions and recipe tips. It also encourages feedback, putting listeners in the spotlight: as well as featuring farmers struggling with problems that most will identify with, it champions those who have effectively dealt with challenges in their gardens, using their own initiative.

Taking up the challenge

Radio listening club members are interviewed to find out what they tried after listening to the programme (© Pius Sawa)
Radio listening club members are interviewed to find out what they tried after listening to the programme
© Pius Sawa

With high broadcasting charges, the main problem encountered by Story Workshop has been getting Mwana Alirenji aired on other stations across Malawi. Also, while the majority of farmers are happy to share information with their neighbours, there are those who will only part with it for a fee. Nevertheless, the programme has a good following and a wealth of technical expertise to share, and was instrumental in persuading the Ministry of Agriculture to train its own extension workers in mushroom growing, furrow irrigation and low input technologies including water harvesting and manure making.

In the future, it is hoped that the programme will partner with Lilongwe-based Bunda Agricultural College to publicise their research in an interactive way. There is also the ambition to partner with donor organisations to introduce technology discussed on the programmes, such as borehole installation.

Already, radio listening clubs are established, where radios are distributed and members are interviewed to find out what they tried after listening to the programme. Listener interaction is key and is what stokes the flames of knowledge. And Gladson is convinced that Mwana Alirenji is achieving its purpose, turning Malawian farmers into researchers, innovators and food self sufficient communities.

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: January 2011

 

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What a cool idea. Traveling around the world (including Afr... (posted by: Stephen)

 

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