A field of corn isn’t that exciting. Even to Irish eyes unused to the tall, long stalks and yellow cobs it really doesn’t get the heart pumping.
In Malawi, however, where 6.4 million people are experiencing food shortages due to a prolonged dry season, a thriving field of maize is about as exciting as it gets.
Malawi has sun - plenty of it, and as the Cornflakes ads attest, that’s vital to grow corn. But what Malawi doesn’t have is the other basic component: water.
Most land is rain-fed, with rains falling within the months of December to February. The rest of the year is completely dry.
When the rains are “bad”, with lower expected rainfall, as has occurred across Eastern and Southern Africa this year, then much of Malawi’s 18 million population, 85% of whom are self-sufficient farmers, are in serious trouble.
Because of climate change, these rainfall shortages are now becoming the norm.
If Malawi is not to face year after year of famine, the missing ingredient of water must be found.
These fields of corn in Mganja, Lower Dedza, testify to what is possible once the right mix of specialist water engineering support, agriculture training and community commitment is available. Cost effective and simple to maintain, the water for these fields comes from the diversion of a nearby river. Without it these fields, like neighbouring communities, would be dead soils.
It felt as if the whole village community of Mganja had come to greet us. They wanted to express thanks, through us, to those who supported this irrigation project, in this case the Irish people and the UK Government, through funding from Department for International Development to Trócaire.
Welcome from women of the Mganja community. December 2016
Francisco, the village committee chairperson, insisted we walk to the middle of the fields, away from the irrigation channels, to show us how all parts of the fields had become productive.
Francisco spoke eloquently of the challenges of climate change, the previous reliance of the community on maize handouts during the months before the harvest and now how the community are moving towards complete self-sufficiency and the production of surpluses. He, on behalf of the community, asked for continued support from Trócaire.
Trócaire will continue to support the farmers in this village with agricultural training for another 12 months.
However, the scale of need in Malawi means that we must move on to support communities in the neighbouring area.
The cost of the intervention for the 150 households in Mganja is modest. Benefitting a total of 800 men, women and children the total irrigation and training package cost €25,000, or €31 per person. This investment will set everyone on track for self-sufficiency into the future.
The cost of not making this intervention is stark.
The World Food Programme states that millions of Malawians will go hungry and thousands of Malawians are at risk of starvation if a shortfall of $230 million is not found to purchase sufficient maize meal for this year.
The cost of this emergency intervention to help Malawi’s poor get through these months of hunger is €45 per person for this year.
Despite the overwhelming needs in Malawi and the hunger that prevails, the example of Mganja left me with hope of one affordable, efficient and concrete example of that often misused concept “climate change adaptation”.
Mganja shows how in the midst of a crisis, human ingenuity, hard work and some outside investment can materially improve the life circumstances of the people affected, well beyond their previous level of existence and in a manner that can - and must - be replicated across the country.