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Farm Radio Weekly

2. Malawi: Vetiver grass is a tool for soil and water management (African Farm Radio Research Initiative Malawi Team)

It’s the beginning of the dry season in Makombe village. The sun is scorching down on the small fields below. A farmer stands proudly next to her plot. As other farmers gather, she points to a new crop growing.
The object of their attention is not the maize growing tall in the field. It’s the grass growing alongside. The farmer has planted Vetiver grass – a deep rooting grass that helps to prevent soil erosion.

Makombe village is located in Malawi’s Central Region. Its rolling hills have long presented a challenge to farmers. When rains are heavy, water floods over the land. Soil is washed away. But when the rains are gone, little water is retained in the soil.

Over time, some villagers tried planting Vetiver grass. They saw some benefits, but had some challenges tending to the grass. Other villagers were simply not convinced that Vetiver grass was worth the effort.
Now, a radio program is helping villagers learn everything they need to know about Vetiver grass. Mlera Nthaka – or keeper of the soil – is broadcast on Zodiak Broadcasting Station. It is part of the African Farm Radio Research Initiative, or AFRRI. It reaches Makombe and other villages with similar soil challenges. As one Makombe farmer said, “it has changed the way we take care of our fields.”

The Mlera Nthaka program seeks to change some popular ideas about Vetiver grass, such as the misperception that Vetiver grass will overshadow crops or reduce the area that can be used for crops. It also addressed many practical questions: where can farmers buy Vetiver seed? How should they plant it? And how should they care for it to get the greatest benefit?

Rex Chapota is the National Research Coordinator in Malawi for AFRRI. He has seen the changes taking place in Makombe and other villages touched by the Mlera Nthaka program. Farmers are joining together to plant Vetiver grass nurseries. Soon, this new grass will be transplanted to their fields.
Those who have been using Vetiver for a few years are learning how to better care for their grass, and earning respect within their communities.

2 Responses to “2. Malawi: Vetiver grass is a tool for soil and water management (African Farm Radio Research Initiative Malawi Team)”

  1. Richard Grimshaw Says:

    We have just completed in conjunction with the Sustainable Land Use Forum and SIDA a very good Vetiver System Workshop in Addis Ababa that included a field visit to western Ethiopia where some 17000 farmers have been practicing farming using the Vetiver System for soil and water conservation. Although some improvements can be made in application of vetiver hedgerows the results have been significant – increased and sustained crop yields (as much as 50%), groundwater recharge to produce potable water, and wetland restoration. Farmer reaction to our questions can be summed up by farmer Hassan Ali who indicated that sustained crop increases are not possible without vetiver hedgerows, and that there are no alternative methods of any real and lasting value. Much of the dissemination of the technology has been done on a farmer to farmer basis.

    The complete proceedings and workshop powerpoint presentations (and some are very good) will be uploaded to TVNI’s website in April.

    There are many lessons to be learned from this workshop, one thing is quite clear – that is the Vetiver System could and should play a very important role for sustaining agriculture and water resources under rainfed conditions in the tropics and semi-tropics particularly in the light of climate change and dwindling natural resources. I believe that it is the only researched and tested technology that can be confidently applied at this time and in the mid term to sustain rainfed agriculture at least cost and with a good chance of success over a very wide area of climate and soil conditions.

    Here is a summary of the workshop findings – that were adopted by the 165 participants:

    1. Vetiver System application. Ethiopia has made significant progress in the introduction of VS over the past 20 years. It is a world leader in VS application for Soil & Water conservation.

    a. Agriculture and Soil and Water conservation.
    i. VS work in Ethiopia can be supported by worldwide VS practices and research results that corroborate research results in Ethiopia on the impact of VS on soil and water conservation: reduction in soil loss is as high as 90% and reduction in rainfall runoff is 70%.
    ii. If correctly planted and managed, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that VS should replace conservation structures such as engineered terraces. It is entirely probable that graded engineered terraces have negative benefits to farmers and the environment, because these conventional structures move water off the land and are costly to construct and maintain.
    iii. Good practice multiplication and planting techniques have been well established in Ethiopia – some modification will be needed in drier areas with rainfall of less than 500 mm.
    iv. Environmental benefits include: soil fertility improvement and maintenance; increased soil moisture, improved groundwater recharge and related wetland restoration and clean drinking water availability
    v. Farm benefits include: increased crop yields (as high as 50%) and forage, reduction of pests (stem borer and nematodes), provision of mulch, and other byproducts such as handicraft material, mushroom substrate, thatch, and more.
    vi. If nematode reduction is confirmed this could be of significant importance to vegetable growers, particularly for the production of potato, tomato, etc.
    vii. VS negates the Slash and Burn system of farming (Madagascar).
    viii. VS has great potential for farms on black cotton soil in lowland areas.
    ix. VS will clean up excess agricultural chemicals and other farm pollutants when applied to clean up farm waste water.

    b. Land rehabilitation.
    i. Anno Farm and others have clearly demonstrated the key VS component in rehabilitating degraded farmland. VS and minimum tillage practices are a good combination: VS provides habitat for beneficial insects to control insect pest build up in minimum tilled land.
    ii. VS should be used for land rehab – has special reference to forestry development (assisting reforestation).
    iii. VS practices have special relevance to gully control: in DR Congo there are excellent examples of urban gully restoration, using sandbags reinforced by Vetiver.

    c. Slope Stabilization.
    i. VS should be used widely for slope stabilization – highways, railways, river banks, levees, canals, drains and building sites. Technical specs need review and amendment. These specs should be incorporated into design and contract documents.

    d. Contaminated water and land.
    i. VS for waste water and toxic site clean up has huge potential in Ethiopia. If applied it would significantly impact on improving health and reducing environmental damage. Data and experience from other countries is available, that can be used effectively in Ethiopia.

    2. Community and Watersheds
    a. Community and Watershed development should go together. Communities have an interest in all aspects of livelihood improvement – agriculture, land, water, health, etc. VS is a cross cutting technology that is commonly applied addressing most of the community needs related to land and water issues.
    b. Communities and those who serve the communities need to be aware of all VS applications to assure optimum use of the technology.
    c. In developing priorities in the community/watershed point source sediment and pollution sites should be prioritized for VS treatment.
    d. Along with VS training, handicraft training should be introduced using VS as source material (amongst others plastic bag replacement, roof thatching, etc.).

    3. Future VS Research. There is a lot of opportunity to refine existing research carried out in Ethiopia and in other countries. I see priority for research in (a) ground water recharge, (b) pest management – particularly VS impact on nematodes, (c) VS establishment and management practices in drier zones and on degraded lands, (d) gully control, (e) VS and its potential as a bio-fuel (VS has high BTU value but needs “compacting” into logs and or pellets to reduce speed of burning – should look into Indian type improved cooking stoves), (f) carbon sequestering, (g) Vetiver plant collection to identify different cultivars that may have evolved in Ethiopia, (h) management of VS for forage and the balance between cutting for forage and the maintenance of the hedge as insect habitat, (i) research into economic and social aspects of Vetiver applications. We know it is low cost – but how low? We need to quantify both cash and economic benefits better.

    4. Up Scaling.
    a. Training: Will be required for users and those who service communities. Short sector focused workshops work best. VS course work should be introduced in schools and universities. Special workshops for community leaders would be useful.
    b. Publications and information: Good and relevant publications and other information need to be developed and made available on large scale.
    c. Plant material: Private sector needs to expand multiplication of good quality slips. As demand grows this should not be difficult if properly orchestrated. Vetiver “banks” should be established.
    d. Technical Specifications: These need reviewing and establishing.
    e. Institutional and Service Organization role: Much of this is already in place. It will need review, modification, and clarification.

    5. Policy.
    a. Government should be firmly committed to the up-scaling of VS and should incorporate VS use in all relevant sectors. The role of government departments, NGOs, private sectors and end users should be clearly defined.
    b. Current policy relating to FFW funds for structures should be reviewed. It is possible to cover 5 times or more land improvement using VS than structures. Net benefits from structures are minimal compared to VS.
    c. Government should fund relevant training and research.
    d. Bilateral and multilateral funding agencies should be informed that VS is part of government policy for land and water development. Special stand alone VS funded projects should be considered.
    e. Monitoring systems need to be developed to identify VS application and impact. High-resolution satellite imagery can do much of this.

    6. Conclusion. At this time of increasing hazards from climate change and population demand The Vetiver System would appear to be the best stand alone technology that, if widely applied, would at low cost and without high demands on professional and financial resources, result in significant and sustainable improvement of water and land resources. Based on the past 20 years of experience in Ethiopia and other countries wide up-scaling of VS in Ethiopia could be done relatively quickly (10-20 year program) and would have great impact on poverty reduction and the betterment of a sustainable environment.

    Malawi farmers have been used vetiver grass for soil and water conservation since the early 1990s, I am pleased to see that interest is being renewed. Much of the Ethiopian experience is applicable to Malawi. you can find out ,ore about the Vetiver System at http://www.vetiver.org and my blog at: http://vetivernetinternational.blogspot.com/

    Dick Grimshaw
    Chairman, The Vetiver Network International

  2. makombe Says:

    […] 2009 and filed under Tondi’s 2 Cents Worth. You can follow any responses to this entry through …Farm Radio Weekly Farm Radio Weekly Archive 2. Malawi …As one Makombe farmer said, it has changed the way we take care of our fields. … the changes […]

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