Question from Malawi - Input requested

As this part of Malawi is going into crisis hunger phase (severe malnutrition, etc), , some of our farmers have tried ideas such as mulch, compost , etc into their maize fields.

With two months more of no rain….

Question: one source recommended deep rooted plants like borage and comfrey that bring nutrients up higher in the soil. Can you think of other plants that might be easily accessible here that we might suggest?

And is there anything else they can sprinkle or spread over these fields?

Water is scarce, or pretty much not available…

Much much gratitude. Very best,


hope my 2 Cents can help out here…
First of all mulching is rather a prevention strategy than a solution for an advanced drought problem though at least reduced evaporation kicks in as soon as it’s applied.

Let’s beginn at the start of the season:
Approaches like Farming gods way follow the principles of conservation agriculture where water loss by exposing soil through plowing is avoided. In the seed pockets compost is applied which enables a good initial root developement due to sufficient available nutrients. Feel free to build little half circles of soil downslope of the plantig holesbut avoid too long inondation of the seedhole in case of occasional strong rain periods. By Mulching more rainwater is caught thank without and less water is lost on the soil surface.
In case of long drought periods this can be critical as experience in Mali (no, i didn’t mix up our countries :wink: ) show. Wider spacing of the plants reduces concurence of the water in the root zone. In critical water-scarcity-scenarios like this I would not recommend the introduction of other cultures which just focus on an in increase of plant available nutrients as they might create concurence for water. Once dead their deeper roots might even provoke capilar rise of water stored in deeper layers so that total root available water might be less at the beginning of the next season.
If you take a several years perspective you might introduce shrubs & bushes with the capacity to pull up water from deeper levels to the root zone of the maize.
It might be also recomendable to select adapted seeds and to parallely cultivate other less productive but more drought resistant cultivars than maize.

Hope that helps,

We are planting thousands of acacia, moringa, and other trees… but for this year, we are looking for plants that will produce quickly, and with erratic rains as predicted this year because of El Niño.

Does anyone have experience with companion plantings for maize, besides the usual beans and pumpkins? What is good for the soil, can be harvested (or partially harvested) in a few weeks?

Goats for the first couple months of the “rainy” season are a big problem, until they have to be tethered, and hungry people stealing food is already a big problem and will be a bigger problem each month until March.

But for now, we’re curious if anyone has experience with other quick producing companion plants for maize.

I will hopefully have wifi — and electricity — in a few days… until then, thank you so much.


There’s been a fair amount of research into pigeon peas which have very deep tap root. In my region (eastern chad) the locals tell me they can survive a 9 month dry season once established. In kenya and Tanzania it is a popular intercropping plant which is both nitrogen fixing and, I read recently, makes P more bio available.
They provide both nutritious food and are a good fodder source.
The varieties vary considerably. Some producing seeds after 60 days and others after more than a year. So be sure to use a good variety.
They pods can be eaten green or dry.

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Thank you, Manuel. Appreciate hearing from Mali (!).

More and more, when it rains, it pours here. We are planting thousands of acacia, mornings and other trees in the fields.

At this moment, in the couple months before the rains (may or may not) come, I’m most looking for ideas of quick producing companion crops to maize/bean/pumpkin so villagers have something sooner rather than later.

Thank you Jared. Yes, pigeon peas are widely grown here too, with mixed results. Right now, I’m mostly looking for things villagers can do now to help improve their terrible soil fertility, and vegetables that produce quickly.

Keeping in mind the goats and occasional pigs that roam around…

If you have a source, we found African redworms (Eudrilus eugeniae), in Central Haiti, to be very productive even under dry and hot conditions. The Asian (Eisenia foetida) redworm seemed a more fragile under the heat and dry conditions. Once you have the worms going, their compost is pretty spectacular in terms of renewing the biology and productivity of the soils, which is mentioned in another thread I was just looking at here. In Haiti, I fed the African redworms re-moistened sun-dried, brick hard cow manure, and weeds. Here in Costa Rica, in the cool-ish, wet part of the Central Valley (1200-1300 meters above sea level), we had access to the Eisenia foetida and they do well with weeds and wet cardboard. The Eudrilus eugeniae love cardboard as well and thoroughly moistened dead leaves.

In terms of vegetables, moringa is very fast. Under reasonably poor soil conditions, but well-watered (!), you can start eating from the young trees in less than a month. It can do very well near homes, where families can feed the soil around the trees with anything that will rot and is not useful for something else, and they can water the trees with water from washing clothes, or bathing. Chaya also seems like a good thing, if you have access to the cuttings. Folks probably have goto crops for famine times. Maybe tweaking how and where they plant them could increase their productivity. In terms of goats and pigs, they will go after the same things that can help keep people healthier. Hard to imagine how to get around that, unless families find a way to work together. Even chickens will destroy young trees with nutritious leaves.

The redworms can be cared for in any old container–partially broken plastic basin, or old metal basin that no longer holds water (good drainage!). Red worms also produce well in old tires.

Dear Ken,

I hear the sense of desperation between the lines in your email, and share your concerns for a large number of regions in East Africa in a similar state. The ‘milpa’ (Mexican) system of combining maize, pumpkins and beans intercropped or rotated has addressed hunger by providing produce which people like, but it needs a rotational system which restricts pests and diseases, adds soil fertility and maximizes water utilization. Farming God’s Way is a great entry-point for promoting conservation agriculture and concentrating scarce compost/fertilizer to bring enhanced yields, but it can be enhanced further where mulch is lacking by introducing the intercropping of legumes - green manure / cover crops. In the case of Malawi where you have both wetter eroded highlands and dry degraded lowlands with great variation of soils, I am unsure what to promote by this email. I think that growing mulch is important to enhance FGW by intercropping lablab, pigeon peas and cowpeas in maize or cassava fields. These legumes all produce edible leaves to provide greens for cooking early in the growing season. I think contouring and establishing dispersed shade trees like gliricidia will help to improve fertility and retain water in the fields. I think planting of perennial vegetables like Chaya, Cassava leaf and Moringa (all small trees which produce highly nutritious protein-rich, vitamin-rich greens throughout the year [Moringa needs to be continually harvested or it sets seeds and loses its leaves} could play a very important part to reduce malnutrition in combination with sources of starch. Other perennial vegetables like sweet potato vine, New Zealand spinach, Russian comfrey and hibiscus are also great plants to provide greens throughout the year for many years. People need to be encouraged to plant and care for traditional greens as well.

ECHO EA is organizing a symposium in Blantyre, Malawi from 20th-22nd August, 2024 together with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank/ Tearfund UK, and we hope you will consider to both attend, and perhaps make a presentation or your partners, on some successful or learning aspect of your work with Malawi’s poor.

I hope you find your explorations on fruitful.

Erwin Kinsey, Vice President, ECHO East Africa

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Thanks Mark — appreciate you taking the time to reply. Will keep redworms in mind for future experiments.

Moringa is definitely an option and one which we are having about a 120 villagers try planting in their fields, along with gliricidia, acacia, and a couple other fertilizer trees.

We love moringa, and any tips you or others have for making seedlings grow faster and bushier is most welcome. We are growing in plastic bag tubes, and I wonder if it isn’t better putting them in larger plastic bag tubes before transferring them into the field is wiser. Too small a tree in the field may be more vulnerable, even with some protective “fence” around it.

Because rains may be so erratic this year with El Niño (what’s “normal” anyways…), and because people have run out of food and money, we are also looking for a quick growing plant that people can also sell… and that works well with maize and beans and pumpkins, which I’m thinking will be planted a few weeks later.

Goats — might have to have someone guard the plot for a few weeks, until the chiefs make everyone tie up their goats and pigs. Which love to escape anyway

Hi, glad to see your ambitions. If you intervene in a slopy area it might be of interest to establish countour lines with some of your trees and other deeprooting perenial plants to reduce topsoil outwash. In the first year of establishment it might be rather the quick growing grasses accumulating otherweise outwashed soil nutrients and surface runof water and providing fodder for the goats. And make shure your lovely tree seedlings dont drown. Courage!