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,


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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!

All the input from others is really great and I commend all the other’s ideas. One thing not discussed for high probabilities of drought is in growing alternate rows of sorghum/maize, sorghum/millet, or in more severe situations which regularly fail millet/fonio. Tepary bean is planted there in Malawi and sometimes I think it is called Magic Bean in Malawi (read an article about it) since it almost always produces a harvest. That can be an intercrop as well as other beans mentioned above. The more organic matter you put in the planting hole and the more recessed you leave the hole (if there is really good drainage) the more harvest as long as you have well-drained soil otherwise the seed or crop roots will rot. You can also put little swales directing more water (when it does rain) into the planting hole. I press the swales down and back and forth during and after the first rain so that the soil in the swale delivers the water to the recessed planting station. The Zai-pit like the planting station the better the results. Also, you may try to grow some purslane on the side and look for other fleshy-leaved weeds and store them without letting them dry out until you plant and then they go in the planting hole as a moisture reserve. Sometimes it is better off to find a friend in a better situation with some irrigation water and then expand to include farming there as well as sharing the profit or saving from profit from high-value crops and then renting land that can be irrigated. Income per hour is an important calculation. Also I can send you a PowerPoint on how to dial in the right amount to shade from agroforestry tree planting. Gliricidia has been doing great there. I worked with Roland Bunch on pruning them. Using human urine during a rain event (decreases the yuk factor) (small amounts that don’t stress plants and wood ash and charcoal fines increase the fertility and so when moisture is taken up

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Thanks for highlighting the importance of agroecology Dan (growing the right plants, in the right places, for the right foods) and the importance of well adapted local food plants. Our experience in Zimbabwe has seen a dramatic increase in food security through changing from maize to millet or sorghum (using conservation agriculture).
Our Food Plants International database allows you to search for all edible plants in a country or region (and their nutritional value). If the drought become severe, the knowledge of neglected and underutlised edible plants becomes vital.
Although this does not address Ken’s immediate needs, promoting traditional and well adapted food plants is important for food security and resilience. We have created a Malawi food plant book and posters which are available via these two links (share widely and freely). We are keen to partner and adapt our information with local organisations. Our prayer will remain with you Ken and the work that you are doing.

  1. [Food plants and good gardening for healthy diets in Malawi] - 137 MB (Malawi growing food as pdf.pdf - Google Drive)
  2. [Malawi Food Plant Posters] 186 MB
    (Malawi posters.pdf - Google Drive)
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Your work is great to have all those options and when I do a presentation or site visit (almost always the site visit then the presentation) I always try to introduce more options but I think sometimes many of us, including myself fall prey to thinking that it is about food production and in actuality we need to be focused more on income generation. The income generation focus is great because it can then be devoid of bias for native or indigenous plants due to ideology but can promote an openness to all plants no matter where they come from. People have moved around plants for thousands of years so there is really not much of a way to even establish what is indigenous but similar latitude or elevation movements are likely going to be highly successful between continents although at times predator insects sometimes don’t at first accompany the pest insects of those crops. Our recent ideological shift at times now overemphasizes diversity and native plants and at times underemphasizes them. Ideologies often disconnect us from income generation. The lack of high-income cropping systems and the transition toward them going from what you have to start with and managing it with an excellence standard to higher and higher levels of income generation is a major part of the problem. Labor, machinery, organic and chemical sprays, mulching, green manuring, fertilization, planting station amelioration, and appropriate irrigation options, all are good investments that should all be evaluated on an income per hour and return on investment analysis. Also, a worldview that does not hold has an accountability system to push back against bad behavior or an advocacy system to push for good policies and behaviors based on a Biblical worldview. Most of us have lost our Great Commission discipleship emphasis (I am just as much at fault as others for drifting in this area) as our front and center goal and our work results in less progress because that discipleship emphasis on lives transformed is what God designed to energize us and find fulfillment. There is really not much true development without the Great Commission front and center and that will pull us away from ideologies that emphasize things unrelated to human flourishing. It is good for us to discuss this ideology more because it has become a bigger part of what is guiding people, a type of mission drift that I find is often moving us in the opposite direction of human flourishing. My main point is to try to get people to discuss more about income generation and less about food security, indigenous plants, diversity, agroecology, organic, conservation systems, and regenerative agriculture which are all good but a substandard emphasis if they do not bring the highest income. There should be a lot more comparative analysis of methods and systems and our advisors must shift back to showing people how to generate more income with these other systems being considered as to their ability to contribute to the income generation process. It is income generation that lifts the poor out of poverty, not all these other things which are tools that are options that in many instances lead in that direction but not necessarily. The overemphasis on others not income generation may be a symptom of not focusing on the Great Commission because when the Great Commission is the first goal then we will try to put more resources of time and money into it and less will be devoted to ideologies not closely accompanying human flourishing which is closely tied to worldview transformation.

God is doing something amazing in Malawi right now. My good friend Scott Laskowski has a fertilizer that restores the “O” or top soil layer of the ground. We happen to be in the process of donating 45,000 pounds of “Organilock” fertilizer over seas to Malawi!! There have been multitudes of miracles that have been happening in order to create this opportunity and God is fully responsible. We are just partnering with Him.

I understand the Synthetic Nitrogen costs for fields was previously $12 Per 50 kg, then the cost shot up to $43 Per kg, making it highly difficult for farmers to produce the yields that they used to. Right now we are in partnership with a missionary team on the ground in Malawi and the local leader of that team is currently speaking with the “Ministry of Agriculture” to test our Organic Fertilizer so that we can be licensed to send over our product and get it through customs with no issues.

We haven’t figured out what we are going to charge for our product at this time. Our local person of peace in Malawi is going to be the leader of our distribution team in Malawi. Our initial market cost will be reaching out to relieve a bit of the strain for farmers in Malawi currently so that they can keep growing food.

We have some figures to pray about that I cant announce hear as of yet, but I will be attending the ECHO expo in Florida next month and will have more information to share about how our team is partnering with God over seas.

The best part about Organilock fertilizer is that every single farmer that has ever used it has had stronger stalks, more roots, higher yields, and there are no synthetics that damage the top soil. At this point we are having some big companies try to invest, but we have to turn them down, because we feel that this is a God lead company down to its very core.

If you want to get your hands on some of the fertilizer when it gets to Malawi I can certainly connect you with my Distributers out there, and because you are in the “ECHO COMMUNITY” I will even give you discounts, because the first issue I saw on the message board after logging into the “ECHO COMMUNITY” for the first time ever was issues in Malawi. That is definitely not coincidence. We would love to bless you with free fertilizer to test on your own so that you can be guaranteed of the results before you buy in the future.

God Bless,
Joshua Miller
317.779.8049: (Anyone can call with any questions you have about our mission and soil recovery products)