Twin has been running a three-year sustainable coffee production pilot in Malawi. As the pilot reaches its conclusion we can report impressive progress in sustainable farming and tangible benefits to participating farmers.

The pilot was implemented with the Misuku Co-operative, members of the Mzuzu Coffee Union in Malawi, as part of a Twin and Sainsbury's DFiD-funded project. Twin visited the organisation and its farmers in the Chanya zone in June 2012 to assess how the pilot had progressed. The project aimed to test the following practices and technologies, with a view to introducing them elsewhere in the region:

  • Reduction or elimination of the use of inorganic chemical fertilizers and uptake of commercially-manufactured organic manure;
  • Interplanting coffee and bananas both as shade and as a household food and animal fodder crop; 
  • Use of mucuna and other bean varieties as nitrogen-fixing ground cover and green mulch, to build up soil fertility, moisture retention and soil structure; 
  • Propagation and use of shade trees such as gresidia sepum and ficus in the coffee, as nitrogen-fixing shade to retain atmospheric moisture and reduce ambient growing temperatures, and for minerals in their leaves when shed;
  • Use of vetiver and other deep-rooting grasses as erosion control on steep slopes, and for mulch and animal fodder;
  • Manufacture and application of liquid manure, ‘bocash’ manure and composted animal manure from chickens, cows and pigs;
  • Use of lime to improve the pH of the acidic soils;
  • Application of the microbe Twin-N, which fixes airborne nitrogen, to coffee foliage.

Cooperative visit

We met with a group of about 40 Chanya farmers, to get a general impression of what had changed in their farming practices since 2009, and what they thought was working well and not so well. About 50% of the farmers thought that the average yield per tree is definitely improving.  A coffee census is currently being carried out at Misuku and elsewhere.  When available, the results will shed more light on productivity averages and trends.

Of the sustainable practices on which training and support was given, switching from inorganic or ‘organic’ fertilizer and intercropping with bananas were the most popular. Many farmers were opting to use cheaper, bulkier ‘organic’ fertilizer which helped improve soil quality. Others have also started using cattle manure for composting, chicken droppings for making liquid manure, and also using ‘bocash’ manure, made by mixing forest soil with ash, green matter, cow dung, maize cobs, banana stems etc, and composting for 21 days. 

All of the farmers we met have adopted the practice of planting bananas in their coffee.  It is a staple food as well as being an alternative cashcrop to coffee, so the fact that it is a competitor of coffee for nutrients and soil moisture is not seen as a reason not to plant it.  Only a small number of farmers have planted other shade trees in their coffee, perhaps 10% of those present.   We would like to see more emphasis on deciduous shade in Chanya and Misuku generally, as it contributes to soil fertility, erosion control, soil and atmospheric moisture retention.

Chanya farmer stories

Tebbie Chabinga

"You have done great things, you have picked us from total poverty to where we are now."
- Tebbie’s husband Oswero Mwenechanya

Tebbie is on the committee at Chanya zone.  She has 25 chickens in a coop and uses liquid manure made from their droppings.  She has used the income from her coffee for solar lighting at home, to start a small grocery shop, build a cement house, pay school fees, and purchase goats and a cow.  When her children are all out of school she wants to buy a car.

Elifas Mbisa

"I want a computer and internet access to communicate with those who buy my coffee"

Elifas has a plot where she uses inorganic fertiliser and another where she uses bocash.  She reported that the after three months the fertiliser’s effect was over, while the bocash’s continued.  She reported that her yield is heavier with bocash and costs are far less because the materials are all around.

Elifas and her husband have used their coffee income to install solar and a TV at home, as well as to invest in three maize mills, two groceries, a welding workshop and a barber shop.  They have built two houses for rent, one in the major town of Chipita, 50km away and one in the trading centre on the nearest tarmac road, 30km away.  They have bought two cows, three pigs, and contribute school fees to the orphanage and have installed mains power at their own house in Misuku town.

Tenson Mwenechanya

"I have built houses for my sons.  They will take over when I am old."

Co-operative board member Tenson has six dependants and has used coffee income to build houses for his sons and to improve his own house.  He wants to use his future income to buy a car.