An Update

Lucan Newsletter: June 28, 2009

A woman said to me this morning: ye don’t seem to be doing anything in Malawi these days!!.

Having convinced her to the contrary, I decided to write a little note.

Our main focus is still on the provision of clean drinking water and to this end we are making pumps in our temporary factory since October at a rate of about 10 per week. They cost about 30 euro and can supply clean water, to a village of about 150 people. We hope to begin building the permanent factory next week, now that we have finally got planning permission. We have just begun a programme of replacing in excess of 200 failed and broken pumps installed by others over the years. New wells are dug at the end of the dry season in October.
Our programme of dam building and irrigation continues as the villagers teach each other to build the most rudimentary, but effective of structures, adding fish ponds as they go.

Our six acre model garden is booming (and blooming). The idea was to research appropriate, open pollinated, vegetable seeds from globally appropriate areas, to see when and how they would grow and encourage local farmers to adopt them. The type and variety varies, but last time I counted, we had 79 varieties of plant. These are all grown using green manure and compost and we control pests with brews of local plants including tobacco!! researching as we go. We don’t use any artificial fertilizer or chemical pesticides. All work is carried out by 12 men and women employees, few of whom have any formal education. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way and what they have achieved in a year and a half is staggering.
Another part of the programme involves the production of improved variety fruit tree seedlings by budding and grafting, including pears and apples from Seed Savers in Scariff, Co Clare. Now that we have something to show, we offer farmers an opportunity to come and stay in our new hostel, learn how we do things, cook and eat what’s available and bring seeds and seedlings home. We are excited that Malawians can teach their neighbours.

Our school programme is developing; we have finished our seventh primary classroom, done some teacher training and provided loads of books and equipment, donated by schools here. Whereas our initial focus was narrow we now find ourselves involved in meeting the needs of the people we work with. In February we opened a two classroom facility for orphan day care in the most deprived area of Mzuzu. We now have up to 250 little ones attending where we provide one meal daily which may be the only food most of them get. Our Malawian partners had agreed to run it, but without money we were left to fill the gap. Mary took on 8 employees in May, did three week’s training and Árus Kate is flying.
Our latest venture is a remote, rural birthing centre. In one of our areas we found a midwife with about 10 clients per month, bringing life into the world in a building which would be demolished by even the most moderate animal rights activist. A leaking thatched roof, a concrete bed, no light, no water, no painkillers, no gloves, no aprons….. You couldn’t imagine how horrific this is; our cattle are treated better, and you thought hospital trolleys were bad!
These are amazing women, illiterate but intelligent, proud and hard working, capable but deprived. They don’t want our handouts, which have robbed them of their dignity but they do need our help. We are in the process of constructing a new building, which will be approved by Mzuzu Central Hospital, who have agreed to send an ambulance for emergency cases.

Last year we hit up a relationship with DIT, when 10 students came out to volunteer at Easter for two weeks. They were real volunteers, paid their own way and worked hard and made a little financial contribution to the projects. What we ask all our volunteers is to work with the people, journey with them, but always try to Inspire, Educate and Challenge, something they certainly did. The seventeen who came this Easter followed the amazing example and we couldn’t be more proud of them. Our young people are so confident, competent, loving, generous and observant. As Business students, we asked them to be analytical and critical and we have learned so much from them. The real plus is that we have a third year Business and Accounting student, Liam Stewart, from Cavan, doing his 6 month placement, from DIT, out in Mzuzu at the moment and he is a revelation.

We have also been adopted by the Blackrock College Outreach programme for the second year. This year the number has gone to 76 and they come in two groups for two weeks each to work with the poorest rural villagers. Last year they were truly amazing, they were straight into action once they arrived and as young men were a true inspiration to the youths of their own age who had never seen white people doing manual work before. Young people who give up two weeks of holiday time after their LC results, when most of their counterparts are enjoying the pleasures on the med are to be loudly applauded.
Having spent 8 weeks in Malawi so far this year, we leave on July 21, for 8 more and will finish with another month in November.

So we haven’t given up yet!!
Our website, usually updated daily is:


Going back to my roots

We have just purchased about 15 acres of land from the local chief in Lusangazi. Charity, our new financial controller and HR person found out that the land was for sale, viewed it and did the deal. Final negotiations, for some extensions to the land, to include access to water are under way and when complete will open a whole new research project for us.
We hope it can become a co operative model farm, moving towards an organic, non pesticide, open pollinated seed oasis, in the midst of hybrids and chemicals.
The cost of artifical fertilizer has almost trebled in the past year and even with huge subsidies is beyond the rural, poor, subsistence farmers.
We are proposing to use compost, which everyone talks about and no one does regularly, (maybe because it’s hard work!), combined with green manure plants, which we have begun to research.
The soil is depleted from years of organic neglect, as is most of the soil I come across. Years of burning off the organic matter, sometimes as their culture for finding and catching wild animals, has often turned their soil into useless sand. Sadly, all they find nowadays in their orgy of burning, are mice and small birds, which creates other problems in pest control.
One has to be mad to tackle all these cultural and educational barriers, but I have for some time now, understood that to make any progress in Malawi, madness is an essential requirement.
Buying the land means we can control the process, employ the workers to do things a different way, without the interference or control of chiefs or traditional leaders, who can sometimes hinder progress.
Naturally all the workers will be Malawians, who will be invited to come together as a co operative, with a share in the venture. This will mean housing, water and the provision of a decent standard of living and sufficient food until they can provide their own. Each family will have their own vegetable garden, from which they should have their own vegetables and fruit. One good thing about the location is that the children can go to the local school, which we are already supporting.
The plan is to begin sowing maize, ground nuts, cassava and a selection of trees including fruit trees. We know that pineapples do well and we will try a little coffee. We will do some intercropping with soya and crops for pest control.
This will happen in this rainy season (late November), when we will have to initially use some of the dreaded chemical fertilizer. Towards the end of the harvest we will plant the green manures, which we hope to produce the equivalent of 1kg of farm yard manure per square metre. These will also give us ground cover, keeping the weeds down, retaining water and protecting micro organisms from the sun.
None of this will be simple or without headaches. Changing cultures or mind sets is not easy. We will win some and lose some as usual, but we have to keep trying.
Long term we will provide extra accommodation, as we are doing at the vegetable farm, so that we can invite other developing farmers to come and look at what we are trying and learn from them as well.
We need the help of all good farmers everywhere, who are interested in feeding the hungry and maybe saving the soil for our children.
It will be exciting and frustrating, but for me, no more so than playing golf!
One of the headaches will be pest control without the use of chemical pollutants called pesticides. With a degree in chemistry and having a son who departed the agrichemical division of one of the major chemical companies, when he realized the harmful and poisonous cocktails which he was working on and helping to manufacture, to control pests, I realize that there has to be a better safer way: nature’s way. If you look at my articles on Cuban farming, you will see what can be done
In the vegetable farm we are trying companion planting
In theory, companion planting produces the highest yield per square metre and the greatest benefits, as long as care is taken to ensure that the crops do not compete too much with each other Stem borers (caterpillars of moths) are the major insect pests of cereal crops in eastern and southern Africa. Losses can reach as high as 80%, while those due to Striga range from 30 to 100% in most areas.
We will try and grow some maize with two other crops. One attracts stem borers, while the other repels them. Together they effectively protect the maize. Napier grass is the most effective. It is planted in the border around the maize fields where invading adult moths are attracted to it. Instead of landing on the maize plants, the insects are attracted to what appears to be a tastier meal. Napier grass has a particularly clever way of defending itself against the pest onslaught: once attacked by a borer larva, it secretes a sticky substance that physically traps the pest and effectively limits its damage. And so the natural enemies lurking among the grasses go into action.

The legume Desmodium repels stem borer moths. It is planted in between the rows of maize. Being a low-growing plant, it does not interfere with the crops’ growth and has the further advantage of maintaining soil stability and improving soil fertility through nitrogen fixation. It also serves as a highly nutritious animal feed. Other legumes have this effect as well, but Desmodium also effectively suppresses Striga.
Last year we bought 10 neem tree seedlings from the Land Resource Centre in Lilongwe and they are growing well.
Extracts from the Neem tree, are widely used worldwide. Neem extracts have an effect on nearly 400 species of insects, including major pests (moths, weevils, beetles and leaf miners). They do not kill insects directly, but effectively prevent their reproduction. Neem extracts can be prepared from leaves, but the seeds contain higher concentrations of insecticidal components.

We also use Papaya leaves: 1 kg of fresh leaves, shredded and soaked in 10 litres of water, add 2 teaspoons of petrol and a bit of soap, and leave it overnight. Sift the concoction through a cloth, and the spray is ready for application on the leaves of vegetables, to fight against leaf-eating caterpillars, aphids and true bugs.

Our people will take on this task with relish and love the idea of locally available solutions. They ask me is this research and I always reply; cutting edge. The fact that most are illiterate doesn’t mean they are stupid: far from it. We will try these and many, other possible solutions to try and achieve a truce with the enemy and as they say, watch this space!

Cuba’s urban farming program a stunning success

Cuba’s urban farming program a stunning success
From the Global Edition of the New York Times

The Associated Press June 8, 2008

HAVANA: For Miladis Bouza, the global food crisis arrived two decades ago. Now, her efforts to climb out of it could serve as a model for people around the world struggling to feed their families.
Bouza was a research biologist, living a solidly middle-class existence, when the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the halt of its subsidized food shipments to Cuba — effectively cut her government salary to US$3 a month. Suddenly, a trip to the grocery store was out of reach.
So she quit her job, and under a program championed by then-Defense Minister Raul Castro, asked the government for the right to farm an overgrown, half-acre lot near her Havana home. Now, her husband tends rows of tomatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach, while Bouza, 48, sells the produce at a stall on a busy street.
Neighbors are happy with cheap vegetables fresh from the field. Bouza never lacks for fresh produce, and she pulls in between 2,000 to 5,000 pesos (US$100-250) a month — many times the average government salary of 408 pesos (US$19).
“All that money is mine,” she said. “The only thing I have to buy is protein” — meat.
Cuba’s urban farming program has been a stunning, and surprising, success. The farms, many of them on tiny plots like Bouza’s, now supply much of Cuba’s vegetables. They also provide 350,000 jobs nationwide with relatively high pay and have transformed eating habits in a nation accustomed to a less-than-ideal diet of rice and beans and canned goods from Eastern Europe.
From 1989-93, Cubans went from eating an average of 3,004 calories a day to only 2,323, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, as shelves emptied of the Soviet goods that made up two-thirds of Cuba’s food. Today, they eat 3,547 calories a day — more than what the U.S. government recommends for American citizens.
“It’s a really interesting model looking at what’s possible in a nation that’s 80 percent urban,” said Catherine Murphy, a California sociologist who spent a decade studying farms in Havana. “It shows that cities can produce huge amounts of their own food, and you get all kinds of social and ecological benefits.”
Of course, urban farms might not be such a success in a healthy, competitive economy.
As it is, productivity is low at Cuba’s large, state-run farms where workers lack incentives. Government-supplied rations — mostly imported from the U.S. — provide such staples as rice, beans and cooking oil, but not fresh produce. Importers bring in only what central planners want, so the market doesn’t correct for gaps. And since most land is owned by the state, developers are not competing for the vacant lots that can become plots for vegetables.
Still, experts say the basic idea behind urban farming has a lot of promise.
“It’s land that otherwise would be sitting idle. It requires little or no transportation to get (produce) to market,” said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “It’s good anyway you look at it.”
And with fuel prices and food shortages causing unrest and hunger across the world, many say the Cuban model should spread.
“There are certain issues where we think Cuba has a lot to teach the world. Urban agriculture is one of them,” said Beat Schmid, coordinator of Cuba programs for the charity Oxfam International.
Other countries have experimented with urban farming — Cuba’s initial steps were modeled after a green belt surrounding Shanghai. But nowhere has urban farming been used so widely to transform the way a country feeds itself.
“As the global food crisis receives attention, this is something that we need to be looking at,” Murphy said. “Havana is an unlikely, really successful model where no one would expect one to come from.”
Now that Raul Castro is president, many expect him to expand the program he began as an experiment in the early 1990s.
One of the first plots he opened was the “organoponico” on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street in the ritzy Havana neighborhood of Miramar. The half-block farm — owned by a government agency — is surrounded by apartment buildings and houses, but also offices of foreign companies, a Spanish bank and the South African Embassy.
Long troughs brim with arugula, spinach, radishes and basil, and few of the 20,000 square feet (1,850 square meters) are wasted.
One technician tends compost that serves as natural fertilizer, while another handles natural protection from pests, surrounding delicate spinach shoots with strong-smelling celery to ward off insects. Such measures have ecological benefits but were born of necessity: Neither commercial fertilizer nor herbicide is reliably available.
Three workers tend the crops and another three sell them from a brightly painted stall.
Key to the operation is something once unheard of in Cuba: 80 percent of the profits go straight to the workers’ pockets, providing them an average of 1,500 pesos (US$71) a month.
“Those salaries are higher than doctors, than lawyers,” said Roberto Perez, the 58-year-old agronomist who runs the farm. “The more they produce, the more they make. That’s fundamental to get high productivity.”
Customers say the farm has given them not only access to affordable food, but also a radical change in their cuisine.
“Nobody used to eat vegetables,” said David Leon, 50, buying two pounds (about a kilo) of Swiss chard. “People’s nutrition has improved a lot. It’s a lot healthier. And it tastes good.”
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.

What about Cuba?

Sustainable Agriculture – A Case Study
Source: Peter M. Rosset is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy . He has a Ph.D. in agricultural ecology and teaches at Stanford University.

When trade collapsed with the socialist bloc in late 1989 and 1990, the degree to which Cuba relied on monocrop agriculture proved to be a major weakness for the country. Searching for the most efficient solution, the Cuban government launched a national effort to convert the nation’s agricultural sector from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale. By mid-1995 the food shortage had been overcome, and the vast majority of the population no longer faced drastic reductions of their basic food supply. In the 1996-97 growing season Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for ten of the thirteen basic food items in the Cuban diet. The Cuban experience illustrates that we can feed a nation’s population well with a small or medium-sized farm model based on appropriate ecological technology, and in doing so we can become more self-reliant in food production.

A Brief History
Even before the revolution, individual peasant producers were a small part of the agricultural scene. The rural economy was dominated by export plantations, and the population as a whole was highly urbanized. The state farm sector and a substantial portion of the cooperatives were highly modernized, with large areas of monocrops worked under heavy mechanization, fertilizer and pesticide use, and large-scale irrigation. This style of farming, originally copied from the advanced capitalist countries by the Soviet Union, was highly dependent on imports of machinery, petroleum, and chemicals. When trade collapsed with the socialist bloc, the degree to which Cuba relied on monocrop agriculture proved to be a major weakness of the revolution.
Suddenly, a country with an agricultural sector technologically similar to California’s found itself almost without chemical inputs, with sharply reduced access to fuel and irrigation, and with a collapse in food imports.
In response to this crisis the Cuban government launched a national effort to convert the nation’s agricultural sector from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale.
Because of the drastically reduced availability of chemical inputs, the state hurried to replace them with locally produced, and in most cases biological, substitutes. This has meant biopesticides (microbial products) and natural enemies to combat insect pests, resistant plant varieties, crop rotations and microbial antagonists to combat plant pathogens, and better rotations, and cover cropping to suppress weeds. Synthetic fertilizers have been replaced by biofertilizers, earthworms, compost, other organic fertilizers, natural rock phosphate, animal and green manures, and the integration of grazing animals. In place of tractors, for which fuel, tyres, and spare parts were largely unavailable, there has been a sweeping return to animal traction.
Gradually the national ox herd was built up to provide animal traction as a substitute for tractors, and the production of biopesticides and biofertilizers was rapidly stepped up.
Finally, a series of methods like vermicomposting (earthworm composting) of residues and green manuring became widespread production above previous levels. How can we explain the difference between the state- and small-farm sectors?
It really was not all that difficult for the small farm sector to effectively produce with fewer inputs.

After all, today’s small farmers are the descendants of generations of small farmers, with long family and community traditions of low-input production.
They basically did two things: remembered the old techniques—like intercropping and manuring—that their parents and grandparents had used before the advent of modern chemicals, and simultaneously incorporated new biopesticides and biofertilizers into their production practices.
The government began several years before to experiment with a program called “linking people with the land.”
This system made small work teams directly responsible for all aspects of production in a given parcel of land, allowing remuneration to be directly linked to productivity.
In agroecological farming, whoever manages the farm must be intimately familiar with the ecological heterogeneity of each individual patch of soil. The farmer must know, for example, where organic matter needs to be added, and where pest and natural enemy refuges and entry points are.
In the 1996-97 growing season Cuba recorded its highest-ever production levels for ten of the thirteen basic food items in the Cuban diet. The production increases came primarily from small farms, and in the case of eggs and pork, from booming backyard production. The proliferation of urban farmers who produce fresh produce has also been extremely important to the Cuban food supply.
To what extent can we see the outlines of an alternative food system paradigm in this Cuban experience? Or is Cuba just such a unique case in every way that we cannot generalize its experiences into lessons for other countries?
We hear that a country can’t feed its people without synthetic farm chemicals, yet Cuba is virtually doing so. We are told that we need the efficiency of large-scale corporate or state farms in order to produce enough food, yet we find small farmers and gardeners in the vanguard of Cuba’s recovery from a food crisis. In fact, in the absence of subsidized machines and imported chemicals, small farms are more efficient than very large production units. We hear time and again that international food aid is the answer to food shortages—yet Cuba has found an alternative in local production.
Abstracting from that experience, the elements of an alternative paradigm might therefore be:
• Agroecological technology instead of chemicals: Cuba has used intercropping, locally produced biopesticdes, compost, and other alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
• Fair Prices for Farmers: Cuban farmers stepped up production in response to higher crop prices. Farmers everywhere lack incentive to produce when prices are kept artificially low, as they often are. Yet when given an incentive, they produce, regardless of the conditions under which that production must take place.
• Redistribution of Land: Small farmers and gardeners have been the most productive of Cuban producers under low-input conditions. Indeed, smaller farms worldwide produce much more per unit area than do large farms. further
• Greater Emphasis on Local Production: People should not have to depend on the vagaries of prices in the world economy, long distance transportation, and super power “goodwill” for their next meal. Locally and regionally produced food offers greater security, as well as synergistic linkages to promote local economic development. Furthermore such production is more ecologically sound, as the energy spent on international transport is wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. By promoting urban farming, cities and their surrounding areas can be made virtually self-sufficient in perishable foods, be beautified, and have greater employment opportunities. Cuba gives us a hint of the underexploited potential of urban farming.
Relatively small-scale farming, even using animals for traction, can be very productive per unit of land, given technical support. And it is next to impossible to have ecologically sound farming at an extremely large scale.
The Cuban experience illustrates that we can feed a nation’s population well a farm model based on appropriate ecological technology, and in doing so we can become more self-reliant in food production. Farmers must receive higher returns for their produce, and when they do they will be encouraged to produce. The important lessons from Cuba that we can apply elsewhere, then, are agroecology, fair prices, land reform, and local production.

Source: Peter M. Rosset is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy . He has a Ph.D. in agricultural ecology and teaches at Stanford University.

Making a difference in Malawi: Sunday Business Post, by Donal Gorman

Making a difference in Malawi by Donal Gorman
Ireland’s Sunday Business Post

Sunday, 18 November 2007
John Coyne and his wife Mary have set up the humanitarian organisation Wells For Zoe, which helps people to obtain clean drinking water, writes Donal Gorman.

‘We‘re going to paint them another colour,” said John Coyne, before turning the key in one of the three Irish Army Nissan jeeps parked in the back garden of his Lucan home.

The engine roared into action, ready for its new duties in an area with a much warmer climate and more testing terrain than the green fields of the Curragh in Kildare. The jeeps were donated by the Irish Army to Wells For Zoe, a humanitarian organisation set up by Coyne, and will end up in southeastern Africa after a sea and land journey from Mayo to Malawi.

‘‘Mayo was the place hit worst by the famine and, in Malawi, they are very close to famine,” said Coyne. ‘‘It’s always on the edge this time of the year, especially with the maize crop being so bad the previous year.

‘‘To get the jeeps out, we would hope to drive across to Rosslare, then get them shipped from Southampton to Durban, then drive up through South Africa, Mozambique, into Malawi. It’s about a 2,000-kilometre run.”

In Malawi, the jeeps will be clocking up miles on the bumpy dirt tracks, linking more than 40 locations where Wells For Zoe operate. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) was originally conceived to provide clean drinking water for villages in and around the Mzuzu area of northern Malawi.

But since its foundation in 2005, the sustainable development group has become involved with other issues, ranging from micro-credit systems to water storage, irrigation and farming. Coyne, a semi-retired Irish businessman, set up Wells For Zoe with his retired teacher wife, Mary, after a visit to Malawi with another Irish aid organisation.

After visiting villages, talking to the inhabitants and seeing the situation for himself, it became clear to Coyne that clean drinking water was the greatest need for villagers. The sources at the time contained water which was often filthy and contaminated.

‘‘When I came back from my first trip to Malawi in 2005, I knew that the water was there,” he said. ‘‘It wasn’t very far down; all that was needed was a pump to get it up.

‘‘I tried every aid agency I could think of and I e-mailed people here and in Malawi. I’d get no replies at all, or I’d get replies which said ‘give us your money and we’ll do it’. I said I didn’t want that.”

Through his research, Coyne came across Richard Cansdale, an inventor based in Northumberland in England, who had developed a hand pump using simple technology to maximum effect. Cansdale was working for SWS Filtration, which has contracts with hotels in the Caribbean and Europe, as well as with a large fish farming processing plant in Ireland.

Cansdale found he was spending an increasing amount of his time on nonprofit projects, such as introducing the hand pump to communities in developing countries.

Wells For Zoe, in fact, takes its name from Cansdale’s daughter who was killed in a motorbike accident when she was 22.

At its most basic, the Canzee pump is a pipe within a pipe which doesn’t require any piston seals, meaning that it can last for years with no possibility of breakage. The pump can bring up water from 25 metres below ground but, with the high water table in Malawi, there is often water as little as four metres under the surface.

Coyne travelled back to Malawi with Cansdale and they began to install the Canzee pump – originally in villages involved with the Saint John Of God outreach programme.

‘‘Because we believe in the dignity of ownership, we operate on the principle of ‘a handup without handouts’,” said Coyne.

‘‘We believe that clean water is the first step on the development ladder. When supported by simple irrigation and organic farming, people can become self-sufficient.

‘‘We get agreement from the chief to donate a portion of land for the village garden. Profits from the garden make a substantial contribution towards the cost of the pumps and dams over time, and help to set up their micro-credit schemes.”

In M’bama village, where there are about 52 inhabitants, they have been using the Canzee pump since September last year.

Instead of a four kilometre walk for water, there is now clean water for consumption and domestic use within 20 metres of the village.

The children of the village take it in turns to pump the water, and it quickly fills a 20 litre bucket. Harrisen Amin, who is from the town of Mzuzu and works full time for Wells For Zoe, said: ‘‘It’s amazing, it’s so crazy that people are in great need of water, and it’s just below their feet. This reserve of water should last for more than ten years.”

Zambia village is located about 36 kilometres northeast of the busy town of Mzuzu. The village is a cluster of mud huts, built on the decline of a hill sloping towards a river valley where great change is happening.

There are 73 villagers, many of whom arrived in the hills from the lakeshore at Nkhata Bay. The endless miles of red scorched earth give way to acres of green growth at the foot of the hills.

It is a valley that is changing an acre at a time – from brown and red to green. As well as having access to clean water, with help from Wells For Zoe, the people of Zambia village are using a dam for water storage and water diversion irrigation techniques, as well as a micro-credit system to grow crops.

A group of 20 men and women form the Kayombo club which works the land.

They have built a dam with cement, blocks and earth. Water is diverted in a manmade channel which runs for about one kilometre alongside land irrigating plots of soya bean, rape seed, sugar cane, maize, yams, cassava, tomatoes and mustard seed. All of the products can be sold at the market in Mzuzu.

Beyond the crops, more acres are being prepared for planting and irrigation by members of the co-op. Young children muck in with the women of the village, racing wheelbarrows of soil.

‘‘Before they took up the irrigation techniques, the villagers were relying on the rains to come. Now they plant throughout the year,” said Amin.

‘‘Their maize crops can be harvested three times a year, with a four-month cycle.”

While maize is the most common crop grown in Malawi, it is temperamental and the harvest can fail. Wells For Zoe encourages alternative food sources as much as possible.

‘‘We have provided seeds at a very low cost, which can be repaid eventually when the crops start to bring in money for the villagers,’’ Amin said.

‘‘They now grow cabbages, tomatoes and even Irish potatoes. They grow soya, which the government buys. The chief has donated 20 acres of land to the group and now people are helping themselves.”

Sonda village is in a valley about eight kilometres outside Mzuzu. Planting first began here in April and now, acres of green growth replace what was once scrub and wasted land. Coyne said: ‘‘For some reason, time seems to have passed the people by. They have no innate concept of agriculture.

They didn’t know what they could grow or what they could eat, so constantly ate this maize flower.

‘‘We suggested alternative seeds to plant, and last week they were sending egg plants, carrots, onions, beans and cucumbers to the market. We have employed a local woman as a permaculturist, who teaches villagers how to prepare recipes for the alternative crops which have never been grown here before.

‘‘Even the agricultural instructors, people from Bunda (agricultural) college, don’t know how to grow carrots or beet. There’s a whole range of stuff that you’d think people who graduated from agricultural college would know, but they don’t.

‘‘They know about maize – there’s 45,000 ways to grow maize – tobacco and maybe coffee.

‘‘They still haven’t given up on the old colonial system, where they grow the cash crops but forget to feed themselves.”

A co-op of ten women and four men work here daily, growing vegetables and rearing fish and chickens bought using a micro-credit system. The group utilise the irrigation techniques taught by Wells For Zoe, diverting water from a small stream; a man-made pond provides a year-round water supply.

The maize in Sonda has grown eight feet high, using compost instead of government subsidised fertiliser. Fertiliser is expensive, the system which distributes coupons is corrupt and, in the long run, it will damage the soil, so Wells For Zoe insists that the group uses compost.

Under a micro-credit system, significant numbers of chambo fish – which are unique to Malawi – have been introduced to the water storage pool.

‘‘The good thing about the chambo fish is that it multiplies by a lot,” said Amin. ‘‘Fish sell at the market for between 150 and 200 kwacha (roughly between 75 cents and €1).” The group has 50 chickens, which will fetch 600 kwacha at the market. Within six weeks, the group will receive capital from the chickens, and can pay back the no-interest loan. Profit is put back into the co-op.

The coming year looks busy for Wells For Zoe. Planning permission is being sought for a factory in Mzuzu to manufacture the pumps, which Coyne says will cost €30 each. All the elements and machinery for the factory are in a container in Newcastle ready to be shipped out and set up, although issues over taxes have to be resolved first with the Malawian authorities, who have attempted to charge 100 per cent duty on pumps.

Wells For Zoe has recently bought six acres of land in Lusangazi, about seven kilometres from Mzuzu, to produce vegetable seeds to provide to farmers at reasonable prices. And word is spreading – in August next year, 33 students from Blackrock College in Dublin will travel to Malawi with Wells For Zoe for an alternative post-Leaving Cert experience.

Malawi factfile

Located in south-eastern Africa, Malawi borders Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the south. Lake Malawi runs most of the length of the country to the east.

Malawi has a population of 12.6 million people in an area of 118,484 square kilometres. The threat of famine is never far away, due to reliance on the maize crop. A full-scale famine was narrowly averted in 2005. Official figures state that 14 per cent of the population is living with HIV, but the actual number is believed to be much higher.

In 1994, after three decades of one-party rule under President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi became a multi-party democracy. Although removing much of the repression of Banda’s leadership, democratically-elected Bakil Muluzi ran a leadership popularly criticised for corruption.

President Bingu Mutharika was sworn into power on May 24, 2004, after winning presidential elections. His term has been characterised by a high-profile anti-corruption campaign.

Within a year of taking office, Bingu resigned from his party, the United Democratic Front, and established a new grouping called the Democratic Progressive Party, after accusing his previous party of opposing his anticorruption drive.

The first Irish ambassador to Malawi, Liam MacGabhann, presented his letters of credence to the Malawian government on November 6. Based in Lilongwe with a diplomatic staff of three, McGabhann is joined by the head of development, Vinnie O’Neill.

Since 2003, Irish Aid has provided funding of €10.8 million to Malawi, focusing on rehabilitation and disaster-preparedness activities and the strengthening of Malawian civil society organisations. Since the beginning of the year, €2.2 million has been disbursed to a range of organisations.