DOWA, MALAWI — Imagine a modern-day Eden - tended by a cheerful garden gnome - sprouting in the Sahara Desert.
That's the feeling you get, walking onto a 50-acre farm bursting with rows of healthy corn, thick sugar-cane stalks, and plump mangoes - all at the epicenter of Africa's growing food crisis, with its 18 million hungry people.
It's tended by a sprightly grandfather named Glyvyns Chinkhuntha, a man with no formal agricultural training, but a spirit of innovation, and a reverence for Roman aqueducts. Using just hoes and shovels, he's built an elaborate gravity-driven irrigation system of earthen berms and inch-deep trenches. It's revolutionary in a country where just 2 percent of farmers' land is irrigated - despite the close proximity of a lake larger than Lake Erie in the US.
In fact, people here see Dr. Chinkhuntha as a kind of water wizard of Malawi. He's proof, some say, that despite climate change, poverty, and other obstacles, home-grown solutions do exist for Africa's recurring hunger problems.
"What he does is amazing," says Jackson Kachidede, an irrigation expert with CARE, an aid group here - especially compared to what's happening across southern and eastern Africa. Roughly 5 million of Malawi's 12 million people need more food, in part because of changing rainfall patterns. In Kenya, drought is partly responsible for a fast-growing crisis in which 4 million face starvation. In all, aid agencies say, 12 million people in southern Africa - and 6 million in east Africa - are hungry.
But not all Africa's hunger can be blamed on climate change. Consider that regional powerhouse South Africa has an enormous maize surplus - enough to feed the whole region. Yet two hunger-hit countries, Swaziland and Lesotho, are autonomous kingdoms entirely within South Africa. Their subsistence farmers are beset by problems like AIDS and lack of education.
So how does Chinkhuntha succeed where so many African farmers fail? It isn't loads of chemical fertilizers. He uses none. Most of his plants are covered with a layer of farm waste - half-decayed leaves and roots. "Organic fertilizer," he says, cheerily, "is the solution for Africa." Nor does his farm need all that much water from the nearby river. Each plot is sunk two feet below ground level, so roots are closer to the water table - and rainwater soaks in, rather than washing away.
His irrigation system is a four-tiered network of berms that gets its water from the river. Each channel is the width of a hoe. By simply moving a clod of dirt here and there, Chinkhuntha directs water to thirsty plants. Chinkhuntha's farm sits in a riverbank area, but he says his techniques would work in any environment.
What prevents more African farmers from using such a system? Sitting under a shade tree, clad in a crisp white oxford shirt and matching baseball cap, Chinkhuntha answers by remembering that, as a child, his father often pointed to hunched-over old farmers and warned, "If you don't go to school you'll end up like that man."
Across Africa, he says, "People go to school to run away from farming." It's a cultural preference with disastrous consequences: The vast majority of Africans consider themselves farmers, but very few have analytical skills, agricultural savvy, or basic resources to produce much food.
More education is one answer. But if the continent's already-educated people picked up farming, "Africa would have plenty to eat," says Chinkhuntha, who was trained as an accountant. Instead, "all the education and knowledge is tucked up in offices" with people who "are not interested in touching the soil."
In the village of Kalodzera, nestled among rocky hillsides about an hour's drive from Chinkhuntha's farm, most residents haven't had a good meal since June.
But they're hoping this will change - and soon. Last year villagers built two dams and several irrigation ditches with the help of CARE. The project was engineered to be trouble-free - and avoid the fate of many other irrigation projects funded by outside donors, which decayed and were never repaired. For instance, the "valves" that connect dams with ditches are wads of plastic stuffed into irrigation pipes.
This year, villagers expect their harvests to triple.
It wasn't until recent years that dams were needed here. Like most farmers in Africa, people here just waited for rains. But climate change has made irrigation crucial. In fact, total rainfall hasn't decreased much, experts say, but the timing of rains has shifted. This has thrown farmers' traditional planting schedules out of whack.
Now there's greater focus on irrigation here and across Africa. "Irrigation and village savings plans," which help communities protect themselves against food shocks, "are at the top of the agenda," says Sylvester Kalonge at CARE. Malawi's government is boosting irrigation spending this year. And the European Union is prioritizing irrigation in its aid work.
In Kalodzera, such efforts are paying off, slowly. "We are starving, but we will work" to expand irrigation, says village chairman Philemon Sanje. "We will perform wonders by April," when the harvest comes.
On Chinkhuntha's idyllic farm, the man who recently got an honorary doctorate from a Malawian university for his innovation in agriculture, discusses prescriptions for African farming.
First, the continent needs greater independence from western donors. "This is the way America developed," he says, referring to perseverance and innovation required to develop his farm. But by providing aid and free food, rich nations are "enticing us away from going through the same thing." It's a controversial stand in a region where so many depend on donor handouts. But he argues all the aid "is killing us, well-intentioned though it may be" by creating a culture of dependency.
Second, in farming - as in life - principles are key, he says. One he's stuck to would ring true for America's Depression-era generation: Never take out a loan. Debt "robs you of the freedom of the mind," he says. Instead of "thinking about developing your own small resources you're only thinking about how to repay."
Another rule of thumb: "We consume 25 percent of what we produce, and reinvest 75 percent." But this requires patience, he says with a grandfatherly smile - "an ability to defer gratification."