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A home-grown solution to African hunger

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2006


Imagine a modern-day Eden - tended by a cheerful garden gnome - sprouting in the Sahara Desert.

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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.

No chemicals on this farm

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.