By Moses Magadza
Lilongwe – Give a starving man a fish and you feed him for an hour; teach him to catch (and cook) fish, and you enable him to take care of himself for the rest of his life, so goes the time-worn proverb.
In Malawi, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has embraced this wisdom and is helping the Malawi Prison Service (MPS) to boost crop production on its prison farms to improve nutrition – a major challenge affecting the country’s approximately 15 000 inmates.
Towards the 2018-2019 crop farming season, the UNODC Malawi Office, with financial assistance from the Norwegian Embassy in Malawi, supported Chitedze, Mpyupyu and Kasungu Prison farms with inputs that includes seeds, fertilizer, agro chemicals and general agriculture production.
Additionally, UNODC is providing agriculture technical support to Malawi Prison Service in scaling up crop production.
Last week, Commissioner Clement Kainja, who is in charge of Farms and Industries under the MPS, accompanied by UNODC staff and other prison staff, embarked on crop supervision exercise to supported farms.
First place to visit was Kasungu Prison farm, which is about 125 km from Lilongwe where he appreciated the maize crop.
“I did not know what to expect as I came here,” he said in an interview at Kasungu Farm. However, what he saw greatly uplifted his spirits.
Kasungu Prison Farm has 100 hectares of arable land. At the time of this visit, it had 453 inmates, more than double its carrying capacity, according to Senior Superintendent Kalirani J.C. Mwale, Officer in Charge of Kasungu Prison.
The farm, like most parts of the country, relies on rainfall for its agriculture production. With support from UNODC, it has put 75 hectares of land under maize production for the 2018-2019 farming season. This represents a marked increase given that during the 2017-2018 farming season, it had 49 hectares of land under maize, enabling it to harvest 175 metric tonnes of maize.
In addition to the 75 hectares of maize, Kasungu has put 2.5 hectares under soya beans, four hectares of land under cassava, and 3.5 hectares of land under sweet potatoes. It has 35 pigs.
Senior Superintendent Mwale explained: “Last season we cultivated 49 hectares of maize and the yield was about 175 tonnes, lower than expected due to the drought which affected our performance. This year our projection is 350 metric tonnes, which is beyond our consumption need.”
He expects this to improve with irrigation agriculture.
“We recently sent 100 bags of maize to Lilongwe (Maula) Prison. Over the past two months, we sent 200 bags of maize Nkhotakota Prison and another 300 bags of maize to Dedza Prison. We always cultivate enough and we can support other prisons,” Superintendent Mwale elaborated.
Commissioner Kainja said: “We have a beautiful maize crop at Kasungu despite some challenges with rainfall. We are really impressed with what we have seen.”
He explained that the Malawi Government’s policy on reforming prisons seeks to reduce inefficiencies that violate prisoners’ human rights.
“Prisoners have a right to health, to life and food,” he said and added that the MPS was determined to ensure that prisoners access good health services, sufficient and nutritious food.
“Currently with UNODC we are working on a Project to build a sustainable food production system within the Malawi Prison Service so that we may be able to produce enough, and also maybe at the end generate income to help us manage our penal system in Malawi,” he said.
Commissioner Kainja revealed that the MPS was working hard to build the capacity of Agricultural Extension Officers within the prisons, to boost production on its farms.
“Related to this we are looking at how we can improve their mobility. We need motorbikes to enable our officers to attend meetings with their colleagues at district level where they share ideas.”
He admitted that the crop production systems on the MPS farms were not sufficiently mechanized.
“We rely on prisoners working manually. If these prison farms were fully mechanized, we could achieve more. We need planting machines because planting is time-sensitive,” Kainja said.
He said overcrowding remained a major challenge in Malawi prisons.
“We are happy that within the component of the UNODC-led Project, we are also looking at how we can tackle overcrowding and improve the accommodation conditions through among others, introducing bunk-beds and improving ventilation in the cells.”
Commissioner Kainja revealed whereas the carrying capacity of Malawian prisons was at 7 000, the reality was that approximately 14 000 inmates were cramped in the country’s prisons on any given day.
“Our facilities are almost operating at more than 200 percent beyond the holding capacity,” said the prisons boss.
He said plans were underway to develop certain prison farms into “bread baskets” to support other prisons.
“We have earmarked Kasungu prison as one such prison. We have drawn up a distribution system which ensures that whatever surplus is produced will be taken to other prisons,” said Kainja.
Davies Chikopa, the agronomist, shared Kainja’s optimism.
“The crop at Kasungu is very vibrant. We don’t expect a harvest of less than five tonnes per hectare if prevailing climatic conditions hold. This is a critical time for maize development,” he said.
Going by what is happening at Kasungu Prison Farm, it can be said that the provision of inputs such as fertilizer and agrochemicals has gone a long way toward helping the farm to produce food. This is in line with the strategic objective of the Malawi Prison’s Service which among others includes improved nutrition and general health of prisoners.
An assessment conducted by UNODC last year threw light on a plethora of challenges facing Malawi prison farms.
“One is continuous cropping. The farms have been growing maize since time immemorial. That depletes the soil. It is like mining without adding back to the soil,” Chikopa said.
Other challenges were related to poor agricultural production methods on most farms, dramatized by continuous cropping which leads to lack of diversification.
“Horticultural production and agroforestry are very low in all the farms. Another problem relates to efficient use of farming machinery. MPS has large farms. Some of the farms have tractors, rippers and ploughs. Unfortunately these machines are not being used efficiently,” he said.
Yet another problem is lack of a culture of seeing agriculture and crop production as a business.
“There is need to introduce a business thinking to shift toward commercial production on these farms and to use equipment to measure work done, inputs used to project agricultural produce,” said Chikopa.
To strengthen record keeping and accountability, UNODC Malawi Office has begun helping the farms to embrace and effectively utilize technology such as remote sensing and GPS mapping.
“We can’t continue to produce reports without measuring our work or our performance. We also need to be able to relate scarce resources such as fertilizer, agrochemicals, fuel to the actual area that has been cultivated and what has been produced,” he said.
Plans are being made to support the prison farms to introduce inter-cropping with nitrogen fixing crop varieties to replenish the soil.
An exciting component of the project is the introduction of conservation agriculture on the farms. To that end, over 20 000 nitrogen fixing trees have been introduced onto the farms this year alone.
Kainja said with the support of all-weather friends like UNODC, the sky was but the beginning.
“We are very grateful to UNODC who have been our partners in the prisons system for quite a long time now and we look forward to our continued partnership to make sure that conditions in our prisons improve,” he said.
Henry Ndindi, the UNODC Project Coordinator in Malawi said what was happening at Kasungu Prison Farm was proof that building the capacity of people and helping them do things for themselves is more effective than giving them handouts.
The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion at a time when the world is becoming drier and hotter due to climate change.
Percy Chimwamurombe, a plant biotechnologist who specializes on climate change agriculture, microbiology and dry land adaptation says it is time for thinking outside the box.
“It cannot be business as usual. To ensure food security, Member States must explore and invest in resilient, short season crops as well as innovative crop production techniques including zero tillage, conservation agriculture, intercropping and agro forestry,” the Namibia National University of Science and Technology scientist said.
The Malawi prisons farm project supports Sustainable Development Goal 2, which calls for action to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
Moses Magadza is Communications Officer at UNODC Regional Office for Southern Africa.