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Meet the climate hackers of Malawi | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacking | #aihp

Wackson Maona on his farm in Ekwendeni, Malawi on March 27. photos:  Khadija Farah/nyt

When it comes to growing food, some of the smallest farmers in the world are becoming some of the most creative farmers in the world. Like Judith Harry and her neighbours, they are sowing pigeon peas to shade their soils from a hotter, more scorching sun. They are planting vetiver grass to keep floodwaters at bay.

They are resurrecting old crops, like finger millet and forgotten yams, and planting trees that naturally fertilise the soil. A few are turning away from one legacy of European colonialism, the practice of planting rows and rows of maize, or corn, and saturating the fields with chemical fertilisers.

“One crop might fail. Another crop might do well,” said Ms Harry, who has abandoned her parents’ tradition of growing just maize and tobacco and added peanuts, sunflowers and soy to her fields. “That might save your season.”

Farmers show how deep they would need to dig to replant a flooded field in Chipyali, a village in the Balaka district of Malawi. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

It’s not just Ms Harry and her neighbours in Malawi, a largely agrarian nation of 19 million on the front lines of climate hazards. Their scrappy, throw-everything-at-the-wall array of innovations is multiplied by small subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world.

This is out of necessity.

It’s because they rely on the weather to feed themselves, and the weather has been upended by 150 years of greenhouse gas emissions produced mainly by the industrialised countries of the world.

Droughts scorch their soil. Storms come at them with a vengeance. Cyclones, once rare, are now regular. Add to that a shortage of chemical fertilisers, which most African countries import from Russia, now at war. Also the value of its national currency has shrunk.

All the things, all at once. Farmers in Malawi are left to save themselves from hunger.

Maize, the main source of calories across the region, is in trouble.

In Malawi, maize production has been battered by droughts, cyclones, rising temperatures and erratic rains. Across southern Africa, climate shocks have dampened maize yields already, and if temperatures continue to rise, yields are projected to decline further.

“The soil has gone cold,” Ms Harry said.

Giving up isn’t an option. There’s no insurance to fall back on, no irrigation when the rains fail.

So you do what you can. You experiment. You grab your hoe and try building different kinds of ridges to save your banana orchard. You share manure with your neighbours who have had to sell their goats in hard times. You switch to eating soy porridge for breakfast, instead of the corn meal you’ve grown accustomed to.

A villager holds peanuts, a cash crop that can also benefit the soil, on his farm in Choumba. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

There’s no guarantee these hacks will be enough. That was abundantly clear when, in March, Cyclone Freddy barrelled into the south of Malawi, dropping six months of rain in six days. It washed away crops, houses, people, livestock.

Still, you keep going.

“Giving up means you don’t have food,” said Chikondi Chabvuta, the granddaughter of farmers who is now a regional adviser with the international aid group CARE. “You just have to adapt.”

And for now, you have to do it without much help. Global funding to help poor countries adapt to climate hazards is a small fraction of what is needed, the United Nations said.

Crisis in Maize Country

Alexander Mponda’s parents grew maize. Everyone did — even Malawi’s founding President, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, an authoritarian leader who ruled for nearly 30 years. He goaded Malawi to modernise farming, and maize was considered modern. Millets, not.

Hybrid seeds proliferated. Chemical fertilisers were subsidised.

Building a bin for maize in Choumba where production has been battered by droughts, cyclones, rising temperatures and erratic rains. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

Maize had been promoted by British colonisers long before. It was an easy source of calories for plantation labour. Millet and sorghum, once eaten widely, lost a market. Yams virtually disappeared.

Tobacco became the main cash crop and maize the staple grain. Dried, ground and then cooked as cornmeal, it’s known in Malawi as nsima, in Kenya as ugali, in Uganda as posho (likely derived from the portion of maize porridge doled out to prison inmates under colonial rule.)

So Mr Mponda, 26, grows maize. But he no longer counts on maize alone. The soil is degraded from decades of monoculture. The rains don’t come on time. This year, fertiliser didn’t either.

“We are forced to change,” Mr Mponda said. “Just sticking to one crop isn’t beneficial.”

The total acreage devoted to maize in Mchinji District, in central Malawi, has declined by an estimated 12% this year, compared with last year, according to the local agricultural office, mainly because of a shortage of chemical fertilisers.

Mr Mponda is part of a local group called the Farmer Field Business School that runs experiments on a tiny plot of land. On one ridge, they’ve sown two soy seedlings side by side. On the next, one. Some ridges they’ve treated with manure; others not. Two varieties of peanuts are being tested.

The goal: to see for themselves what works, what doesn’t.

Mr Mponda has been growing peanuts, a cash crop that’s also good for the soil. This year, he planted soy. As for his 0.4 hectare of maize, it gave him half a normal harvest.

Many of his neighbours are planting sweet potato. Similar farmer-led experiments have begun around the country.

Alexander Mponda, a farmer who grows maize in the village of Choumba. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

Malawi has seen recurrent droughts in some places, extreme rains in others, rising temperatures and four cyclones in three years. As in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, climate change has dampened agricultural productivity, with a recent World Bank study warning that climate shocks could shrink the region’s already frail economy by 3% to 9% by 2030. Already, half its people live below the poverty line.

Eighty percent of them have no access to electricity. They don’t own cars or motorcycles. Sub-Saharan Africans account for barely 3% of the planet-heating gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere.

That is to say, they bear little to no responsibility for the problem of climate change.

There’s only so much small farmers in a small country can do, if the world’s biggest climate polluters, led by the United States and China, fail to reduce their emissions.

“In some regions of the world it will become not possible to grow food, or to raise animals,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr, a Cornell University professor who has worked with Malawian farmers for more than 20 years. “That’s if we continue on our current trajectory.”

The Heirloom Seeds

At 74, Wackson Maona is old enough to recall that up north, where he lives, near the border of Tanzania, there used to be three short bursts of rain before the rainy season began. The first were known as the rains that wash away the ashes from fields cleared after the harvest.

Those rains are gone.

Chikondi Chabvuta, the granddaughter of farmers who is now a regional adviser with the international aid group Care, in Mchinji district. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

Now, the rains might start late or finish early. Or they might go on nonstop for months. The skies are a mystery now, which is why Mr Maona takes extra care of the soil.

He refuses to buy anything. He plants seeds he saves. He feeds his soil with compost he makes under the shade of an old mango tree (he calls this his “office”) and then manure from his goats, which helps to hold moisture in the soil.

His field looks like a chaos garden. Pigeon peas grow bushy under the corn, shielding the soil from heat. Pumpkin vines crawl on the ground. Soybean and cassava are sown together, as are bananas and beans. A climbing yam delivers year after year. He has tall trees in his field whose fallen leaves act as fertilisers. He has short trees whose flowers are natural pesticides.

“Everything is free,” he says. It’s the antithesis of industrial agriculture.

Planting several trees and crops on one patch of land often takes more time and labour. But it can also serve as a kind of insurance.

‘We Have History Here’

The cyclone presented Ms Chabvuta’s own family with a painful decision.

A field in Mchinji district. When it comes to growing food, some of the smallest farmers in the world are becoming some of the most creative farmers in the world. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

The storm punched through the house her grandfather had built, the one her mother had grown up in, where Ms Chabvuta had spent childhood holidays. It inundated the fields. It washed away six goats. It left her uncle, who lived there, devastated.

This hit hard because he was always the resilient one. When a previous cyclone knocked down one wall of the house, he pushed the family to rebuild. When he lost his cattle, he was undeterred. “He used to say ‘We have history here,’” she recalled. “This year he was like, ‘I’m done.’”

The family is now looking to buy land in a village farther away from the riverbank, shielded from the next storm, which they know is inevitable.

“We can’t keep insisting we live there,” Ms Chabvuta said. “As much as we have all the treasured memories, it’s time to let it go.”

Judith Harry has abandoned her parents’ tradition of growing just maize and tobacco and added peanuts, sunflowers and soy to her fields. THE NEW YORK TIMES/Khadija Farah

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