Big Story 10

For Malawi’s farmers facing harvest pests, the solution’s in the bag

LILONGWE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The harvest months of May and June should be a period of relief for Malawi’s farmers, as they finally reap their crops after battling a prolonged dry spell, attacks by armyworm pests and flooding in some areas.

Farmers in Mchinji district, central Malawi, rest near a PICS bag used to store their harvest, November 18, 2017. Photo: Isaac Masingati, Feed the Future Malawi

But many farmers, such as Clement Kasitomu of Dowa district, now face a new worry: Losing as much as 40 percent of their harvest to insects once the crops are in storage.

Kasitomu usually stores his grain, vegetables and other harvested food in traditional woven granaries - designed to keep cattle and goats out - or in hessian sacks, or tucked among leaves. But his harvest is frequently attacked by weevils, termites and fungi, he said.

That costs him cash, food and seeds he could plant the next season. “We have suffered losses, especially from hybrid (crops) that are not that strong to withstand pests,” the farmer said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pesticides aren’t a solution either, he said, because they are both expensive and cause ecological problems on the farm.

But a bit of cheap technology could help, in the form of manufactured storage bags, which more farmers in Malawi are beginning to use.

The Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag is being promoted in seven districts in Malawi as an alternative to using chemical pesticides on stored grain or simply losing it to pests, said Shelix Munthali, an official with the Feed the Future agricultural diversification program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The bag has two linings of high-density polyethylene, and an outer layer of woven polypropylene. Together, the layers keep out most oxygen, which prevents insects from surviving and reproducing.

Up to 98 percent of all insects can be eliminated from stored grain within a month of depositing it in the bag, cutting losses, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Plos One.

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Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has endorsed the bags as a proven technology for cutting losses after harvest.

“Before I started using PICS bags, I would lose four out of 10 bags (of grain) to weevils and the fungus aflatoxin,” said Trecia Kangala, a farmer from Mchinji district.

But “when after seven months I unsealed my first PICS bag, the maize quality was as good as it was the time I sealed the bag. Since chemicals are not used when using PICS bags, I also saved (money),” she added.

Aido Chapuma Chakakala, a farmer from Lilongwe, said the bags also protected grain he needed to replant as seed.

“This year I decided to plant maize from the PICS bag, (to see) if it could germinate. To my utter surprise, the germination rate was perfect,” he said. “I can boast of a good harvest this year.”

The bags are produced in Malawi by Polypack Limited, a Blantyre-based company, and cost 800 kwacha (about $1.10) when purchased in bulk. Feed the Future officials said they are growing in popularity among farmers.

In 2014, the year they were first introduced in Malawi, farmers used 70,000 of the bags. Last year that had risen to 350,000 bags, and Feed the Future officials believe orders could reach a half million this year.

Munthali said that cutting losses after harvest is crucial, with farmers unable to boost income and food security only by improving fertilizer, seeds and the like.

“We realized that we can work with farmers so that they produce a lot. But then if they don’t manage post-harvest losses they are not achieving anything,” Munthali said.

Small-scale farmers in Africa often have fewer options to prevent losses after harvest than farmers elsewhere, according to the Plos study.

Changing that is important as climate change brings new pressures, experts said.

“Climate change may induce what were previously minor storage pests to become new (serious) pests, or even enable introduction of new pests,” said George Phiri, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s assistant program representative in Malawi.

“PICS can enable farmers to effectively protect their proceeds for seeds, consumption or selling, and prevent storage losses,” he said in an email.

Phiri said that protecting crops after harvest was important to ensure farmers had good-quality seed, which he said is critical to bigger harvests and to incomes.