The Scandal of Soil Loss

24 June 2021

John Crossley, Tiyeni's founding Trustee, shares his observations on the scandal of soil loss:

Archaeologists tell is that arable farming first started in the upper watershed of the Euphrates in the 12th century BC. This was when cereals such as wild barley and a variety of wheat called “emmer” were taken into cultivation, having been used in their wild state for countless generations. This region had been a habitat for late stone age man, rich in game and timber. Now it is mostly barren desert. The axe and the plough have done their work.

The same process is taking place in parts of Africa today. But It need not have been like this.

The original inhabitants of Malawi – they were called the “Akafula”—lived off the land without disturbing the soil, but the introduction of farming has had devastating effects.

Some women who would have been cultivating their gardens no longer do so because, due to the declining fertility of the soil, the land will no longer support their families. Some are driven to stone breaking or other menial tasks for a living. The ones breaking stones told me that they had not eaten that day. The small children with them will be liable to serious illness from poor nutrition. (Reports from the village where we used to live, speak of elderly women “just drinking water, then sleeping……”)

How has agriculture, intended to produce food, resulted in famine?

As our lives depend on plants, so plants depend on soil and soil is a complex material, built up slowly by the weathering of rocks and the breakdown of plant and animal matter by soil micro-organisms. Soil is created slowly. The US Department of Agriculture states that the normal rate at which soil is created is about a tenth of a ton per hectare annually. Anyone living in tropical Africa will have seen signs of serious soil loss – tree roots which had been underground exposed on the surface, deep gullies on the hillsides and, above all, the rivers running the colour of cocoa in the rainy season. A survey by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, carried out in 2014, found that the average rate of soil loss in Malawi was 29 tons per hectare every year. This compares ill with the slow rate of soil creation!

The picture (below right), taken in Mzimba district in 2009, typifies the ridge and furrow system practised widely throughout Malawi and indicates how so much soil has been lost. The maize crop is planted on shallow ridges which do not follow the contour of the land, and the furrows between the ridges are left open at the ends. Furthermore the underlying soil will have been compacted by constant treading, with the result that rainwater only slowly sinks into the ground. Consequently, heavy rainfall will send water gushing out between the ridges --- carrying soil with it at the rate of almost 30 tons from the hectare every year. Thus the real wealth of the country goes down the drain!

The ridge and furrow system>
The ridge and furrow system

Once-productive land around the villages is now so depleted that yields of maize average only about a ton and a half per hectare – not enough to feed the nation, and Malawi has been forced to depend on other countries in order to feed its people. In 2005, for instance, Britain gave the government of Malawi £15.2 million to buy food. Again in 2013 the UK gave $22 million through the World Food Programme to feed vulnerable families, and these handouts have continued periodically. A programme to increase local productivity resulted in a subsidy for seed and fertilizer under which in the 2005/2006 season 176,000 tons of fertilizer were provided to farmers at a cost of 75 billion Malawi Kwachas, equivalent to 30 million pounds at that time. The flush of growth following this donation produced a surplus of maize: but the bonanza was not sustainable from either the economic or the agronomic point of view. Malawi remains dependent on overseas friends to feed the growing population. This is an insecure situation – particularly in times like the present when economic stress is forcing governments to reduce expenditure. In fact the country waits on the doorstep of hunger.

So it was that, when the Orphan Care Group at the village of Duroba which Tiyeni was supporting, was handed a piece of ground on which to grow food for the children, the Village Headman explained that the land had been cultivated for more than ten years, first growing maize until that failed when a switch had been made to cassava until even that hardy plant produced nothing. “Now,” he told us ,”this land is finished. You can have it!”

The piece of land at Doroba, pictured (below right) in 2004, had been treated with little regard for the organic content of the soil or the conservation of the soil itself. Increasing quantities of chemical fertilizer had been applied. But in little more than a decade the land had been reduced to near-desert. A laboratory analysis of the soil gave a PH reading of 4.23, a very acidic value, and particularly low readings for nitrogen and magnesium.

Farming in 2004>
Farming in 2004

Thankfully, there is another way and since these problems were confronted by Tiyeni as a result of the provision of the land, a story of success through Deep Bed farming has emerged.

Deep Bed farming is common sense but not yet used commonly. There are over 2 million farmers in Malawi and your support helps us to reach more communities with climate smart agriculture. Creating opportunities for knowledge sharing through field events and training is the best to help Malawi's farmers share and utilise climate smart knowledge.

Sign up for our newsletter

1% For the Plant - Non profit partner

Write to us at:Ian Kerr
8, Brookside
TA19 9RT

Within Malawi, please email the Mzuzu office directly at