We are so excited! AfTrak is a finalist and is one of five remaining projects battling it out for the Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy and a $1million funding boost. AfTrak, a low-cost, solar-powered, hand-operated tractor, is being developed with our partners, the University of Loughborough and the Consortium for Battery Innovation, using solar microgrids to power custom-designed tractors for Deep Bed Farming. It has been a long process to get to this point: registration for the prize opened in November 2022 but now we are down to the last five.
The tractor, which is being developed at the University of Loughborough, will be a low-cost, hand-operated solution for farming in the difficult conditions often encountered in Malawi. AfTrak also provides power for agricultural applications such as water irrigation and domestic applications such as phone charging, electric cooking and lighting. The ground-breaking initiative combines solar microgrids and micro tractors to empower smallholder farmers in Malawi and across Africa. It aims to significantly increase crop yields and smallholder incomes while providing access to clean, green electricity in rural communities.
The Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy is focused on the energy crisis in Africa, but the ideas and solutions generated could be used to help the 940 million people - or 13% - who do not have access to electricity globally. The prize aims to reward innovators who expand access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity in Africa. Energy access is a key driver for long-term economic growth and shared prosperity.
AfTrak, which is an accessible, economic solution to energy access in sub-Saharan Africa, deploys green solar microgrids in communities allowing energy access for all. These are supported with solar micro tractors which will help Deep Bed farmers significantly increase crop yields and revenue.
Country Director for Tiyeni, Isaac Monjo Chavula, says this work will have a huge impact on people in Malawi: “Tiyeni is over the moon for being the finalist for the precious Milken-Motsepe Prize. If we win, we will be able to use the resources of this prize to improve the livelihoods of even more smallholder rural farmers. The role of AfTrak is so significant as it completely reduces the drudgery in breaking the compacted soils, the making of beds, and creating furrows for rainwater harvesting, leading to more than doubling crop yields. The clean power that comes with it is so transformational to the off-grid communities whose lives shall never remain the same.”
Tropical Cyclone Freddy was an exceptionally long-lived, powerful and deadly tropical cyclone that traversed the southern Indian Ocean for more than five weeks in February and March 2023. The hardest-hit country was Malawi where incessant rains caused catastrophic flash floods and mudslides. We caught up with Godfrey Kumwenda, Tiyeni’s Training Manager in Malawi, to find out how the farmers working with Tiyeni have been coping.
Freddy is the longest-lasting tropical cyclone ever recorded worldwide, travelling across the southern Indian Ocean and southern Africa for thirty-seven days. In Malawi, the national power grid was crippled, with its hydroelectric dam rendered inoperable. Overall, the cyclone killed at least 1,216 people in Malawi (with 537 people missing and presumed dead), making it the first tropical cyclone globally to claim at least 1,000 lives since Cyclone Idai in 2019.
Tiyeni farmers in Mulanje were worst hit. The cyclone had a profound impact on local livelihoods as livestock, income-earning opportunities and the transportation infrastructure were damaged. Some roofs were swept away by the strong winds and families had to seek shelter in temporary camps, schools and churches. Parts of the Deep Beds were washed away by running water in the waterway or streams especially for those farmers who had their beds constructed near streams or rivers. However, Deep Bed farmers suffered less than their neighbours. One of the affected farmers was Limited Ligomeka of Komwa village in Thuchila EPA. He said
“Crops under Deep Bed Farming were resilient in the floods, to the extent that my crops and beds were not washed away with the flooding. If I had not adopted Deep Bed Farming, I would not have survived the impact of Cyclone Freddy in terms of food. Even though the water was too much, I managed to harvest two and a half bags of maize from the Beds. But I was expecting six or seven bags of maize if there was no cyclone”.
Belita Sikelo of the same village concurred with Mr Ligomeka saying
“In my conventional farming field, ridges were washed away together with the crops while in the Deep Beds the crops were not washed away, and the beds were intact.”
Lusiwa Mangame of Mangame village in Msikawanjala EPA, has been practising Deep Bed Farming for three years and has seen how Deep Beds helped with soil and water conservation in the wake of Cyclone Freddy. She was quoted saying “Indeed those marker ridges and the raised beds withheld the pressure of water, because I could tell the difference between the ridges and the beds. In the ridges, soil erosion could be seen, and some ridges were washed away while the Deep Beds remained intact and just needed to be raised to their normal height.” She continued to say she is expanding her field with more Deep Beds and will continue adding slowly tilling her farm to her entire field. She has also encouraged her fellow farmers to adopt Deep Bed Farming, since it has proved to be more resilient to flooding and drought.
At Chikanda village in Msikawanjala EPA, Laston Makhongo lamented that the effects of Cyclone Freddy were so devastating that many fields and crops were washed away especially in conventional fields. But with his Deep Bed field, despite being on a steep slope, the field was not affected by running waters as the marker and box ridges helped to contain the speed of the running waters.
And Patrick Muhala said he had suffered less than his neighbours: “At first, I was reluctant to adopt Deep Bed Farming. After adopting it, people were mocking me when I was tilling my field but I did not give up. Then my neighbours witnessed how well I harvested and how the crops in beds and ridges performed during the cyclone. In Deep Beds, the crops were not as susceptible to dislodging while in ridges all the crops were washed away.”
As part of our recovery and resilience-building work, Tiyeni has donated a package of seeds to the farmers who were worst affected by the cyclone. The items distributed were a starter pack of maize seeds to provide an opportunity for those who were worst hit to grow their crops in this growing season.
The distribution took place in September 2023, and targeted 528 farmers who were most affected by Cyclone Freddy. A total of 1056 kg of maize seeds were distributed to 528 farmers (each farmer received a 2kg packet of maize seeds). Tiyeni continues to support these farmers through technical advice from Tiyeni’s Field Officers in the area on soil health improvement and the planting of more high value crops. These farmers are adhering to the advice and are receiving follow up visits to make sure they are given the support they need. The Deep Beds that were affected by the cyclone have now been restored and crops have been planted. As well as the existing farmers, a lot of new farmers have adopted the Deep Bed Farming technology after seeing the way the Deep Beds performed during the cyclone.
Albert is a non-executive board member of Tiyeni in Malawi. He is an interdisciplinary researcher at the University of Aberdeen with background in sustainable catchment and land resources management.
Albert studied for his PhD at the University of Worcester with a thesis entitled 'The social-ecological sustainability of Tiyeni’s deep beds conservation agriculture system in Malawi’.
We caught up with Albert to find out more.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you first get involved with Tiyeni?
My background is in natural resources management especially land-based resources and how these could be sustainably utilised and managed. My first interaction with Tiyeni was in 2015 when I was hired to coordinate the Kankhulukulu Functional Landscape Approach research project in Nkhatabay north for the University of Worcester. Tiyeni was a key partner so many of the logistical arrangements were handled by them. Some activities were aligned for the benefit of both Tiyeni and the project and so I got to interact with Tiyeni staff and got to learn about Deep Bed Farming and other initiatives.
How does your academic research link with Tiyeni and Deep Bed Farming?
My research interests include exploring and understanding socio-economic, cultural and policy barriers, incentives, and challenges to increasing adoption of agroforestry and agroecosystems. I developed these research interests when I was studying for my doctorate at the University of Worcester. My thesis called ‘The Social-ecological sustainability of Tiyeni’s deep beds conservation agriculture system in Malawi’ centred on understanding win-win situations for smallholders practising Deep Bed Farming in Malawi by understanding the on-farm environmental and socio-economic impacts of the system, among others. My current research is a continuation of the work that I did for my PhD with some added responsibilities and a change in research objectives, study location and outputs.
Currently I am researching barriers and incentives to increasing agroforestry in Scotland under the University of Aberdeen’s Farm Tree project. As the UK government strives to achieve its Net-Zero goals, integrating trees in agricultural systems is a vital component, not just for carbon sequestration, but also for the multi-faceted benefits of incorporating trees into the farmland. The Deep Bed Farming system is about conserving soil and water through several interventions. One of these is the incorporation of some specific tree species into the system. More importantly, getting smallholders to a point where they can seamlessly experiment, adapt, adopt, and practise the Deep Bed Farming independent of Tiyeni requires an objective and rigorous understanding of farmers’ decision-making processes, including barriers, opportunities, and the policy atmosphere in the context of Malawi. It’s exciting to see numbers of farmers involved in Deep Bed Farming activities increasing. However, getting these farmers to integrate Deep Bed Farming as their own or default farming practice is entirely a different matter. Not least because change in the face of uncertainty is scary.
You are a non-executive board member of Tiyeni in Malawi. What does that role entail?
The role of non-executive directors is to provide technical assistance to the Tiyeni executive board where decisions about the company are made. Although most of the standard duties of non-executive board members remain undefined under the existing Tiyeni structure, the most important one is to ensure that the institution complies with the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) standard operating procedures in Malawi under the control of the NGO Regulatory Authority. Such reports include activities of the NGO, approved annual financial reports among others. The board provides input on annual activities, activity inspection, attendance of key events, and recruitment of new staff members. Since becoming a board member, I have been involved in most of the activities including attending to events, recruitment and input on Tiyeni’s planned annual activities. As the organisation grows, the role and remit of the local board will grow with it to help the executive team.
How do you want to see Deep Bed Farming develop in Malawi?
I consider Deep Bed Farming as an important intervention for smallholder farmers’ livelihoods and soil and water conservation in the context of the Malawian agriculture landscape. What I want to see is the integration of Deep Bed Farming into farmers’ farming traditions where Deep Bed Farming’s implementation among farmers is independent of Tiyeni. There should be a point where Tiyeni should no longer be required. This level requires farmers’ independent evaluation of the system through their own experimentation that leads to Deep Bed Farming adaptation and adoption (not uptake due to Tiyeni’s presence), and the separation of Deep Bed Farming from other charity activities e.g. provision of inputs for newly trained farmers. When Deep Bed Farming develops this far, farmers will no longer need Tiyeni for training and guidance. You can call it the ‘new normal way of farming’.
What would you like to do when you aren't engaged in your work for Tiyeni or academic research?
When I am no longer busy with any of the mentioned commitments, I would like to work with Malawian farmers in a different way and contribute to the Malawian economy through what I would loosely call ‘self-sustaining agricultural enterprise’. There may be a better terminology for this, but here is what I want to do. My idea is to run my own large-scale and low input farm and supermarket (or a chain of these) that sells fresh and on-farm processed products (from my farm). With land in my reach, most of the research ideas I have for Deep Bed Farming would be made possible, too. This would also be ideal demonstration site for interested farmers around the farm and higher education institutions to learn about climate-smart crop production and livestock. This would also be a learning centre for crop value addition that would include low-tech processing and packaging of high-quality agricultural products while partnering with surrounding small-scale farmers to sell their products to us for processing and packaging. While feeding my Deep Bed Farming research curiosity, this sort of work would be a great addition to the Malawi economy including job creation, surrounding communities, and knowledge transfer for essential agricultural technologies.
We are delighted to announce that Rosa Balliro has joined the UK team. Find out more about her in our next newsletter!
Our work is only possible thanks to you, our dedicated supporters. The new 'Donate' page on our website makes it even easier to set up a regular donation. Just £10 a month can make a real difference to the farmers and farming communities we're working with.