Soil compaction and soil erosion have been known about since the dawn of agriculture. Human and animal footfall, tilling practices, and later machinery, are known to have all compacted the soil in various parts of the world. In rainstorms, the problem is often obvious: farmers can watch soil erosion taking place before their eyes, sometimes down to the level of the compacted layer.
Farmers have tried many methods – including some like Tiyeni’s – to tackle these problems, with varying degrees of success. Often the problem was assumed to be just water running fast after rainstorms causing soil erosion, without understanding less visible compaction under the surface.
We do not know whether or how widely farmers elsewhere picked up on this insight after it was written. What we do know is that socio-cultural practices – and official policies before and after independence – did not encourage its uptake in Malawi. (For more about this era, see An Environmental History of Southern Malawi Land and People of the Shire Highlands, Brian Morris, Palgrave, 2016.)
In many areas, traditional farming involved creating a series of mounds across the slopes, in which crops were planted, with pathways between them. This allowed water to run off down the slope, however, and footfall along the pathways and repeated hoeing compacted the soils. What is more, crop residues were usually burned. This picture shows that such practices are still common.
Francis Shaxson was a soil conservation official in Malawi (then Nyasaland) before and after independence in 1964 (he later received the Hugh Hammond Bennett award for his work, from the U.S. Soil and Water Conservation Society.) He recalls his first in-field training in Nyasaland in 1958. Soil conservation then, he said, mainly involved conducting topographic surveys to lay lines across the land’s slopes. Government bulldozers then gouged out broad channels to carry water runoff to the natural streamlines nearby, hopefully stemming soil erosion.
However, these externally imposed solutions did not always mesh well with traditional practices, and their implementation was sometimes disruptive, causing resentment and resistance. Heavy bulldozer wheels are also assumed to have worsened soil compaction.
Such methods, internationally promoted as best practice, persisted after independence, supported by donor countries and aid-recipient governments which have, for various reasons, often favoured high-technology (and often expensive) farming solutions for African countries.
The seeds of Tiyeni were sown during years of poor harvests from the mid to late 1990s, when Malawi’s maize production fell far below the 2m tonnes or so required to feed the population (see p61 here for some data). John Crossley, who had been an assistant district commissioner in several districts in Malawi, and his wife Elizabeth (then Education Adviser) recalled the famine years:
"People were reduced to digging up banana trees and cooking their roots, roaming the country picking up banana skins to eat, or working until they dropped in other people’s fields in return for a handful of flour. People were dying.
Enquiring at village level for the cause of the crisis, we learned that, 'the land has lost its fertility.'"
An investigation by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1999 described declining crop yields as agricultural land became steadily less fertile, and identified compaction as a problem in all eight regions they studied, on a variety of soil types, with tobacco tap roots routinely bending sideways when they hit the “hoe pan,” and maize roots rarely penetrating more than 30cm below the top of the ridges. It concluded that:
“one of the requirements for raising crop yields throughout much of Malawi is to improve rooting conditions (by breaking up the hoe pan) . . . [this] would also improve rainfall infiltration, thereby reducing surface runoff and the risk of soil erosion and making more water available to the crop . . . these problems cannot all be solved simply through the increasing use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertiliser.”
It then continued, perhaps more strikingly, with this:
However, the official response to the famine was the Targeted Input Programme, which helped struggling small farmers buy seeds and fertiliser at subsidised low prices. Agricultural output recovered somewhat as the rains improved, but remained poor overall.
Crossley was involved in a centre for caring for orphans at Doroba, which had been offered an infertile field by the village Headman to grow food for the centre. In November 2002 at the height of the food emergency, they met Shaxson, who had since spent many years as a soil conservation expert with the FAO in India and Brazil, and who had come to Malawi to run a training workshop for the NGO Harvest Help.
On that visit, Crossley described to Shaxson the problem of raising food for orphans from a piece of worn out land. They stood together in a field during a rainstorm and as they watched the soil run off in large quantities, they discussed using a simple pickaxe to break up the impermeable hard pan under the soil. As Crossley put it:
“Francis had explained that the underlying cause of this was the compaction of the soil just below the surface; this blocked the infiltration of water – causing it to run destructively over the surface instead.
Following this he made a sketch to show how a field cultivated on the ridge system could be converted to deep bed cultivation.”
These sketches would later form the core of Tiyeni’s Deep Bed approach:
Then, importantly, the deep beds were to be widened:
Crucially, two ridges would be joined to make a single bed, creating a larger cultivated area where nobody would tread again, thus preventing re-compaction and allowing healthy organic soils to remain in place.
Meanwhile, the training workshop had caught the attention of a smallholder farmer and his wife, Mr. & Mrs. Ngulube from Samuel Mabaso village in Mzimba district. They tried out some of the recommendations in an area surrounded by woodland “so that – in case it didn’t work, their village neighbours were less likely to see it.” They put compost into the ridges and crop residues (and weeds) as mulch in the furrows – and were astonished and delighted that their next maize crop grew ten feet high, as the picture shows. Bob Mann, an independent consultant who visited the Ngulubes, wrote in his field notes that mulching and composting:
“not only keeps moisture in the soil, but also increases the porosity of the soil. . . whereas the bare soil between ridges caps and seals the soil quickly, and then the rain runs off down the furrows because it cannot percolate down through the capped soil crust. . . these farmers were so convinced of the superiority of organic matter that they will not go back to using fertilizer again.”
Crossley also put these simple ideas into practice, including intensive decompaction. The results, again, were dramatic. The jubilant message came back after an excellent harvest: “it works!”
This was the unofficial birth of Tiyeni. In 2005 a charitable organisation was set up to raise money in the UK, the Tiyeni Fund, which was allocated the UK Charities number 1113274. (The name was based on the Chewa word “Tiyeni,” which means “Let’s Go!”)
Initially Tiyeni worked indirectly through a local NGO, Model Institute of Democracy for the Youth (MIDY), run by a dynamic Malawian named Patrick Nzima, which helped with outreach.
Also in 2005, Deep Bed Farming was introduced to the all-women’s group at Doroba, led by Mrs. M’bano Mkandawire, a strong leader with deep understanding not just of plants and agriculture, but also of local communities. Crossley recounts:
“Leadership was necessary. For a group of women to be asked to forsake their accustomed method of farming and wield a pickaxe where the hoe had always been the tool of choice was a stiff demand. No one in the village possessed one. Pickaxes were for men working on the roads. Patrick’s lucid explanation of the advantages of deep cultivation did much to allay the women’s caution, but it was only when they were assured that they would receive food for work in this novel experiment that they agreed to give it a try.
Of course the rehabilitation of the soil required more than just depth of till. A laboratory analysis of a sample of the soil taken from the Doroba garden in March 2005 showed that the pH value was 4.23 – very acidic – and the percentages of nitrogen and magnesium in the soil at 0.09 and 0.50 respectively were inadequate for crop growth. Bad marks all round!
In response to the laboratory findings, all organic material available was used to mulch the beds. The abundant plant Tithonia which grew tall in waste places was cut and carried to the site. And for the first 4 years of development, only leguminous crops such as beans, soya. Groundnuts and nzama (an indigenous type of groundnut) were planted.
Gradually the soil began to improve. Memorable occasions were when one of the women pointed out, “look, the weeds are growing bigger!” and again, after a night of heavy rainfall I visited the garden and was called to be shown the high watermark where the rainwater had been retained in the furrow between the beds and told with surprise that all the water had sunk into the ground. Previously, on a night like that, water would have been gushing off the land carrying soil, as it went.”
The relationship was terminated with MIDY in 2007, after Tiyeni discovered irregularities. However, two more communities saw what was happening there, and two more centres were set up, both under the leadership of women; the elderly Hilda Mughogho in the village of Susa, and Bridget Mkandawire at Msongwe Village.
Despite the good results, progress was still slow. By 2013 Tiyeni was still operating on a turnover of just £5,000 per year and had not yet expanded beyond these four villages.
In 2012, however, Adrian Wood, Trustee of “Wetland Action” and Professor of Sustainability at Huddersfield University, visited the sites and confirmed that Deep Bed Farming had proved its worth and was ready to expand. Tiyeni began fundraising and recruiting more actively, and word began to spread. In 2013 Colin Andrews, Alan Dixon and Andrew Burrows joined the Tiyeni board and a substantial donor was found. A strategy was adopted to extend "pods" of farmers within 45 kms of Mzuzu.
By 2014 it was clear that demand from farmers for training was intensifying (on one occasion Trustees received a call saying “The office is flooded with people asking for Tiyeni!”). A proper office building was taken in Mzuzu and Tiyeni was fully established as an accredited organisation in Malawi. New staff were employed to augment what Tiyeni outreach officers Godfrey Kumwenda and Namelord Phiri were achieving in the field, including a high profile agriculturalist, Isaac Chavula; a finance accountant, Chance Mwenitete; and a monitoring and evaluating specialist, France Gondwe.
By 2017, requests for training were being received from communities, non-government organisations and government field officers in all three regions of Malawi. Demand for training was far greater than the capacity of training staff so Tiyeni concentrated on developing "hotspots" wherever large number of farmers were pressing to adopt. These hotspots would, it was felt, become centres of excellence resulting in the majority of the land being adopted for deep beds. It was understood that additional community benefits would include better water retention by these farms, which in turn would keep local wells filled to a higher level, the streams running for longer, and the crops more resilient to climate change.
In 2017 the British High Commissioner visited the Tiyeni farms and was amazed to see brown shrivelled leaves of maize all over the area except where there were deep beds, where the strong stands of maize were deep green bearing large cobs. She said that this method is so obviously superior she was sure it would be adopted nationally.
In 2018, new Trustees were selected with new expertise that would be needed for the next phase of Tiyeni's growth. A number of large agricultural charities began expressing interest, and for the 2018/19 season the Malawi Government Research Organisation has set up 80 trial beds in nine different areas of Malawi, under the watchful eyes of Tiyeni staff. Full results from yield data being taken during July and August by Government researches will be made public later shortly.
Tiyeni cannot train all of Malawi’s farmers: so it aims principally now to use its knowledgeable and highly motivated staff to train trainers, be they government field officers or other NGOs, to help cascade the knowledge through the country in the places where the methods are applicable.
According to internal Tiyeni estimates produced in March 2020, adopters of deep bed farming have enjoyed first year increases in yield of between 50 to 250 percent, with an average 146% increase in 2018/2019. By 2020, nearly 15,000 farmers had adopted Deep Bed Farming, on a Tiyeni budget of some £120,000 per year.
The numbers continue to grow fast. But not, of course, fast enough.