skills

Aspirant Malawian farmer grows skills in South Africa

Timot Damiano from Malawi is honing his farming skills by growing chillies in South Africa.

Across the sub-region the cry from smallholder farmers is for knowledge. Extension services in Africa are substandard and it’s often up to the individual to find his own learning resource.

Farmers are eager to learn whatever they can about agriculture. School teachers probably dream about audiences as hushed and attentive as African farmers at agricultural information lectures. Lack of information and help is a problem in the agricultural sector and it is one that needs fixing.

Africanfarming.com met one enterprising aspirant farmer from Malawi, who is learning through experience while he keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the bigger picture.

THE MAN

Timot Damiano (32) is a Malawian who works outside Cape Town, South Africa (SA), for a chilli grower. He has been working with the tunnel-grown chilli operation since he arrived in South Africa 3 years ago.

Timot Damiano. Photo: Nan Smith

If you think this sounds like the story of another economic refugee, drifting south to pick up work and earn survival money, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Damiano, shrewd, sober and financially disciplined, is a quick and intelligent learner who is actively implanting a bigger plan.

The time he spends away from his home country is filled with purpose. He is learning, gaining experience and saving money, as he looks ahead to a future when he can farm the 22 ha of land to which he has access in Malawi.

He is not just planting chillies, he is also acquiring practical skills. He is learning how to work irrigation systems, how to fix pumps and identify pests and diseases, how to calibrate sprayers, sink boreholes, erect infrastructure… things that farmers need to know to keep their farms running smoothly.

African farmers have to be more self-reliant than most because there is often no handy mechanic, electrician or agronomist close by.

THE CROP

Chillies are popular for the spicy flavour they give to food – a taste “zing” that varies from a mild bite to a “hot-as-hell” kick, depending on the variety of chilli.

The plus factor is that chilli fans can reach for the chillies (or chilli sauce) at mealtimes, happy in the knowledge that chilli has health benefits. It is high in anti-oxidant carotenoids and is a good source of essential vitamins and minerals.

They are also fairly easy to cultivate. “I keep my eyes on the plants every day, and then I can stop the problems before they spread,” says Damiano.

In the tunnel he manages, the chillies grow in coconut peat in plastic bags and plant nutrients are fertigated through a dripper line irrigation system. Water pumped up from a borehole fills a high-standing tank, which gravity feeds into the irrigation system. The tunnel slopes gently down and away (from the tank site) so that plants at the far end are not deprived of water or nutrients.

Photo: Nan Smith

This grower’s market is a niche that prefers organic produce, so no inorganic fertilisers or chemicals are used in the tunnel. The naturally-sourced liquid fertiliser Groesia, a product originally from Zimbabwe, is applied once, or twice, a week.

Damiano sprays with the Margaret Roberts organic insecticide to control pests. “Aphids are our biggest problem here and we need to spray twice a month at least”, he says.

Selected plants are harvested for seed. “We put the seed into seed trays and cover very lightly with soil. After that it’s daily watering until the plants emerge,” Damiano explains as he drops a tiny amount of soil from between his thumb and his index finger to demonstrate.

“Harvest is coming up and should be here in a week or 2. These green chillies you see now will start turning red quickly and then we pick them.”

THE LEARNING

In this part of the Western Cape Province with its sandy, leached soils, and constant drought risk, the expensive tunnel infrastructure is a necessity. But Damiano is quick to tell me that in Malawi, chillies could easily be grown in open field environments. “We have the rainfall and good soil without these drying winds.”

On the downside, he says that agricultural infrastructure, machinery, implements, pumps and pipelines are very expensive in Malawi. Start-up farmers struggle with capital costs and there is no state subsidy.

Despite the problems, Damiano sees solutions. The acquisition of knowledge and experience in agriculture is a huge step forward. For one thing, it clears away misconceptions about farming and overwhelming obstacles, for another it opens up possibilities and gives farmers the confidence to take on challenges they would previously have been afraid to tackle.

In this, knowledge really is power. Experience combined with his innate energy, drive and ambition has given Damiano the tools he needs to operate his own agri-business with every chance of success.

Also read:
Vegetable production: Heat up your cash flow with chillies
Preserving for later – dry your own chillies

USEFUL INFORMATION
For more information on liquid organic fertiliser Groesia contact: Paul Wijers on paul@groesia.com
To source Margaret Roberts organic pesticide go to: www.hydroponic.co.za or www.hartnursery.co.za

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