Rain is so important in Malawi's agriculture-based economy that there are names for different kinds of it, from the brief bursts of early fall to heavier downpours called mvula yodzalira, literally "planting rain." For generations, rainfall patterns here in the southeast part of Africa have been predictable, reliable. But not now.
In the village of Jasi, in the hot, flat valley of Malawi's Lower Shire, farmer Pensulo Melo says 2010 was a disaster.
"I first planted my maize on Nov. 15," he says, "but the rain dried up, and so did my crop." Recalling each date precisely, Melo says he planted again after it rained on Dec. 10. But again, the rain stopped.
Melo had to take out a loan to plant a third time in January, and he finally got a good harvest. But it wasn't enough to pay back the hefty interest he owed.
"The agriculture and farming systems have been completely altered," says Victor Mughogho, executive director of Eagles Relief and Development. "Adaptation to climate change in our context is a matter of life and death. It's not an option."
Cropland Could Shrink Dramatically
In just the next couple of decades, the World Bank says, farmers across Africa could lose more than half their cropland to drought and heat. The issue is considered so pressing that, a few years ago, Malawi's Department of Meteorological Services added "Climate Change" to its name.
"We were given this name by the politicians, actually," says the agency's principal agriculture meteorologist, Adams Chavula. "They had prioritized issues relating to our economy, and climate change is one of the priority areas."
No wonder. Tobacco, tea and cotton make up the bulk of Malawi's economy and exports. The vast majority of Malawians rely on subsistence farming. Yet, Chavula says, once-dependable rainfall has become increasingly erratic. Nearly every year now, it seems some part of the country is hit with a serious dry spell.
"We actually alternate between droughts and floods — so, moving from one extreme to the other," he says.
Is that climate change? Well, the science isn't yet clear. But it's exactly what's expected in a warming planet.
Malawi's government helps farmers sign up for crop insurance. But how to coax a harvest with the weather gone crazy? That's what Mughogho and his Eagles Relief and Development are trying to figure out.
The aid group was set up by Living Waters church here in 2002, when millions of Malawians faced starvation from a devastating drought. Mughogho, a grandson of farmers, didn't want to just hand out food; he wanted to help villagers make sure they'd never starve again. His group now works with farmers in more than 60 villages — with plans to expand — helping them become more resilient to a changing climate.
Making Farmers More Resilient
In Jasi, a remote community of rutted dirt roads and round mud huts, corn has long been the staple. But this year, Mughogho's group has given the village three bags of seed that's much more drought-tolerant: millet and sorghum.
"They would not require as much moisture to grow and to mature and to harvest," he says.
The donation comes with a condition; next year, farmers here will pass on three bags of their seed to another village.
Eagles is also training farmers to plant differently. Farmer Zachariah Jim shows me a big, rectangle plot covered with hay. Staggered wooden sticks designate where rows of corn and beans are to be planted in zigzag fashion.
"It's to help collect water and conserve it," he explains, "so that hard downpours don't carry away the soil, and the seeds with it."
But even with new methods and new crops, farmers still need rain. And they need to know: When is it safe to plant?
To show me the answer, another farmer, Michael Foley, unlocks a chain-link fence that surrounds a squat, concrete box. Eagles Relief installed it a year ago.
"This is the rain gauge," he says, pulling a dark, metal cylinder out of the center. "You can see this pail in which rain falls."
Last year Foley tracked rainfall levels on a chart provided by the state meteorological agency.
"When it rained at 26.7 millimeters," he says, "we put it on the note boards at the church and at schools, so that people can know they can plant millet."
With exactly that much rain, the soil would be moist enough for millet seeds to sprout. Corn needs more — 35.6 millimeters. That level wasn't reached until late December, more than a month after traditional planting time.
The measurements are sent to the state meteorological office, which broadcasts them on the radio. And this year the office is sending its forecasts straight to Jasi's farmers, via text message. Foley and others pull out their cellphones to show me the latest one: cloudy, with a chance of showers.
From Paradise To Hunger
Despite all of his work, Mughogho still worries about Malawi's farmers. Eagles Relief and Development sets up pumps to irrigate crops near rivers. But with changing rainfall patterns, rivers are drying up. That means no more fish, an important source of protein. And as temperatures rise, crop yields are expected to fall.
"Basically, our grandfathers had a better quality of life than their grandchildren right now," Mughogho says. "Looking at the bigger picture, you've got to ask yourself, 'What's the future like for these communities?' "
Everes Genti wonders as well. The Jasi grandmother isn't sure how old she is, but she remembers when farming life felt like paradise.
"In the 1980s, we were just so free," she says. "When we planted, we were so sure we were going to get a harvest from the field."
Now, she says, her family is hungry. Since a big drought three years ago, they have cut back from three meals a day to two. Eagles Relief has offered one last lifeline; it's given Genti two goats, and one is already pregnant.
"We'll sell the offspring," she says, "and buy food."