Blantyre — When the original owners of a 3.5 hectare piece of land put it up for sale because it was too waterlogged to farm on, Diana Sitima and her husband, Wilson, jumped to buy it.

“People said we had lost our minds to buy land that was unusable. We started with building our house because we wanted to stay right here to manage the place. They said the house would collapse in days. It’s now six years old,” Diana Sitima tells IPS.

Now their small farm is an outstanding example of integrated farming, which combines animal and crop production with the two enterprises depending on each other for their growth. At the heart of that growth is water.

Located about 15 kilometres outside Blantyre in the district of Chiradzulu in southern Malawi, the farm is a moist field of bananas, sugarcane, and a variety of vegetables. There are four dams stocked with fish, two dairy cows, pigs, goats and poultry.

The farm is designed so that the animals feed on the crops grown on it and in turn the animal manure is used to fertilise the crops. The dams supply water for irrigation.

The success of the farm has attracted agricultural experts, top government officials and even cabinet ministers who visit the farm to admire its productivity.

The farm generates about 700 dollars a week from the sale of produce and livestock – an income 100 times higher than what half of the people in Malawi scrape by on, according to figures from the ministry of finance.

The Sitimas also employ 10 permanent workers, while dozens more work on a temporary basis throughout the year. The farm is now a viable business and the husband and wife team have been able to get bank loans to invest further in it.

The family attributes their success to the abundance and good management of water on the plot they bought in 1994 for less than 15 dollars.

“The owners sold it to us in a way of throwing it away because it was too water logged and they didn’t know how to work it. But we knew water is life, and with good management we would make the most of this piece of land,” says Wilson Sitima.

Morris Salifu, an agricultural extension worker the Sitimas consulted for advice, helped them design the integrated farming system they currently use and advised them to dig four dams on the site to reduce the surface water saturation and make the land cultivable.

The dams also harvest water when it rains, so throughout the year there is water for irrigation.

This small landlocked southern African nation has numerous water resources comprising three inland lakes, over 13 perennial rivers and scores of wetlands. In addition to widespread ground water sources, the water system in Malawi covers over 21 percent of the country’s territorial area, according to the national water policy.

However, the policy states that the country’s water resources have not been “adequately and strategically managed” through irrigated agriculture for the realisation of maximum social and economic benefits.

Records from the ministry of agriculture show that in 2009/2010 Malawi produced 3.5 million tonnes of maize, the country’s staple crop. This was one million tonnes more than the national food requirements. Of the total harvest, only 300,000 tonnes came from irrigation farming.

Land shortage was also listed as among the major factors leading to low agricultural productivity in Malawi. The national land policy says land holding sizes in Malawi have shrunk from 1.53 hectares in 1968 to 0.8 hectares in 2000 and 0.2 hectares in 2008 due to an increasing population.

After adjusting for wetlands, steep slopes and traditionally protected areas, only 4.5 million hectares of land is available for small scale farmers who account for about 80 percent of the country’s total agricultural production.

Government has called for productive farm practices on the small pieces of land available as many Malawians risk sliding further into poverty. And the Sitimas’ way of farming could be a solution for many small scale farmers.

“We can’t keep complaining about small land sizes because we may never get larger pieces of land. So, what we have been doing on this farm is to ask the experts about how we can make the most of our land,” says Diana Sitima.

Noting the potential of the farm early on, Wilson Sitima quit a well-paying job with one of the top banks in Malawi and Diana Sitima resigned from a sales executive position so they could concentrate on farming.

National coordinator for the Civil Society Agriculture Network, Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, says integrated agriculture has the potential to maximise productivity in small scale agriculture, especially on water- logged sites and near permanent water sources. The system is self-sustaining, he says, because it thrives on the interdependence of enterprises.

However, Nkhono thinks not many small scale farmers in Malawi would be enthusiastic about adopting commercial integrated agriculture because they are afraid to take risks.

“Most small scale farmers in Malawi don’t want to take (on) challenges. They would rather do things the old way and that is not quite helpful, especially as farm land sizes keep shrinking,” he says.

The Sitimas did not start with much money; their capital was the water on the site, good advice and hard work, they say.

“If there was no water, this place would have been dead. Water is fuelling the integration here and without it, we would not have purchased this land,” says Wilson Sitima.

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