Sunday, 17 February 2008

On Irrigation and my work with M&E at TLC

The rainy season is upon us in Malawi. The fields, dry and barren just a few months ago are now green and productive with tall stands of maize, the staple food crop. Despite the crops presently maturing in the fields, this is the time of year, after last year’s food stores are depleted and before this year’s crop is ready for harvest, when rural farmers all across the country find themselves hard hit by food insecurity. That’s why this time is also known as the hungry season.

Photo 1: Nkhoma Mountain with fields of maize in the foreground

Sixty percent of Malawian small holder farmers live under the poverty line. Many of these farmers are food insecure for up to 6 or 7 months of the year, meaning that they often go without eating or will only have one or two meals per day. Most farmers get by using income earned by labouring on the fields of others. As a result, many farmers have chronic labour shortages on their own farms at this, the peak period for farm work. They produce less of on their own land, and are sent deeper into a poverty cycle.

Irrigation projects are promoted in Malawi to increase dry season productivity. Under irrigation, farmers are able to grow high value crops for both sale and household consumption. The goal is for farmers to become food secure, have increased access to cash, and improved nutrition through a more diversified diet.

The NGO I’m working with here, Total Landcare (TLC), promotes small scale irrigation technologies. We deal mostly with treadle pump and stream diversion irrigation. Treadle pumps are little Stairmaster like contraptions which pump water from a well or river, and a stream diversion system diverts water from a stream by gravity into a hand dug canal. In both cases water is directed to a high point on a field where it flows by gravity through a series of channels to planting basins.
Photo 2: A farmer operating a treadle pump

Photo 3: A farmer standing by a stream diversion irrigation channeoperating a treadle pump

In my role as a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Officer, I’m interested in exploring what is really happening on the ground. Are we having the results we expected and intended? Are there ways we can improve the impact we’re having? I recently spent some time in the field interviewing irrigation farmers on their work during the past irrigation season.

One such farmer was Grace Ulaya. She has a household of 5, and supports a total of 8 people. She started treadle pump irrigation last season, and grew maize, tomatoes, onions and beans. She sold half of her harvest, and kept the rest to feed her family. In the past, her family was food insecure for 5 months, and they covered this shortfall through labouring. Since starting irrigation with TLC in June of 2007, her family is now food secure. Her family has been able to further improve their livelihoods by using profits from irrigation to engage in other income generating activities; her husband buys household items from the capital city for sale in the rural areas around their home, and she has constructed a chicken coop and will soon start raising chickens for sale. Once they finish paying off the loan for the treadle pump issued to them by TLC, they will start purchasing other livestock, such as goats.

While Grace’s story is indeed one of success, there are ways that we can improve and adapt our irrigation program to further increase the impact that we are having. I am working to achieve this by improving the capacity of TLC’s M&E system.

Much of the work I’ve been involved with so far falls in two categories:
  1. Improving existing and developing new M&E tools (e.g. reporting mechanisms between field coordinators and head office, M&E database, survey templates, questionnaires)
  2. Conducting field work with the key goals of filling in information gaps and cross checking results, followed by reports on findings and presenting recommendations to management
So, as an example of a recent activity I’ve been involved with, I’ll expand a little more on my most recent field visit I mentioned above.
Photo 4: Hanging with a farmer and assorted children

The M&E team spent a week in the field to survey farmers on some elements of the previous irrigation season (which lasts from March until December). We gathered information on their sale of irrigated produce, details on the repayment of their loans with TLC (we distribute irrigation equipment on a loan basis), and general impacts they’ve experience in their livelihoods. We use a survey template to gather this information, but it goes beyond simple check boxes and yes no answers. We are sure to use many open ended questions and try to get to the root of how and why things are happening as they are. We are trying to fill in the gaps of information we currently get from the field, which tend to be all numbers, therefore adding to existing quantitative with qualitative data.

I have taken the information we gathered form the 153 farmers we visited and have presented them in a report which will be given to all management staff, and to field coordinators upon request. The information contained in this report will be used to guide some changes that we will be making to project strategy to improve our impact on the ground.

There are some interesting things coming up for me soon at work so I’ll be back in touch about these things soon. For now, I’m about to head to Zambia for an EWB retreat! So, I’ll be back in a little while!

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Yet more photos...

I'd love to hear some of the questions you have about what life is like here, what I do what I'm up to at work, or about EWB, TLC, Malawi in general . . . whatever! If you can think of any please do send them to me and I'll answer them either directly, or in an upcoming post!

In the meantime, here's an assortment of recent photos...I'll have a more substantial post up soon!

Sunset – A stunning sunset, as viewed from the window in my room. You can see our little garden of maize and pumpkins in the foreground.

Chameleon – My first wild chameleon spotting! This little critter was crossing my street onto my front lawn.

Lilongwe River –This is the Lilongwe river, as it runs through the old part of town. In a previous post I included photos of the wooden bridges that span the river at this point, providing a more direct route between two sides of the river. I mentioned how these bridges wash away during the rainy season, and from this photo you can see why (those large trees aren’t usually in the middle of the river…). At least a couple times this year the banks have flooded and knocked out many of the little restaurants and other stalls that are built on the banks, forcing people to rebuild time and time again.

Kasungu – A random street in Kasungu, a sizable town an hour and a bit north of Lilongwe.

Shops in Kasungu – Shops here often have somewhat amusing names. They often have Christian themes, but not in the two examples I've included.

Field of Tobacco – It is the rainy season now, so the farmers are busily tending to their rainfed crops, which, in general, may be one of two things: tobacco, or maize. Maize forms the basis of the Malawian diet while tobacco is, by far, the most significant export crop in Malawi. Last year, few farmers grew tobacco, so the sale prices were very high and these lucky farmers did extremely well. Other farmers made note of this, so this year, EVERYONE is growing tobacco. We’ll see what happens with those tobacco prices this year . . . I'll write more about tobacco in Malawi in an upcoming post!

Rain! - It is the rainy season now, and on any given day you can expect rain for some amount of time - not so convenient! This shot was taken at the tail end of a birdwatching walk I attended at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, which is located in a swath of woodland that cuts through the centre of the city.