Those Big Orange Potatoes

There’s a quote in Douglas Adam’s book Life, the Universe, and Everything that says “it was a mistake to think that any major problem could be solved with just potatoes” and I think he’s dead wrong. Orange-flesh sweet potatoes are an incredible crop. One small potato can meet the daily nutritional requirements for a growing child to prevent stunting, a medium serves for an expecting mother or grown man. They’re drought and disease resistant, can be harvested every 3-6 months, and can be intercropped with maize or cassava. They’re super food in every sense of the word.

Most volunteers develop an identifier in their service, and I’m the potato girl. But the truth is that I do very little work. I just picked an incredible lead farmer. Mr. Mwenda works harder and smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. Illiterate and uneducated, he is constantly seeking new ways to make money and improve life for his wife and four children. He utilizes what training and technology NGOs provide for him and multiplies it exponentially. He turns a three-hour seminar on grafting into 2 acres of improved guava orchard. A visit to a teaching farm in turns into a series of dams and irrigation canals in his rice gardens. Coming to my house one afternoon and seeing me drying mangos turns into large-scale food preservation to store seasonal crops year-round. And most of all, he multiplied the orange flesh sweet potato garden and educated the community.

What started with 8 ridges of four varieties of improved potato, Mr. Mwenda has expanded to 5 square hectares of potato garden. He harvests every three months, instead of the six expected from these crops, because he has created innovative techniques to plant in dry season. He intercrops with cassava plants, which provide shade and prevent the soil from drying out. This also prevents erosion during the rainy season and makes it easier to harvest, as weeds are strangled by the lack of light beneath the cassava’s shade. Nobody told Mr. Mwenda to do this, I’ve never heard of it being done. He’s simply a brilliant farmer, and has had unprecedented success multiplying vines so much in so little time.

Mr. Mwenda also has done an incredible job of educating the community. He feels it is his job to support this fellow “Old Maulans” and tells everybody he can about the nutritional benefits of OFSP. This kind of informal education is far more effective than formal trainings. It happens organically, and the information has permeated so widely that it seems to be common knowledge. What was a year ago a strange and unknown crop is now fondly named “Megani” after me, but people don’t come to me looking for vines. They go to Mr. Mwenda. He provides anyone who asks for bundles of vines to start their own plots, and teaches them how to harvest without damaging the vines so they replant for next year.

All of this happens without me, most of the time without my knowledge. But everytime I wander through the village men and women stop me to tell me how their gardens are doing. They say “we harvested the Megani yesterday Megani, and yesterday my wife made futali (sweet potatoes with groundnut flour)” or “the first time we planted the field flooded, but the second planting is looking good” or simply “the Megani are doing very well”. It makes my heart soar every time, with pride for Mr. Mwenda and selfishly for being accredited for a program I’ve put so little work into comparatively. I know bellies are fuller and children are getting better nutrition because of OFSP.   It’s the one thing from my service I know will continue beyond my time in Malawi.

My OFSP programs have been so successful that I knew I had to enable other Peace Corps Volunteers to do the same. So, for two months I held 4 regional trainings for more than 25 volunteers on how to establish their own potato pass-on programs and mother plots. I provided the standard educational material and passed on knowledge on what worked well for me personally. It is indicative of how successful this project is that 1/3 of volunteers requested additional bundles of vines after they planted their original gardens. Some volunteers came to my site, I went to others, and we even shipped vines on minibuses to remote corners of Malawi. It was an exhausting and exhilarating few months.

Throughout this process of trainings, Mr. Mwenda and I sold vines to Peace Corps Volunteers who often used their own personal money to begin this program. In the end we raised over 100,000mk, which Mr. Mwenda entrusted me with to hold on to until the completion of the program. This money is now being used to hire additional farmers to work on Mr. Mwenda’s land. He is expanding not only his OFSP garden, but also fruit tree, maize, and rice production. He hopes to use the proceeds to send his oldest son to boarding school when he begins secondary school next year. In addition to these initative, he is now in contact with the Nkhata Bay Agriculture Office and RIPPLE Africa environmental office and is providing vines for their initiatives, selling for four times the price he sold to Peace Corps Volunteers.

I am so incredibly proud of everything Mr. Mwenda has achieved. He embodies the very best of what Peace Corps does. He is the vision and dedication to match the technology and connections Peace Corps Volunteers can provide. Through his efforts I have been lifted up and accepted in my community as someone who has provided something to them. Filled bellies, raised school fees, did something good. But I don’t deserve any credit. It all goes to Mr. Mwenda, who has worked so hard, led every meeting I set up for him, shared food with me, adopted the sick village puppy I nursed back to health, and been a friend to me across language barriers. When I look back on my Peace Corps service I’ll remember Mr. Mwendas wide smile calloused hands, and of course those bright orange potatoes.

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