The Hidden Phosphorus of Malawi

Malawi, once part of the Maravi Empire, is now one of the poorest countries in the world. This small nation in sub-Saharan Africa has over 50% of the population considered to be ‘very poor’ and 25% is considered “extremely poor’. How Malawi got poor is a long story and the short answer is colonialism under the British starting in the mid to late 1800’s

Before colonialism Nyasaland, at the country was called when the British arrived, the nation grew yams, sweet potato, manioc, and sorghum among many other crops. The soil of Malawi wasn’t great but it could sustain the population well enough but when the British came they changed the configuration of what was grown – tea, coffee, and corn became virtually the sole crops.
You might have heard of crop rotation, this is a super simplification of a much bigger idea. The idea is that soil needs to rest and be rejuvenated and fed – like any thing that is alive. You can’t just grow the same things in the same fields year after year and expect it to just produce eternally. But the Empire had to be fed and so it went. Just growing those three items made the soil worse and much of the wealth of Nyasaland was exported in burlap bags to wherever the British Empire needed the sacks to go. But in changing the agriculture of Nyasaland the people there became dependent on corn as their own staple food source and had to constantly gamble with the question ‘how much do we sell (that we are required to sell by the British) and how much do we eat?’ And so they tried to maximize production to feed the Empire and to feed themselves.
And this is how Malawians became poor. Stripped of other options to sell internationally and having poor soil, made poorer by the forced maximized production, and a farmer base that for five or six generations mostly only grew corn and nothing else…the knowledge base shrunk alongside the capacity of the soil.
Nyasaland became Malawi in 1964 and was no longer an official colony of Britain. The nation has tried to make a go of it but because of their poverty, residual post-colonial agreements and pressures, and their poor soil they were trapped in an agricultural spiral. And then in the 70’s and 80’s with a new global emphasis on poverty Malawi got all kinds of interest in it and some agricultural scientists tested the Malawian soil and named the problem – phosphorus. Plenty of nitrogen. Plenty of carbon. The problem was phosphorus, or more specifically a lack of phosphorus.
I’m not an expert in plant organic chemistry but as I understand it, phosphorus is important in the developmental stages of plants. So the solution seemed clear – get phosphorus and Malawi will be back on track again.
If you have ever lamented about the geopolitics of oil…you won’t like what I have to say about phosphorus. Only five countries control 90% of the rock phosphate (where you get phosphorus) and Morocco controls 75% of that…but the deposits are in a disputed and war torn area. So phosphorus pricing is shaky and reserves are dwindling globally. Malawi got this rock phosphate and it helped a little but it wasn’t the miracle it was supposed to be. But then the prices started getting crazy in about 2000 and got crazier and a still poor, landlocked, country like Malawi completely dependent on imports was struggling with paying for this marginal improvement. And phosphorus is important at the beginning of the growing season but the weather was always unpredictable so you could spend money on phosphates and still not get a crop because it didn’t rain enough or insect damage. Something else had to emerge.
WHEW! That was a lot. Thanks for sticking with me. But we are headed somewhere
You might think that the answer was ‘plant the ancestral crops’.
But they can’t grow there any time soon. The soil is too poor. There is no back to go back to. No pristine past that can be waltzed into lovingly so that some false Eden can be restored and reclaimed that erases all the troubles. No, the only way is to actually contend with the heartbreak embedded right there.
Now I am no expert on the history of Malawi, I simply read widely and follow my interests, so this part has a gap in it that I can only conjecture about. It is reductive to say ‘compost’ because from what I can tell some kind of composting has happened before but for some reason it wasn’t widespread. But a specific kind of composting is happening in Malawi that has ways of making the trace phosphorus in the environment available in the soil. So that seems to mean more rotted manure, composting chicken manure, and animal blood and guts as well and this is starting to show promise in smaller plots in the last ten years or so. I don’t know that this is ‘traditional’ at all for Malawi. No signs point to that being the case.
So why are we wondering about it here in this newsletter? I think this story matters because if we were really traditional here in  North America I’d be making Primal Derma from buffalo that were ranging from the Rocky Mountains to well east of the Mississippi River. And those herds would be doing all the great things that herding animals do for the land and the ecology and the carbon cycle.
And there is no pure past I can plunge into. The buffalo were slaughtered. The people who lived in old agreements with them were slaughtered too. The cows that are grass fed are the best simulacrum we have to ‘the way things used to be’. So we here in the west have to contend with other kinds of poverties than Malawi does. But they are finding a way with what is there and local to make their way for a better day and land and weaving in animals in a way they never could have imagined. And we here at Primal Derma are trying to do the same.
Thank you so much for supporting Primal Derma as a small part of tending to our poverties over here and being faithful to looking at the way things are and not gauzy version of idealized world.

Leave a Comment