BBK Magazine 41

200th Anniversary Edition

Fighting Food Poverty in Malawi

Alex Gerard (MSc Environmental Management, 2013)

After a diverse career involving shark conservation, primate rehabilitation, arts management and more, Alex Gerard is now working with Malawian agricultural charity Tiyeni to support their mission of eradicating food poverty across Africa. 

“Within a few years… we’ve seen former subsistence farmers being able to afford to send their children to school”

Tiyeni, which means ‘let’s go’ in Chichewa, the most widely known language in Malawi, is an agricultural charity that trains farmers in ‘zero-tech’ Deep Bed Farming methods that improve soil quality, and thereby crop yield and crop quality. Alex joined Tiyeni as Executive Director in January 2022 and is “in love with” his day-to-day because of the passionate team he works with and the opportunity to combine his “experience in operations and strategy with the technical expertise I gained studying at Birkbeck.”

Before his Birkbeck journey, Alex specialised in underwater camerawork while studying for his BA in Photography in Plymouth. He became fascinated with marine science and ecology and then spent the next decade training as a shark behaviourist in Australia and specialising in marine husbandry for aquariums in the UK.

But it was in 2010, while site managing a primate protection education centre in Nigeria, that Alex was inspired to return to study: “I was introduced to so many new methods of land management and habitat protection. I knew I could contribute more effectively by increasing my skills and knowledge in this area, so I went to Birkbeck.”

Now Alex is applying this knowledge to advance opportunities for farmers in Malawi. “A lot of African farmland has this arid, hard top layer of soil,” he explains. “Water doesn’t really penetrate; it just rolls off the land. This makes farming difficult. Farmers have to pump-irrigate land and often use a lot of fertilisers to compensate for soil erosion.”

Tiyeni have made it their mission to offer a different way. Their Deep Bed Farming method involves manually cracking and breaking up the hard, compacted top layer of soil, allowing water to penetrate and reactivate natural processes in the soil. They then implement a process of planting complimenting crops to help the roots system maintain the integrity of the soil all year. They move farmers off fertilisers, which are expensive and environmentally damaging, and toward mulching and other natural methods of improving growing conditions. This helps farmers capture all rainfall on their land, as it soaks into the soil and is retained into the dry season. After one year of applying this method, the average increase in crop yield is 124%.

The taller, greener crops (left) were grown using Tiyeni’s Deep Bed farming method.

“Our approach is to never solicit work,” says Alex. “Instead, we advocate, we run national field days for local communities to come and see what we’re doing. The team talk about the process and talk to other farmers who have already adopted the method. Essentially, people see the difference it makes and then, hopefully, want the training.”

More than 80,000 Malawian farmers have now adopted Deep Bed Farming and are already seeing the benefits: “The impact is most apparent when you see subsistence farmers start to diversify their crop and even grow cash crops. Not only are they improving nutrition through a more balanced diet, but they are able set up businesses or sell excess produce in local markets. The knock-on effects of this are incredible. Within a few years of applying our techniques, we’ve seen former subsistence farmers being able to afford to send their children to school. We’ve seen amazing all-female cooperatives become real powerhouses in their community. Tackling food poverty can really help break the cycle.” 

This method has been so successful that after three years of research, the Malawian Ministry for Agriculture recently certified Tiyeni’s method as the most effective farming technique available in Malawi. Alex and his team have also been approached by several surrounding African countries about training opportunities, and were recently flown out to Nairobi, Kenya, to speak at workshops for the African Cotton Federation. “Obviously the aim is to scale up and reach more areas, but currently we have a team of 11 people on the ground in Malawi. I’ve been brought in to help with that operational side, look at our overall strategy and ensure we are reaching priority areas, without overstretching.

“One of the brilliant things about this job is that I’m now able to talk about what we do on a scientific level with our funders and engage the right partners who can elevate our work in the long term. My role is essentially making it as easy as possible for our team on the ground to do the real stuff and enable positive outcomes for farmers. I’m proud to be part of a team who consistently go above and beyond, working through every condition and season to reach areas we can help.”