Growing without soil in Mozambique

Over the past two years, I have been working with a local Women's Group through Friends of Vamizi, teaching them the process of windrow and compost making.

There is hardly any soil on Vamizi, a small coral atoll off the East coast of Mozambique, which means farming has been virtually non-existent. Those resident on Vamizi live from fish, cassava and imported rice and beans with almost no leafy vegetables in their diet.

Now, some of the islanders are starting to grow vegetables for the first time. The participants are using only locally available materials, including leaf mulch and woody stems from the dwarf bush vegetation on the island (carbon), fresh goat’s dung and green leaves (nitrogen).

Water has been the biggest issue, as there is no fresh water supply on the island. Until now, desalinated water has been used in limited quantities during the dry season, but a new rainwater collection system has been installed with the aim of storing enough during the rainy season to irrigate during the dry season. This does bring its own set of issues though, with mosquitoes drawn to the fresh water, and replacement plastic parts needed.

I source the bentonite from mainland Mozambique in large sacks, and it is brought in by dhow - a sailing boat - when there is an order for building materials. The final ingredient is the inoculant which I bring over in my carry-on, resulting in some interesting discussions at customs. They now think I am a very unusual type of farmer.

The challenges:

  •  Sourcing enough water for the windrows and for irrigating the vegetables. Water is a very valuable resource on the island.
  • Gathering enough fresh goat’s dung as all the island goats are free-range. We bought in sacks from our nearest town on the mainland (Olumbe), but it proved dry and sandy with a low nitrogen content. As a result, we couldn’t get temperatures high enough for a while but the addition of more green leaves helped.
  • Language barriers. When I hold a workshop I have to have Portuguese, Swahili and Kimwani speakers in order to be able to translate for everyone.

The successes:

  •  The method has been very successful within our productive garden, and those of our neighbours in the ‘Lodge’. We now grow most of our own vegetables and can feed the Lodge staff with fresh vegetables for many months of the year. The next step is to build a garden at the village school and in order to do this, we are constructing a tall fence to keep the free-range goats out, and making repairs to the water tanks. This is all part of our programme with the Friends of Vamizi.
  • The training workshops have been extremely well attended with many questions, and some very good advice from the resident community about how to incorporate ash, coffee grounds and eggshells into the mix.
  • We pick the leafy crops while still fairly micro, in order to keep insect damage to a minimum, and this has been largely effective. I have been amazed at how few ‘pests’ there are. The main ones are Samango monkeys which ransack tomato plants, and goats which will eat anything. We have installed some ‘greenhouses’ which are in fact simple bamboo frames covered with chainlink.

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer

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