Effective use of vetiver grass: A participatory radio campaign in Malawi helps farmers keep soil on their fields and money in their pockets

Soil health

Notes to broadcasters

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Between 2008 and 2009, Farm Radio International’s African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) worked with five radio stations in Malawi to produce Participatory Radio Campaigns (PRCs). The goal was to find out how radio can help farmers adopt effective and low-cost farming methods.

In three of the communities involved, the use of vetiver grass to conserve soil and water was selected as an improved farming technology. Zodiak Broadcasting Station, which has many listeners in these communities, was the radio station involved in the campaign.

Zodiak’s PRC produced weekly interactive programs on this topic for six months, working in co-operation with local communities, extension workers, and specialists in water and soil conservation.

This script briefly summarizes the PRC, presents some interviews conducted with farmers and extension workers after the completion of the campaign, and presents some new interviews with farmers on the results and benefits of the radio campaign more than one year after the completion of the PRC.

The AFRRI project showed that a carefully researched and planned Participatory Radio Campaign on an agricultural improvement chosen by farmers can provide widespread benefits, not just in targeted areas, but in communities outside the direct intervention areas.

For more information on the AFRRI project, visit Farm Radio International’s AFRRI website athttp://frrp.wpengine.com/english/partners/afrri/

The main objective of this script is to report on the successful PRC in Malawi. But it may also start you thinking about the value of more actively involving farmers in your programming. You might want to ask community members what are the most important food security issues for women and men farmers in your listening area. Farmers like to hear their own voices on the air, and those of their neighbours. You can include farmers through call-in shows, by recording interviews on farms, in markets, in-studio, or in discussions with extension workers and other agricultural workers at the station.

This script is based on actual interviews. You could use this script as inspiration to research and write a script on a similar topic in your area. Or you might choose to produce this script on your station, using voice actors to represent the speakers. If so, please make sure to tell your audience at the beginning of the program that the voices are those of actors, not the people involved in the original interviews.



Host (studio presenter)
Field reporter/producer (George Kalungwe)
Community members:

  • Maliseni Joseph (male)
  • Pansipowuma Ngoni (female)
  • Group village headman Lavu (male)
  • Salome Lonely Banda, lead farmer (female)

Extension workers:

  • Mathews Kalimwayi, Agricultural Extension Development Officer
  • Mac-Noel Amos Kaipanyama, Mvera Agricultural Extension Development Coordinator

Location: Lavu village, Mvera Extension Planning Area, Traditional Authority Chiwere, Dowa District, Central Region, Malawi

Hello, listener, I am …(name of presenter)welcoming you to the program. In this program, we shall learn how Zodiak Broadcasting Station, also called ZBS, conducted a Participatory Radio Campaign in Malawi on the use of vetiver grass to conserve soil and water. The campaign was part of the African Farm Radio Research Initiative or AFRRI.

Here’s how the campaign started. First, the radio station and AFRRI staff conducted a survey to identify the biggest food security problems faced by local farmers in 15 communities in Malawi. Five radio stations were involved and each station visited three communities. Three of the stations were community-based and two were national broadcasters.

The villages selected had to be close to the radio stations, they had to be predominantly farming communities, and had to have similar topographies.

Of the two national broadcasters, one was public and the other privately run. ZBS was the private radio station involved. A radio program calledMlera Nthakawas a central part of the ZBS campaign on vetiver grass (Editor’s note: Mlera Nthaka means“soil conservation”in the Chichewa language).

The program was broadcast every Friday starting at 6:30 p.m. and repeated on Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m. for a period of six months, from September 2009 to February 2010. It was produced by George Kalungwe and hosted by Teresa Chirwa.

The two broadcasters were actively involved in the research, for example by conducting listener surveys and conducting an evaluation of the project after it was completed. They were also trained in effective farm radio production, along with broadcasters from other radio stations taking part in the research.

ZBS conducted its survey in the three villages of Lavu, Lovimbi and Makombe in the area of Traditional Authority Chiwere in the Dowa District in Central Malawi.

The survey found that these three communities are very hilly and thus prone to soil and water running off fields. Even when the farmers applied chemical fertilizer or organic manure in their fields, the crops could not thrive or yield well because nutrients were being washed away by rainwater.

In consultation with the farmers, vetiver grass was chosen as a “technology for improvement.” It was thought that vetiver’s ability to reduce soil erosion would help address the farmers’ problem.

So why was vetiver chosen as a possible solution? Here are the attributes of the grass:

Insert – explanation of vetiver attributes
Vetiver is believed to have originated in India. It is a fast-growing, deep-rooted perennial grass. When planted with the first rains, it establishes within a few years. Its roots form a dense mesh within the subsoil and below, making the grass capable of withstanding droughts and heavy rainfall.

When soil is dug up and formed into a ridge and plants are sown on top of it, this is called a marker ridge. In a field with marker ridges on the contour, vetiver is planted on the upper slope of the marker ridges. Vetiver helps to filter out sediment from running water. Over a period of time, this sediment forms terraces which are particularly useful on very steep slopes.

Vetiver is relatively easy to maintain and costs little.

Planted in single rows, vetiver forms a thick hedge which effectively reduces rainfall runoff, thereby minimizing soil erosion. By slowing down runoff, it helps to retain moisture within the soil, and also nutrients which would have otherwise been washed away.

Vetiver does not host any pests or diseases of concern to agriculture, including termites. However, fire can damage the grass when it is established, or fully destroy it when it is not fully established.

Vetiver adapts to a wide range of rainfall, temperature and soil zones. If there are extreme weather events such as drought and floods, it recovers very easily when the weather improves.

It tolerates a wide range of herbicides and pesticides.

Like many other types of crops, vetiver is sensitive to shading and competition from weeds, especially during the first year of establishment. A substantial amount of shade will reduce its growth. Vetiver grows best in a weed-free environment.

Because of its ability to reduce erosion, the grass is also effective in reclaiming gullies. When combined with other practices – for example the use of organic or inorganic fertilizer, conservation agriculture, and agroforestry – it can help to restore the fertility and moisture levels of highly degraded soils.

The grass does not strongly compete with main crops in a garden. Vetiver seed has low viability, which reduces the chances that it will become a weed.

After trimming the plant, the grass can be used as livestock feed or bedding, and also for thatching houses.

Prior to the start of the campaign, a campaign design workshop was held with soil and water conservation specialists, extension workers, farmers’ representatives, AFRRI staff and broadcasters. The purpose of the meeting was twofold: to select key information that farmers needed to know regarding the use of vetiver grass, and to clear up misconceptions which farmers had about the grass.

The key information included: construction of marker ridges, construction of vetiver nurseries, and how to take care of hedgerows.

Among other misconceptions, some farmers believed that vetiver attracts mice and termites to the field, takes up nutrients meant for crops, and prevents crops from receiving enough sunlight.

The campaign radio programs were interactive because most of the information came from farmers in the study communities. Farmers were also given the opportunity to provide feedback through face-to-face interaction with extension workers and monthly focus group discussions, as well as by SMS messages and phone calls to the producer.

Those who could not afford an SMS or a phone call were encouraged to write letters and drop them at the area’s agricultural extension office. These letters were collected by the producer during recording and listenership monitoring visits. The program on the last Friday of every month was dedicated to feedback. Extension workers and agriculture experts responded to questions and comments about vetiver. Thus, the project earned its name of Participatory Radio Campaign or PRC.

Prior to the campaign, farmers in the study villages of Lavu, Lovimbi and Makombe could not harvest enough food to last them year round. The program brought a significant change, according to farmers and extension workers. Now let’s hear from some farmers who were interviewed by our field reporter, George Kalungwe.

Pansipowuma Ngoni:
My name is Pansipowuma Ngoni. Before I started listening to this program, I had two places in my garden that used to be washed away by rainwater. After learning how to use vetiver, I tried it. Now, water no longer cuts across my garden. These days when I apply organic manure as fertilizer, my maize crop looks healthier than before because nutrients are not being washed away from the garden.

We have constructed a vetiver nursery in our area through a club which we formed. I am offering the grass to those in need. They can come and collect some. We have plenty of it.

George Kalungwe:
What has been the impact of your decision to use vetiver?

Pansipowuma Ngoni:
It will have a long-lasting impact. Previously, soil erosion was a big problem here, but now we have managed to deal with it. Our village is now food secure. The organic manure we apply in our gardens works better when the field is protected by vetiver grass.

George Kalungwe:
And now we will speak to farmer Mr. Maliseni Joseph. Mr. Joseph, what action did you take after listening toMlera Nthaka?

Maliseni Joseph:
Before, I would not allow any grass to be grown on marker ridges, let alone vetiver. Experience told us that marker ridges produce healthy crops. Even if you don’t apply fertilizer, you are assured of getting something from the marker ridges. However, through this program, I learned that marker ridges produce healthy crops simply because of water runoff. What I mean is this: The marker ridges trap all the nutrients washed out of the garden. Therefore the maize grown in the marker ridges takes up those nutrients. So when you plant vetiver in a field to prevent soil from washing away, it means that all the nutrients remain in the field. The result is that you have a healthy crop all throughout the field.

When I heard about vetiver on the program, I approached the extension worker and asked him to assist me, because my field is very steep. There were many places where water used to cut through. I had given up. I just let water make a passage through my field. The extension worker, Mr. Kalimwayi, told me to construct marker ridges, and I planted the grass there. This year I did not have problems with water runoff.

George Kalungwe:
Are you doing anything to encourage fellow farmers who might be facing similar problems to use vetiver grass?

Maliseni Joseph:
Yes. I tell everybody whose fields are on hilly locations to construct vetiver hedgerows. It is not proper just to let water cut through your field. It reduces the amount of planting area. You can have a big plot, but you may not harvest enough due to soil erosion. Those who do not have vetiver should come and find us.

Insert – poem by villager

Redson Positani:
My name is Redson Positani. I come from Lovimbi village, Traditional Authority Chiwere. I have a poem about vetiver grass.

Why did you come here, vetiver, when you knew that I, water, was already here?
Without you, I could have established my base here.
I used to be very happy when I made tunnels in their fields.
Vetiver, you are so bad.
Before you came, I used to make very smooth passages in their fields, as shiny as a child’s gums.
I could have established my base here if you had not come.
I used to walk tall, taking all the nutrients from the field and dumping them in the river.
My friends used to be happy there, for I brought them food.
You have frightened me, vetiver.
Can you see that these days I’m walking in the bush because you have spread your roots across all fields?
You are as green as water hyacinth.
You have dressed all the slopes I was fascinated to run down all the way to the stream.
Coupled with marker ridges, you have dealt me a heavy blow.
Can you see now that people are happy and their fields are strong like a door stopper?
You have filled all gaping gullies; they are smooth as though bald.
They are now able to harvest enough maize to fill their granaries to the top because of you.
You have strengthened the soil like tarmac.
Starting from today, I fear you a lot.

This a special program reviewing the impact of a Participatory Radio Campaign, or PRC, carried out by Zodiak Broadcasting Station, a privately run radio station that was one of five radio stations that took part in the African Farm Radio Research Initiative in Malawi.

The campaign was designed to investigate how radio can assist farmers to adopt improved farming technologies. We are looking at how Zodiak FM conducted a PRC to teach farmers about the use of vetiver grass to conserve water and soil.

George Kalungwe:
As you have heard, based on advice they heard in this program, people in the villages of Lavu, Makombe and Lovimbi established communal nurseries which have benefited many people. So how are they taking care of these nurseries? Maliseni Joseph?

Maliseni Joseph:
When people ask for the grass, we do not just give it to them. We have made rules. For example, a person must first show us proof that he or she has constructed marker ridges. When we are sure about this, we help the farmer plant the grass in the garden. Some people do not know how to make the hedgerows, which are very necessary for the grass to work perfectly.

George Kalungwe:
Group village headman Lavu, what measures have you put in place to make sure that the nursery is well taken care of?

Group village headman Lavu:
We have given each other specific days of the week where we come to weed the nursery to ensure there are no other types of grass growing there. We want vetiver only. The extension officer also comes to visit us to see how we are taking care of it.

Water runoff is one of the most serious problems faced by farmers across Africa, and in Malawi in particular. Effective use of vetiver grass can minimize this problem, as shown by the Participatory Radio Campaign carried out by ZBS.

Now George, another key message in the PRC was how farmers should take care of their vetiver nurseries in preparation for the next season. How was this message relayed to the farmers?

George Kalungwe:
To answer that question, I am joined by Mr. Mathews Kalimwayi, an extension worker in Mvera Extension Planning Area.

Mathews Kalimwayi:
The most important thing is that farmers continue inspecting their nurseries, especially in the dry season when other natural grasses are drying. It is also very important to avoid bush fires during this time. When necessary, they should even irrigate.

We advise farmers to construct a one-metre firebreak around their vetiver nursery. When other grasses outside the nursery catch fire, their nursery will be saved. We also tell them to watch for livestock than can destroy the grass by eating it.

George Kalungwe:
I notice in the nurseries that most of the vetiver plants are small. Should farmers also trim vetiver in the nursery?

Mathews Kalimwayi:
When they have just planted their grass in the nursery, usually it is small, so they cannot trim it. However, after six months the grass normally grows taller than 30 centimetres. That’s when we encourage them to trim it. The best time to trim vetiver in the nursery is May or June as they finish harvesting their produce, or December to January during the onset of the rains.

George Kalungwe:
You’ve talked of protecting the grass from fire in the nursery, but what about vetiver that is in the field? How can it be protected against fire?

Mathews Kalimwayi:
We discourage burning of fields after harvest. Instead, farmers are taught to cut their crop residues, for example, maize, and place them in between ridges. They should not heap the residues, because sometimes children burn the heaps as they hunt for mice. Fire is very destructive when it enters a farmer’s field.

George Kalungwe:
Talking to some of the farmers, they say that sometimes they forget to care for the vetiver after harvesting their crops. They say they are very busy selling their produce, or they want to relax and forget about farming altogether.

Mathews Kalimwayi:
What I would suggest is that whenever farmers go to harvest their crops, they should first of all, before they start harvesting, spare a few minutes each day to trim one vetiver hedgerow. The next day, trim another row. Doing it this way makes the work easier. They will find that by the time they finish harvesting their crops, they have also finished trimming all the vetiver hedgerows in their field. The same thing also applies to vetiver nurseries. They should find time to pass by the nursery and trim part of the grass, and then proceed to the field to harvest their crops.

Music and songs by local villagers about vetiver

Listener, we are looking at how farmers made use of messages aired in a Participatory Radio Campaign conducted by Zodiak FM of Malawi as part of the African Farm Radio Research Initiative. This campaign was aimed at educating farmers living in highland areas to reduce water and soil runoff by using vetiver grass.
I also asked an extension coordinator about the impact of the campaign.

Mac-Noel Andrew Kaipanyama:
I’m Mac-Noel Andrew Kaipanyama. I am the Agricultural Extension Development Coordinator for Mvera. To answer your question, we have seen a tremendous change.

We had been telling farmers about vetiver for a long time. But not many people followed our advice. But following the radio campaign, we have seen nurseries established in these villages. Many people have constructed vetiver hedgerows in their gardens. Now we have four vetiver nurseries where people can get the grass for free.

How can this kind of change be linked to a radio campaign? Lead farmer Salome Lonely Banda has the answer.

Mrs. Salome Lonely Banda (lead farmer):
We knew that if we did not follow what the Zodiak producers told us, they would be discouraged and stop coming here, and then we would no longer be heard on radio.

Sometimes we went to the meetings simply to see the radio personalities that came to do the recordings and conduct the research. But in the course of doing so, we learned many things.

Although some of us were not interviewed, we were given an opportunity to compose and sing songs about vetiver and organic manure. Through the songs, all of us were heard on the program.

That was
Mrs. Salome Lonely Banda, a lead farmer in Mvera Extension Planning Area in Malawi’s Central Region district of Dowa. Her voice ends our program. In today’s program, we reviewed the impact of a Participatory Radio Campaign conducted in the area by Zodiak Broadcasting Station as part of the African Farm Radio Research Initiative.
We saw that a carefully planned radio campaign which involves farmers and experts in the identification of important issues and implementation of radio programming can increase the number of farmers who adopt agricultural improvements. These methods improve their farming, their food security and their life.

If you have any questions or comments about the AFRRI campaign conducted by Zodiak in Malawi, contact:

The Station Manager, Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS)
Private Bag 312 Lilongwe, 3 Malawi
Phone: + 265 1 761 227
Fax: + 265 1 762 724
Email: mmanyeka@yahoo.com

You have been with me(name of host).


  • Contributed by: George Kalungwe, Sub Editor, Business, Finance & Economics Desk, Zodiak Broadcasting Station, Malawi, a Farm Radio International broadcasting partner.
  • Reviewed by: Rex Chapota, Executive Director, Farm Radio Malawi, a Farm Radio International strategic partner and Kufasi Shela, Chief Land Resources and Conservation Officer, Karonga Agricultural Development Division.

Information sources

  • Interviews with:
    • Maliseni Joseph, interviewed June 4, 2011
    • Pansipowuma Ngoni, interviewed June 4, 2011
    • Group village headman Lavu,interviewed March 17, 2009
    • Salome Lonely Banda, lead farmer, interviewed June 19, 2009
    • Mathews Kalimwayi, Agricultural Extension Development Officer, interviewed March 5, 2009
    • Mac-Noel Amos Kaipanyama, Mvera Agricultural Extension Development Coordinator, interviewed April 11, 2009

    For more information about using vetiver grass, consult the following sources: