Intercropping brings better harvests

DRC: Intercropping brings better harvests to farmers in Goma

Charline N’simire’s serious expression highlights the slight wrinkles on the 60-year-old farmer’s face. With her hands on her hips, she worries about the approaching rainy season—the time for planting.

Mrs. N’simire has been farming for 20 years. Her 750 square metre field is in Mugunga, west of Goma, a city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

She says: “Soon, the heavy rains will begin. I am hesitating a little on what to plant this farming season. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to repeat what I grew for the past three years.”
For the past three years, she has been intercropping maize and beans, a technique she says most people are not aware of. Her harvests gave her a good income, and this is a success she would like to repeat. But she worries about a poor harvest if she continues to plant the same crops year after year.

Mrs. N’simire eventually decided to intercrop maize and beans again this year. For the maize, she chose a hybrid seed called M’banjoek, a local variety that is resistant to fungal and bacterial diseases. Before planting, she soaks the seeds in water for 12 hours to stimulate germination.

For the beans, she is using a hybrid variety called Kijamberé that is resistant to pests such as mites and diseases like anthracnose.

She will plant maize first and then beans three weeks later, respecting the agricultural calendar.

When the maize shoots emerge, it’s easy to see where to plant her beans. By not planting the two crops on the same day, she can avoid sowing the crops too closely together. She plants maize with 75 cm between rows and 25 cm between each plant. Later, she plants a row of beans between each row of maize, with 25-35 cm between the maize and bean rows. She places five bean seeds in each hole with 15-25 centimetres between holes.

Sowing plants too close together increases competition for resources as the plants grow, making individual plants less vigorous.

Mrs. N’simire says that planting beans after maize protects the bean plants as well. She explains: “In Goma, mid-February is the beginning of the growing season and the rains are very abundant.” By planting beans later, she avoids the heavy rains that can cause diseases like angular leaf spot or even rotting.

Intercropping plants such as maize and beans is an important practice in conservation agriculture and has many benefits. Besides helping manage pests, diseases, and weeds, intercropping with legume plants such as common bean can increase soil fertility.

To prevent weeds from invading and choking the plants, Mrs. N’simire regularly weeds her field.

Her maize harvests have grown every year since 2016, from five 40-kg bags to six 55-kg bags. She sells half her harvest and keeps the rest for home consumption. Mrs. N’simire earns 1,275,000 Congolese francs ($790 US) per year from maize.

Jean Malekani is a 35-year-old widow who was doubtful about using intercropping in her 600 square metre field, though she eventually tried it.

She says: “From the beginning, I didn’t want to do it because I was afraid of losses. I did not have [enough financial resources]; I had only this parcel of land. I said to myself that, if this doesn’t work, I will lose everything and I won’t even have enough for seeds.”

Muhindo Mali-Ya-Bwana is a plant pathologist with the ALAPHIK collective, a group of agronomists and plant pathologists. He is based in the town of Sake, in the province of North Kivu, and supports farmers like Mrs. Malekani and Mrs. N’simire as they change their farming practices. He advises them before planting and during the growing stages of both maize and beans, and shows them how to select good seeds.

He says: “It is important to sift the seeds to separate bad grains from good and then soak them. The grains that don’t float must be thrown out. Then the good seeds should be spread in the sun for two hours before planting.”

Many farmers in Goma are adopting intercropping, a practice that is helping some farmers double their production and earn more at the end of the growing season.