The unique history of the SVTP

Dr Khaila: Many studies had to be undertaken over the years

The Shire Valley Transformation Programme has been on the drawing board for over 80 years. Large-scale irrigation farming was one of the three pillars of the integrated development plan of the colonial government called the Shire Valley Project (SVP), developed in the 1940s.  

In 1956, the former Governor of Nyasaland Sir Geoffrey Colby described the SVP as having the potential to ‘revolutionalize the economy of Nyasalandโ€™. 

Dr Stanley Chakhumbila Khaila, Project Coordinator for the Shire Valley Transformation Programme narrates the history of the project to SVTP Communications Officer, Alice Kaunda. Alice Kaunda also speaks to Loveness Matchaya, a farmer from T/A Ndakwera in Chikwawa District about the tale of the Shire Valley Irrigation Scheme over the years.

Alice Kaunda:  How did the concept of the SVTP come about?

Dr Khaila:  Many people believe that the journal paper written by Engineer Francis Edgar Kanthack in 1941 formed the basis for the development of an integrated macro-development program by the colonial government called the Shire Valley Project (SVP). The paper proposed that if we were to do a great job, what was needed was to come up with an integrated hydrological development program. The SVP mainly sought to regulate the level of Lake Malawi and expand water transport through construction of a barrage at Liwonde, generate hydroelectricity at Nkula and establish large-scale irrigation farming in the Shire Valley. I am glad that all three aspects of the SVP are now under implementation.

Alice Kaunda:  When did the implementation of the SVP start?

A model of Matope Lake Control Barrage produced by Halcrow and Partners in 1954. Photo courtesy of National Archives in Zomba

Dr Khaila:  The implementation of the SVP started with the construction of the Nkula Hydroelectric Power Station in October 1963 after Nyasaland attained self-government in February of the same year. The construction of the power station was completed in 1965.   The Liwonde Barrage was the second project to be commissioned under the SVP in early 1964. Construction works on the barrage were finalized in July 1965.

Rehabilitation of the Barrage started in 2015 and re-commissioning was done in 2019. The Barrage was constructed to regulate the level of water from Lake Malawi and ease transportation challenges for the people of Liwonde. However, the only core aspect of the SVP which has taken years to implement is large-scale irrigation farming in the Shire Valley. This has taken over 80 years to materialize. Construction of the Shire Valley Irrigation Scheme only commenced in April 2020.  

Alice Kaunda:  Why did the construction of the Shire Valley Irrigation Scheme take all these years to be rolled out? 

Dr Khaila:  For irrigation, many studies had to be undertaken over the years to assess the feasibility of the project. Most of these studies were inconclusive. In 2008, the Government of Malawi got funding from the African Water Facility for another feasibility study. The study concluded that it is possible to irrigate over 43,000 hectares of land in the Shire Valley districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje. The consultant, CODA recommended further studies.  

In 2012, the African Development Bank provided funding to the Government of Malawi for a pre-feasibility study. The pre-feasibility study confirmed the findings from CODA that Chikwawa and Nsanje have the potential for gravity-fed irrigation farming. The implementation phase started in October 2018. Construction of the irrigation scheme only commenced in April 2020 as there was a need for time to procure a contractor with experience in the construction of large construction works.  

Alice Kaunda:  How will the Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP) bring transformation?

Dr Khaila:  The SVTP has three major components that will drive this transformation. The irrigation service provision component provides for the construction of the irrigation scheme and bringing water to the farmers. The second component deals with securing land tenure for the beneficiary farmers in readiness for land consolidation into commercial-farms in line with the Customary Land Act (2022). It also focuses on conserving natural resources as a way of preserving the Shire River which is the main source of water for the irrigation scheme.

The last component focuses on agriculture development and commercialization which looks at the production of crops for commercial purposes. The farmers will have to look at crops with available markets. The SVTP will also consider livestock farming and fisheries as part of the transformation drive.

Interview with Loveness Matchaya

Matchaya: Scheme will cushion against effects of natural disasters

Alice Kaunda:  When did you know about the plan to construct the largest irrigation scheme in the Shire Valley?

Loveness Matchaya:  I was born during the great famine in Malawi that killed over 200 people (between 1949 and 1950). My mother used to feed me and my siblings’ root tubers for survival. As I was growing up, a rumour surfaced that the government was planning to construct a large irrigation scheme to address our hunger problems.

I have been waiting for the realization of this dream for many years. I am so glad that now construction has started. This scheme will benefit our children in the days to come. 

Alice Kaunda:  How will the scheme help you as a farmer?

Loveness Matchaya:  Each year, we are affected by either drought or floods. This irrigation scheme will assist us in cultivating crops for both food and trade throughout the year. This will cushion us against the harsh effects of these natural disasters.