Cynthia Mahata and Jerome Bossuet
Malawi is a predominantly agricultural country with a population of about 18 Million, of which, 80% live in the rural areas practicing subsistence farming. Rapid population growth and unsustainable farming practices have led to widespread land degradation, with 20 tons of soil lost per hectare every year.
The Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA) program has demonstrated, for the last 8 years, that Conservation Agriculture-based Sustainable Intensification (CASI) approach can work for resources-limited Malawi smallholdings to improve their crop yields and climate resilience, while sustaining the natural resource base.
SIMLESA impact: farmers can grow more with less with CASI
In Malawi, SIMLESA has been implemented by the Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS) in collaboration with the Department of Agricultural Extension Services (DAES). The project tested locally-adapted conservation farming methods at district level, in two contrasting agro-ecologies i.e. low altitude (Salima, Balaka and Ntcheu districts) and mid-altitude (Kasungu, Lilongwe and Mchinji districts).
A research and policy dialogue ‘‘Promoting Resilience and Sustainability in Malawi through Climate Smart Innovations’’, was held in Lilongwe on March 1, 2019, to present SIMLESA findings and understand how CASI could help Malawi farmers, to representatives from research, extension, seed companies, NGO’s, scaling partners, Civil Society Organisations and farmer organisations.
The number of farmers using CASI in the 6 target districts grew from 2,000 to more than 51,000 farms. Adoption was facilitated by the engagement of the local extension system and the scaling partners from private sector thus NASFAM and Farm Radio Trust (FRT). Various presentations were made on the impact of CASI on yield, soil fertility and Agricultural Innovation Platforms. After 6 years of implementation, the SIMLESA program managed to raise farm level productivity by 17% in mid-altitude and 37% in low-altitude and reduced the negative impact of climate related shocks by 16%. This was translated by three additional months of food security compared to conventional farms. Long-term soil health was significantly improved under CA based rotation, as research showed a soil organic carbon content 30% higher than soils under conventional tillage.
While the national research and the SIMLESA initiative have investing considerable efforts in promoting these sustainable technologies and practices, more is needed to increase adoption. Some of the factors limiting adoption are a lack of interaction between researchers and farmers and weak policies that do little to create a conducive environment for large scale adoption.
The traditional way of technology development and transfer with formal release and demonstration, has often led to low uptake. During the Lilongwe dialogue, farmer representatives asked that farmers need to be recognized as innovators rather than just recipients of formal innovations. Researchers should integrate farmers’ indigenous knowledge when developing solutions against a new farming problem. Since the fall armyworm outbreak, farmers have been using fish soup to combat the emerging pest; yet research has not considered this indigenous solution when designing new pest management strategy.
Forum participants noted that there is need to harmonize extension messages. Edith Ngwaya, a farmer from Ntcheu district said a seed company advised to remove mulch when setting up a demonstration plot. Mr. Francis Mwale, an extension officer from the same district, works with development partners to define common CASI messages disseminated through the District Agricultural Extension Services System (DAESS). Yet he acknowledged that enforcing this CASI campaign by all partners can be difficult and that ‘’engagement of the district stakeholders, along with top government officials in agriculture and policy makers is necessary.”
Mr Shema from FRT highlighted FRTs efforts in popularizing CASI using different channels like rural radio and mobiles but the high costs of mobile services in Malawi prevent larger outreach. He pointed out the need for policy intervention to address this issue of accessibility of mobile advisories.
Mr Kumwenda from NASFAM asked stronger policies to ensure availability and affordability of farm inputs as well as better market linkages for farmers. He noted that market is a driver for increased production and therefore the success of CASI depends on functional maize and legume markets.
Mr Chaula, a gender and extension methods chief officer at the Department of Agricultural Extension Services, concluded the forum by asking to “shift from knowledge transfer to true innovation systems”. Capacity of institutions that deliver extension messages needs to be strengthened. A sustainable CASI business model can take off when farmers and stakeholders along the farming value chain have the right incentives to adopt these technologies. Connecting farmers with value chains through agricultural innovation platforms increased adoption of CASI practices by 35%.
This first research and policy dialogue has paved the way for a national SIMLESA policy dialogue, which will take place in Lilongwe on March 26, 2019.
At a recent policy forum in Mozambique scientists, agricultural leaders and farmers discussed the implications of 8-years of SIMLESA’s results. The forum highlighted several opportunities and lessons learned from SIMLESA on how to improve farmers’ yields while protecting the environment, link them to markets and to stimulate the scaling of new farming techniques. Listen to scientists and farmers explain their experiences in the SIMLESA project.
Watch this video; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBwtlgC8uXY&t=91s
Smallholder agriculture mechanization reduced the amount of labor required for one hectare of land preparation, from 31 days to just 2 hours. This enabled timely farming activities and a maize yield increase of about 170 kg per hectare, reflecting an extra 3-4 months of household food security. Read more about the conclusions from this forum…