Transforming farming through conservation agriculture in Malawi

By Johnson Siamachira and Isaiah Nyagumbo

Fifty-year – old lead farmer Catherine Kariza lives in one of drought –ravaged village in Ntcheu district , , Malawi. Kariza has been growing maize since 1985, but without water for irrigation and using traditional farming practices, her yields were very low. With erratic rainfall, she harvested less than 1 ton of maize per hectare, forcing her to register for government food relief services.

“Due to the harsh climate in Ntcheu, crop farming without irrigation was a huge challenge,” she said.

About 85 percent of Malawi’s population of 15 million people live in rural areas, and around 80 percent of them depend on renewable natural resources for their subsistence and household income, whether through agriculture, forestry or tourism. In the countryside, 90 percent of the people practice subsistence agriculture and about 97 percent depend on wood fuel for energy – giving Malawi the highest deforestation rate in Southern Africa (around 2.8 percent per year).

Most smallholder farming in Malawi focuses on producing staple food crops, such as maize, for home consumption. The smallholder sector remains largely unprofitable and is characterized by low uptake of improved inputs and technologies, poor quality control, weak links to markets, high transport costs, and lack of access to finance and credit. To increase production, incomes, and employment opportunities, and to move from subsistence to commercial farming, these issues need to be addressed effectively.

Another major challenge affecting agricultural productivity is weather variability. Malawi relies heavily on rain-fed agriculture, but has suffered from frequent droughts and erratic rainfall patterns over the past 10 years.

To achieve commercial-level production, smallholders must adapt good agricultural practices that help mitigate the effects of climate change. Good agricultural practices, income, and climate change adaptation are inextricably linked.

Since agriculture plays a dominant role in Malawi’s economy, conservation agriculture – which aims for the sustainable and profitable farming based on three principles of minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover; and crop rotation – is one key strategy to help reduce poverty and climate resilience in addition to increased agricultural productivity.

CIMMYT’s Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Cropping Systems in Eastern and Southern Africa, (SIMLESA) program, is using conservation agriculture – based systems in six districts of central Malawi, namely Kasungu, Mchinji and Lilongwe in the mid-altitude agro-ecology and Balaka, Ntcheu and Salima in the lowlands agro-ecology. Following the successful implementation of the first phase, CIMMYT is implementing the second phase of the SIMLESA program – from 2014 to 2018, with an increased focus toward upscaling the sustainable intensification technologies initiated and tested in the first phase.

Malawi being a landlocked country depends on agriculture for its economic development. With agriculture, being the mainstay of the country’s economy there is over utilization of land for production of crops such as maize, the country’s staple food. This has led to, depletion of soil nutrients leading to increased use of in organic fertilizer. However, with the increasing cost of the inorganic fertilizers, most small holder farmers do not afford to apply fertilizers in their fields leading to low productivity. Therefore, production of legumes is pivotal in reducing nitrogen scarcity in the maize based – cropping systems since they assist in biological fixation of nitrogen in the soil thereby improving soil fertility.

Grain legumes form an important component of Malawi’s maize – based farming systems. Beans and pigeon pea are mostly intercropped with maize and other cereal crops. Maize and pigeon pea intercropping is a common practice especially in southern Malawi where average land holdings are small.

To test the productivity and resilience of sustainable intensification systems, exploratory trials were established in 2010 to gauge various CA based cropping systems selected on the basis of local cropping preferences, farm power sources and adaptability to the local environment.  Six farmers in each district were selected to host trials in each district.   In the lowlands of Malawi, five cropping systems were tested: the ridge and furrow traditional farmer practice, CA planting basins (15cm wide x 15cm deep) with maize intercropped to pigeon peas, CA dibble stick maize intercropped to pigeon peas, CA dibble stick with sole maize and CA dibble stick maize-groundnut rotation

In addition to the testing of these technologies on these core exploratory trials SIMLESA also embarked on an outscaling drive in which the core farmers graduated to become lead farmers building capacity among their peers.  Each lead farmer is expected to work with at least 10-15 other peers through simplified outscaling trials in which each farmer produces crops using the traditional ridge and furrow system plus one other CA technique of their own choice. The lead farmers teach other farmers through using their own land as demonstration plots.  Most of this was facilitated through local innovation platforms which sought to facilitate improved access to input and output markets, farmer learning and knowledge exchange.

As a result of early planting and adoption of good conservation agriculture practices, Kariza, who is one of the lead farmers  managed to produce an excellent maize crop and was able to out scale the technologies to 50 fellow farmers,. Before SIMLESA, she used to produce 200 kilograms of maize on 0.3 hectares.  However, after adopting SIMLESA promoted technologies  , Kariza managed to produce 1,350 kilograms of good quality maize during the 2013/2014 growing season. Besides this, she also managed to produce up to 2,000 kilograms  of groundnuts per hectare. Based on Kariza’s experience, it has been observed that the maize groundnut rotations under CA has led to increase in yields by more than 40 percent compared to continuous maize.

The lead farmers do not access full agricultural training given to extension officers, but SIMLESA trains them on some of the key improvements that farmers can make to their farming systems.

Program agronomists and technicians provide trainings on choice of planting material, integrated pest and disease management, and correct application of fertilizers. Farmers also learn basic business skills including record keeping.

“I did not know that changing my farming practices to CA would make a huge difference to my yield.” Said Jessie Mbobo one of the lead farmers from Kasungu district

Mbobo intercrops maize with soybean to improve soil fertility and increase household nutrition.  She also uses herbicides such as glyphosate and Harness to control weeds in her CA plots.   Generally the use of herbicides has proved to be popular among farmers as it saves labour associated with land preparation (preparation of ridges and furrows is carried out annually). However research results show that farmers can successfully implement CA without using herbicides. So far, results from the mid-altitude areas show that the use of herbicides in CA only improves yields by a mere 5.4 percent compared to manual mechanical weeding techniques although this obviously takes more time.

Last farming season, Mbobo increased her maize production from 350 kilograms to 1, 000 kilograms on her 0.25 hectare plot. Mbobo’s yields were significantly higher than the national averages of around 2.6 tons of maize per hectare.  Soybean is also proving to be a lucrative crop for most of the farmers in the mid-altitude region.

During the previous farming season, fellow smallholder farmers have tripled their maize production from 1 to 3 tons per hectare by incorporating good agricultural practices they learned from lead farmers. With the increase in yields most farmers are now taking farming as a business compared to the past when they only produced for home consumption.

However, there are challenges of maintaining residual cover during the off-farming season as some of the residues also use fuel for curing tobacco as well as for household cooking. Occasionally carry over of leaf diseases through the residues from one year to the other is also a challenge.

Despite this, residue retention in the fields has proved useful in maintaining soil moisture, reducing erosion and suppressing weed growth. This is achieved by laying the residues on the ground and planting new maize through them which in the process assists in soil moisture retention and establishment of a natural compost.

Funded by

Ethiopia Kenya Malawi Mozambique Tanzania
© Copyright. CIMMYT is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA)

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
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Phone numbers in Zimbabwe:
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