Preparing to Scale Mbili Mbili Cropping Systems for Crop Diversification and Climate Resilience in Malawi

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Authors: Gloriana Ndibalema, Sabine Homann-Tee Tui, Haroon Sseguya, Feyera Liban and Edward Mzumara

In the spirit of Ruth Ginsburg’s words urging people to fight for what they care about in a way that inspires others to join, the CGIAR initiative of Mixed Farming Systems (MFS) team took a proactive approach. Embracing the significance of research and partnerships for development, the team in Malawi organized an Innovation Packaging and Scaling Readiness workshop in early November. The workshop brought together 32 diverse stakeholders from both the agricultural private and public sectors to co-validate and package the Mbili Mbili cropping system for widespread adoption across the country.

The workshop emerged as a strategic process to prepare conditions and relationships that will empower farmers to seamlessly integrate the Mbili Mbili innovation into their specific farming contexts, to enhance the benefits of diversified cropping and bolster farmers’ resilience capacity to climate change, considering challenges like shrinking farmland sizes and degrading soil health.

Mbili Mbili intercropping system—is a promoted approach for crop diversification and intensification. The system cleverly exploits plant spatial configurations to increase light penetration to legumes, traditionally shaded by cereals. The primary objective is to boost legume productivity while maintaining the cereal’s output, leveraging the complementary growth habits and durations of the combined crops. The Mbili Mbili system allows farmers to cultivate both legumes and cereals on the same plot, ensuring staggered harvesting. This not only optimizes productivity but also serves as an insurance in case of crop loss, making it a climate-smart system.

Haroon Sseguya, a Scaling Specialist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), emphasizes the grassroots nature of scaling. “Scaling starts when two farmers discuss how to integrate an innovation on their farms,” he says. Haroon noted that workshop provides a space for various partner organizations to identify critical bottlenecks and prioritize solutions, laying the groundwork for Mbili Mbili’s broader adoption in Malawi.

The interactions during the workshop highlighted potential challenges in scaling Mbili Mbili, and the participants prioritized and deemed solutions largely ready for implementation. Well-structured partnerships targeting crop and livestock enterprises, involving seed companies, soil health improvement, extension, capacity development, financial services, and communications, were identified as crucial to successful scaling.

“Intercropping maize and legumes has been a common practice for generations. What I observed with the Mbili Mbili cropping system is that both beans and maize grew well, just like when they are grown separately. This is a big advantage for my family’s needs.” Mercy Shaba, a trial host farmer from Kamatao in Champhira EPA, attested to Mbili Mbili cropping system. The innovative not only enhanced crop productivity but also attracted interest from passersby keen on replicating the success on their farms.

Ernest Mpinganjira, a trial host farmer from Kantuwale Section of Chulu EPA in Mzimba who upon weighing found higher maize yield from Mbili-Mbili plot (which also had pigeonpea and common beans) compared to the sole maize plot. He also narrated that legumes like beans were regarded as crops for only ladies but there has been mindset change after what was observed from his demonstration plot.

However, challenges, such as input affordability, surfaced. To address this, a Mbili Mbili loan product was proposed by Samson Mwalungila from Vision Fund Malawi and Luke Coulson from Opportunity International to improve smallholder farmers’ access to finance, facilitating the adoption of this core innovation.

Furthermore, Sabine Homann-Kee Tui, Crop-Livestock scientist from Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT (ABC), highlights the critical role of scaling partnerships across research, development, policy, and practice, emphasizing the need to anchor scaling innovations in farmers’ specific contexts and working through Malawi’s District Agricultural Extension Services Systems (DAESS) helps farmers and stakeholders improving access and integration and hence relevance of technical innovations.

The Mbili Mbili journey in Malawi began with a mother baby trial in Kasungu and Mzimba Districts in the 2022/23 season. Positive feedback from the District Agricultural Extension Coordination Committee (DAECC) and rural communities solidified Mbili Mbili as a promising innovation, outperforming standard intercropping practices giving higher return by up to 37%.

Originating from Tanzania, the plan is to release Mbili Mbili cropping system through the Agricultural Technical Clearing Committee (ATCC) by 2026, reaching 5,000 farmers. To maximize benefits, the integration of agronomic fertilization with zinc and multi-purpose forages is underway, ensuring a holistic approach to food security, dietary diversity, livestock feed, soil fertility, and climate change adaptation.

The Innovation Packaging and Scaling Readiness workshop brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including farmers, seed and fertilizer companies, research services, Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS), Department of Agricultural Extension Services (DAES), development agencies, agricultural finance, and local media. It’s a testament to the power of partnerships and the tireless efforts of those dedicated to enhancing the livelihoods of farmers and the resilience of agriculture in the face of a changing climate.

Header photo by G.Ndibalema/IITA

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