Boosting Soil Health and Livelihoods: Innovative Biofortified Strip Cropping Systems enhance benefits from crop diversification, livestock feed and human nutrition

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Authors: Michael Kinyua, Feyera Liben, Sabine Homann-Kee Tui, Edward Mzumara, Lester Botoman, Job Kihara and Lulseged Tamene

In many developing countries, including Sub-Saharan Africa, a strange paradox exists – people go to bed with full stomachs but still ‘hungry’. This phenomenon, known as “hidden hunger,” dietary challenge affects a staggering 340 million individuals, including one in every two children under five as well as women of reproductive age. The root of this issue lies in the fact that many farmers who grow and consume their own food, often lacking diversity in their crops, face a significant challenge. They cultivate these crops in soils deficient making them lack essential micronutrients, creating a major food security problem.

Recognizing this critical issue, a collaborative effort emerged. Researchers from the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT (ABC) through the One CGIAR initiative on Mixed Farming Systems (MFS), the Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS), and the Department of Extension Services (DAES) joined forces with local farmers in Kasungu and Mzimba districts in Malawi to co-create and validate innovative cropping systems that boost productivity and increase the variety and quality of crops within their delicate maize-legume systems.

Out of this partnership, two promising systems were identified Mbili-Mbili and Doubled-up legume. These systems offer the benefits of crop diversification without compromising the population and yield of the main cereal and legume crops.

Mbili-Mbili – The Wonder

Imagine two rows of maize alternating with two species of legumes. In Swahili, “Mbili” means “two,” and that’s what “Mbili-Mbili” is all about. This innovation, originally developed in Tanzania by researchers from ABC, aims to improve legume yields without compromising maize production. It’s like a nutritional boost for your crops. The system is even more adapted to the local context in Malawi, the plant spatial pattern used (on flat) in Tanzania, accommodating ridge planting practices and modified maize spacing. Whereas the nationally recommended maize spacing of 75 centimeters by 25 centimeters was modified to 60 centimeters by 25 centimeters in Mbili-Mbili to accommodate the intercropped legumes, while maintaining the recommended maize population.

Illustration of maize and legume crops arrangement under Mbili-Mbili strip cropping. Source: ABC

Doubled-up legume – Pure Legume Power

This system, developed by the Africa RISING project in Malawi, focuses on enhancing the productivity of legume-based systems when rotated with maize. Its goal is to emphasize the importance of diversifying pure legume systems, which can greatly improve soil health in the region.

A farmer-centered co-designing process resulted in the selection of two legume intercrops under Mbili-Mbili whereas maize intercropped with pigeon pea and bean/soybean while for Doubled-up legume, pigeon pea was either intercropped with beans or soybean. To tackle the malnutrition challenge, the response of crops to agronomic biofortification was assessed.

This involved improving the local NPK fertilizer recommendation, often blended with sulfur and zinc, by supplying 2 kg of zinc per hectare. In this study, it was tested against a similar rate of NPK fertilizer but supplying 30 kg of zinc per hectare.

These innovations are being put to the test, agronomic biofortification studies are being conducted on maize, beans, and soybeans, comparing their performance in different cropping systems against the traditional maize-only approach. The results are eye-opening.

From this study, it’s clear that Mbili-Mbili can produce up to 8.7 tons per hectare of residue, which includes maize stover and legume haulms. This represents a 12% increase compared to traditional farming practices. What is more, 5 tons of these residues can be used as supplementary feed for two cows during three dry months, generating 425-850 kg of valuable manure for crop fields. This not only improves soil fertility but also reduces the trade-offs between feeding residues to livestock and using them as mulch to support soil health. In fact, 3.7 tons of these extra residues can be utilized as mulch right within the crop fields.



Mc Doud Phiri, a dairy farmer in Kasungu, feeding groundnut residues to his cattle. Photo: Edward Mzumara/ABC.

Participatory experience

But this isn’t just a scientific endeavor; it’s an interactive experience. The innovations aren’t just being studied in isolation; they’re being demonstrated and shared with local farmers. Field days organized earlier this year provided an opportunity for farmers to interact with the adapted Mbili-Mbili innovations, rate them based on their potential to meet their household food and feed security, income, and environmental benefits. Attracting about 850 farmers from Kantuwale, Chulu, Mphomwa, Kamatao and Kazingilira sections of Chulu and Champhira EPAs

Ernest Mpinganjira, a farmer hosting Mbili-Mbili trial in Kantuwale remarked, “It’s like a bonus! I will harvest the same amount of maize as before, plus additional yield from beans and pigeonpea. This will boost my income and improve the nutritional security of my household.”

On the other hand, Mateo Mkoko, a farmer from Katundu Farmers Field School was surprised with the bean’s performance, “I am amazed to see a promising bean crop in Mbili-Mbili. We have learned that we were wrong to believe beans could not grow in our area” he admitted.

In the end, Mbili-Mbili strip cropping emerged as the preferred choice for many attended farmers, 56% of them being women and the potential benefits of these innovations were clearly foreseen. “With Mbili-Mbili, I will secure food for my family and earn extra income from a small plot. Plus, by combining three crops, we save on field labor without needing more land. ” imagined Mercy Shaba.

Bridget Phiri a District extension staff, Edward Mzumara, ABC researcher, Mercy Shaba a farmer, and Lester Botoman a DARs researcher in a Doubled-up legume plot during trial monitoring exercise. Photo: Gibson Luhanga/ABC

Job Kihara, a researcher in ABC, who encourages farmers to engage in exploring innovative plant patterns and agronomic biofortification techniques offers a way to improve resource utilization while increasing yields. It’s a recipe for better productivity, quality, and sustainability in cropping systems, especially in the face of changing climates and unpredictable weather.

The future looks promising, with these innovations providing a ray of hope in the battle against hidden hunger and food security challenges in Malawi and rest of Sub Shara Africa.



We thank all funders who supported the Mixed Farming Systems Initiative through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

Also, we appreciate the great support received from the Ministry of Agriculture; Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS), and the Department of Extension Services (DAES). The support received from extension staff from Chulu and Champhira EPA and farmers, the work would not be possible without the joint efforts from all the partners.

Header photo by ABC

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