Bridging capacity gaps for sustainable farming systems in Malawi

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Agriculture players in Malawi have described the 2023/24 season as the toughest in a decade, with farmers facing drastically reduced and unstable rains. This has led to one of the highest crop failures and losses ever recorded, challenging traditional agricultural practices and highlighting the urgent need for new approaches and a deeper understanding of sustainable farming techniques.

Innovative agricultural methods have shown significant potential for better results even under such challenging conditions. However, their successful adoption and use require thorough understanding and proper implementation.

Under the CGIAR Mixed Farming System initiative, various climate-resilient technologies were introduced to farmers, including conservation agriculture, maize-legume integration, the use of inorganic and organic fertilizers, crop rotation, inoculants, improved seeds, and optimized ridge and plant spacing. The initiative organized over 10 field days and consultative meetings in the districts of Kasungu, Zomba, Balaka, Mangochi, and Mzimba to showcase these technologies.

During the Farmers’ Field Day in Kasungu, Sarai Kanasi, a lead farmer demonstrated different farming technologies and innovations under CIMMYT, comparing them with traditional approaches. Sarai planted maize under conservation agriculture, and maize intercropped with pigeon pea and lablab under conservation agriculture, using both inorganic and organic fertilizers and inoculants.

“I have observed that my maize field survived in some of the trials because of laying of the maize residues and grass, which conserved moisture This conservation agriculture could have saved many fields from El Niño’s impact if adopted earlier,” Sarai said.

Farmers involved with MFS trials celebrate through songs to promote the adoption of new agricultural technologies. Photo by Emmanuel Mwale/IITA

Farmers observed that fields with grass laid between ridges, a conservation agriculture technique, retained moisture longer. This practice became crucial in response to severe climate impacts like El Niño, which reduced harvests by over 30% in countries like Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, forcing them to declare national disasters. This experience has led to the heavy promotion of conservation agriculture and mixed farming systems.

Maria Banda, a farmer in Kadifula, Kasungu district, expressed excitement about the benefits of organic fertilizer. “We can’t afford expensive fertilizer anymore. This system motivates me to expand my field to 2 acres for a bigger harvest. This small trial has shown me the potential of larger-scale adoption,” she said. Maria also emphasized the need for continuous knowledge and access to quality seeds.

Livestock health was also a concern, with signs of diseases and malnutrition due to lack of feed and changing climatic patterns. Improved pastures and crop by-products have started to address these issues. Peter Minjale, Managing Director of K2 Taso, noted substantial losses in animal and milk production due to diseases and poor nutrition. “We need to Invest in developing capacities or partnering with specialized institutions as we try to minimize resource wastage and improve farmers’ livelihoods.” Adds Minjale.

Other farmers and stakeholders who attended these field days expressed need for extended training and support to effectively utilize these innovations to combat the effects of climate change.

Ensuring that stakeholders possess the required skills to bridge knowledge gaps and promote collaborative efforts is essential. CGIAR Scientists under the Mixed Farming Initiative are exploring a capacity matrix, a comprehensive framework designed to assess and address diverse skill requirements in farming. This matrix identifies key indicators to guide capacity-building efforts, encompassing both hard skills (data analysis, record-keeping, innovation-specific skills) and soft skills (empowerment, communication, needs expression).

K2 Taso, working alongside the CGIAR Mixed Farming Systems initiative in Kasungu District, prioritizes equipping farmers with the knowledge and tools for successful implementation and widespread adoption of sustainable innovations. The initiative emphasizes that transformative endeavors critically depend on the right knowledge and institutional capacity to identify, adopt, and sustain improved farming systems.

Within Malawi, the agriculture knowledge transfer network operates as a vital channel for information flow and collaboration. Research institutes, universities, and NGOs disseminate findings to extension departments, farmer groups, and cooperatives, which provide valuable feedback on technology performance and research needs. This continuous exchange ensures adaptive learning and innovation within the agricultural sector.

The CGIAR Initiative on Mixed Farming Systems (MFS) aims to foster an equitable framework for livelihood improvement within diverse agro-ecologies by leveraging synergies between different agricultural components, including crops, livestock, and agroforestry. The initiative seeks to optimize resource utilization, enhance productivity, and bolster sustainability.

Feature image: Farmers Field Day in Ntunthama EPA of Kasungu District. Photo by Emmanuel Mwale/IITA.



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