Building agronomy and soil data hub for tailored agronomic solutions in mixed farming systems of Malawi

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“There is no life without soils and no soil without life.” These words by Charles Kellong resonated with stakeholders at the one-day stakeholder consultative workshop on establishing a digital agronomy and soil Ag-Data hub for Malawi. This workshop aimed to locate and map potential sources of soil and agronomy data; confirm data sharing bottlenecks; and decide on strategies that would improve efficient data integration, gathering, and sharing.

In Malawi, the deterioration of soil organic matter, nutrient depletion, ineffective land management, and lack of context-specific agronomic solutions have led to declining soil health and hence low crop and livestock productivity. Farmers often struggle with accessing reliable information necessary for effective soil health management. Without this, agricultural support services cannot provide the well-informed advice needed for maximizing productivity and restoring soil health. Digital tools, such as mobile applications, offer a promising solution by delivering tailored agronomic solutions directly to farmers, thereby enhancing productivity in areas with inadequate extension systems. However, employing digital tools to disseminate innovative crop, soil and livestock management practices necessitates the availability of digitized agronomic solutions at scale.

The Malawian Government is keen in leveraging digital technologies to promote crop yields livestock productivity, and soil health within the mixed farming systems. Despite the availability of digital tools suitable for agricultural advisory, comprehensive agronomic solutions remain undigitized n Malawi. Developing digitized effective crops, livestock and soil management practices requires large datasets that represent various farming contexts. These datasets can facilitate the creation of site-specific soil fertility management recommendations, benefiting both food and forage crop production.

To develop agronomy and soil data hub as a digital database that can be utilized in the future to provide site and crop specific agronomic solutions for farmers in Malawi, the One-CGIAR on Mixed Farming Systems Initiative (MFS) through Alliance of Biodiversity and CIAT (ABC), in partnership with Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS) consulted researchers and stakeholders from government and private sector organizations. The data hub to be established would be intended to serve as a central platform, maintained by DARS, where the public may access integrated and digitalized data on soils and crops management.

In her opening remarks, Director of Agricultural Research Services at the Ministry of Agriculture, opened the workshop, Dr. Grace Kaudzu emphasizing the need for accessible digital crop and soil management data to support informed decision-making among farmers. “As potential source and users of soil and agronomic data in the agricultural sector, to monitor our soils and agronomic performance of our various crops, and to come up with crop and site-specific fertilizer recommendations, we are here to discuss how the process of digitization can be steered for Malawi,” she said.

Chief soil scientist at DARS, Dr. Moses Munthali highlighted the necessity of digital solutions for climate-smart agriculture and precision farming. He stressed that blanket fertilizer applications fail to enhance nutrient use efficiency and do not address common micronutrient deficiencies. “The use of blanket fertilizer applications is counterproductive to enhancing nutrient use efficiency nor does it address the common micro-nutrient deficiencies such as Zn, B, Se, and Mg,” Munthali explained.

The system agronomist at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, Dr. Feyera Liben shared his experience with data hub development in Ethiopia. He underscored the importance of multidisciplinary teams, incentives for data sharing, and the application of big data in producing future agronomic solutions.

Following the presentations, participants engaged in plenary sessions and group discussions to explore the potential for data sharing and identify bottlenecks. Key challenges included:

  • Lack of confidence in data security and reliability.
  • Absence of incentives for data sharing.
  • Limited resources and capacity for data coordination.
  • Uncertainty about the long-term viability of the data hub.

Recommendations and Action Points

Participants made several recommendations to address these challenges, identifying key stakeholders to ensure the project’s success. These included research organizations, academia, development agencies, and the private sector. The following action points were proposed:

  • Form a multidisciplinary team to develop and maintain a strategy for the data hub, supported by a data sharing policy.
  • Host and oversee the data center at DARS, connecting its operations to government-funded initiatives for sustainability.
  • Develop regulations on data use, security, and management to enhance data sharing.

Implementing these actions will enable ABC and DARS to provide optimal, context-specific agronomic solutions, promoting resource cycling in mixed farming systems. This will support a circular economy, enhance soil health, and increase farmers’ capacity to produce quality food and feed for their livestock, ultimately leading to more productive, profitable, and sustainable farming systems. The establishment of a digital agronomy and soil Ag-Data hub in Malawi represents a significant step towards achieving these goals, fostering a future where informed decisions and innovative solutions drive agricultural success.

Acknowledgement

The research work was supported by One-CGIAR Mixed Farming Systems (MFS) and Excellence in Agronomy Initiatives (EiA).

Feature image: Participants in group photo during the stakeholder consultative workshop. Photo by ABC

Authors: Feyera Liben, Sabine Homann-Kee Tui, Moses Munthali, Edward Mzumara, Job Kihara, Wuletawu Abera, and Lulseged Tamene

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