Smallholder farming families in Central Malawi subsist on between 1 to 20 acres of land, depending on just 3 to 4 months’ rainfall to produce enough maize to feed themselves, and may be some ground nuts to sell. They are challenged by lack of markets for traditional cash crops such as tobacco, uncertain rains for the maize to give them food security, and land slowly becoming degraded through constant cultivation. On top of this it is the men who control the land and the crops, though women do much of the labour. Whether land is handed down through matrilineal or patrilineal lines the result is the same; either the husband or the brother controls the land.

In this context SAIRLA is supporting 4 projects in Malawi:

  1. The Policy and Equity project is looking at the link between land degradation and women’s status in rural households.
  2. The Tools for Equity project at what information and tools communities, districts and national decisions makers need to help improve equity within institutions
  3. The Smallholder Risk Management project is identifying strategies to help smallholders cope with uncertainty in markets and climate.
  4. The Trade-offs in Agricultural Intensification project is exploring how different household members take decisions about sustainable agricultural practices.

SAIRLA, with partners International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) and Total Land Care (TLC) visited poor smallholder communities in Central Malawi supported by Total Land Care to conduct conservation agriculture (no-tillage, keeping the soil covered with crop residues, and rotating maize and ground-nuts). Farmers who had been practicing these methods for 5-6 years claimed their yields were 30% higher, with the mulch of crop residues being especially beneficial during the previous El Nino drought. From this experience we spoke to farmers who were adopting conservation agriculture for the first time having seen the better yields of their conservation farming neighbours.

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LUANAR researcher interviewing farmer about conservation agriculture 

However, they also said that at least in the first years the practice was dependent on using herbicides to control weeds that TLC had been providing access to. With herbicides conservation agriculture is less work, but without the work for weeding increases, and weeding is women’s work. Slightly richer farmers (with more than 5 acres) may be able to afford to buy herbicide, but the poorest farmers cannot. Thus, there are issues of equity between richer and poorer households and between men and women within households when adopting conservation agriculture. One of the research questions that IIED, LUANAR and TLC will be addressing in the coming years.

Meeting with village chiefs, both men and women, the women wanted houses of brick and with tin roofs, while men wanted a school, more trees and better markets. Markets for their produce they both thought would keep youth within the community and give them hope of a future in their own homes.

The SAIRLA programme aims that the research evidence generated by these projects will contribute to a process of social learning between communities, local and national organizations, that we call a learning alliance. In Malawi the National Learning Alliance is being led by LUANAR. The Learning Alliance will seek to inform and engage with decision makers as to how agricultural development policies, practice and investments can support these families to realize their dreams of economically, socially and environmentally productive and sustainable agricultural livelihoods.

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Traditional agroforestry (background) and conservation agriculture (foreground) in Malawi. 


By Professor Jeremy Haggar, SAIRLA Research Director, Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich


 Article and photo credit: Jeremy Haggar

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