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Malawi: Conservation agriculture put forward as answer to climate change

Malawi conservation agriculture Simon Cumbers Media Fund

Conservation agriculture helps farmers to improve soil and to deal with climate change

by Aisling Hussey

Agricultural output is headline news in Malawi. It’s down by 30 per cent from last year’s harvest, mainly due to the drought which hit the country this year.

It’s been a difficult year for Malawian farmers, who for years have been struggling with climate change and the extreme weather conditions that have come with it.

Though there was a lack of rain for most of the year, severe flooding hit the south of the country in January. The parched crops were washed away, with around 64,000 hectares of land destroyed and nearly 230,000 people displaced, according to the UN.

Maize is the main staple grown in Malawi. It is used to make nshima, a thick starchy porridge which is the main source of food for Malawians. The crop is not coping well with climate change.

Around 4 million tonnes of maize were produced in the country last year. According to preliminary estimates, this year’s harvest is down by around 1 million tonnes – this will result in massive shortage across Malawi and is likely to make international headlines.

Farmers are worried. A total of the 80 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture, and it’s mostly subsistence. A shortage of maize could result in a range of problems, with hunger being the biggest fear.

In response, the government is hoping to purchase 50,000 tonnes from Zambia to supplement the 20,000 tonnes in storage, which will barely make a dent in the deficit. Just 10 years ago in 2005, Malawi harvested a grain surplus of half a million tonnes. The country even exported to Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Conservation agriculture (CA) is being offered as a solution by NGOs such as Concern and Farm Radio Trust. There are three principles to CA: minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations. If implemented correctly, it should improve soil pH and fertility.

CA works for those who buy into the idea, with most reporting higher yields and some protection against the unpredictable weather, but some are reluctant to participate. Farmers here are living day-to-day, and at least they have some control if they stick to what they are doing. As we see in Ireland, farmers can be slow to adopt change voluntarily. This year might be the tipping point, though.

Rain-fed agriculture provides most of the food in the country, but this may not be sustainable for much longer due to the unpredictable weather. With help from Concern, farmers are diversifying by keeping goats and rabbits. The planting of staples such as sweet potato is also encouraged, and in fact there was a higher yield for that crop this year.

Climate change is just one issue. There are many other problems that Malawian farmers need to deal with, from gender imbalance, marketing of products and accessing inputs such as fertiliser. It’s difficult to know where to begin.

Malawi is known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ because of its people, who are wonderfully accommodating and kind. They are also resilient and resourceful, and these traits will certainly be put to the test in the coming months and years.

Aisling Hussey is a journalist with the Irish Farmers Journal. Her reports from Malawi will be published in the coming weeks.