Malawian Farmers Adapt in the Face of Climate Change
Government is encouraging climate smart practices to increase yields and improve resilience
Kenson Mulapula is an exceptional farmer. While most of the neighboring households are struggling with acute food shortages, he has enough maize to last his household the next six months. In Lunzu, an area outside commercial hub of Blantyre, Malawi, his success stands out, especially as farmers begin to contend with the changes wrought by climate change. It’s no surprise that resilience of the 52-year-old’s agricultural practices is attracting other farmers too.
Photo by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima
“It has been a tough two successive farming seasons with flood and then drought, [and we have] seen complete failure of crops here,” Mulapula says. "However, I have been able to harvest enough for my household thanks to climate smart agriculture techniques I use.”
Malawi has not been spared from the early impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are already affecting the southeast African nation, particularly the agricultural sector. The El Nino weather phenomenon, which has been impacting southern Africa for the past two years, is exacerbating the situation. In 2015, for example, unprecedented flooding washed away thousands of hectares of crop fields, most in the densely populated southern part of Malawi, affecting more than 200,000 people. Earlier this year, severe drought left over 8 million people in need of emergency food in the central and southern provinces of the country.
In response to these changes, agricultural experts — mainly Ministry of Agriculture extension workers who are assigned and stationed in a specific agricultural extension region — are engaging local farmers, training them in climate smart agriculture practices. These “lead” farmers help train others in climate smart practices in their communities. These practices are popularly known as Mleranthaka in the local vernacular.
Climate smart agriculture refers to an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural development under the new realities of climate change. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines it as agricultural practices that sustainably increase productivity, enhance resilience (adaptation), reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, and help with achievement of national food security and development goals. The principal goal of climate smart agriculture, according to the FAO, is food security and development. Productivity, adaptation, and mitigation are identified as three interlinked pillars necessary for achieving these goals.
Mulapula is a lead farmer in his area. He explains that one big difference between traditional agricultural practices in the region and climate smart agriculture has to do with tilling.
“In this type of farming, we don’t make ridges and furrows as in conventional agriculture, but leave the land untilled,” he explains. “We fill the land with residues from the last harvest…. This means there is minimum soil disturbance and also permanent soil cover which allows up to 35percentgreater rainfall water infiltration.” When I spoke with him in in October, 2016, he was using maize stalks — a staple crop in Malawi — from the previous harvest to prepare the land for planting maize and pigeon peas, which is fast becoming the preferred cash crop among farmers owing to its ability to grow and produce without the use of fertilizer.
Mulapula says manure and compost are another integral part of climate smart agriculture. He produces organic manure from crop residues and livestock droppings.
“I periodically collect goats droppings which I use as manure at my maize field. That aside, I also have the readily available alternative source of income should there be an emergency at my household as I just sell one or two livestock and use the proceeds to meet my household needs like school fees for his children,” says the father of five.
Another challenge faced by most rural farmers in Malawi is a lack of proper storage facilities for their harvested crops. As a result, the average farmer loses a third of their harvest to pests, according to statistics from the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture. Most farmers in Malawi use granaries made from bamboo planks, which are highly vulnerable to pests. Harvesting of local bamboo, a native plant that usually grows in hills and mountains of Malawi, also contributes to desertification. With an intention to address these issues, the agriculture ministry has introduced metal granaries, which are being offered to farmers at an affordable price.
According to Mulapula, the metal granaries are pest resistant — they absolve heat from the sun and the heat kills the pests. He also says the metal granaries are much better at protecting stored crops during heavy rains.
“Ever since I bought the metal granary two years ago, I have not had any post harvest loses due to pests,” Mulapula says. “Furthermore, the metal granary has helped me to conserve the bamboo in my forest which means more soil cover and reducing the soil erosion which has been a serious problem here.”
Due to his resilience in times of harsh weather, Mulapula has managed to attract scores of farmers in his area, farmers who come to learn how he survived the 2015-2016 drought. He says at first it individuals from his community, but now groups from neighboring villages are visiting as well. He offers formal climate smart agriculture lessons to these farmers free of charge. Many of these farmers have since started practicing conservation agriculture themselves, hoping to protect their crops if and when harsh weather strikes again.
One such farmer is Alex Mitswati, who has seen the benefits of climate smart agriculture and wants to start integrating some of these techniques this year.
“I have been practicing conventional agriculture all these years, but due to the harsh weather, I have experienced a 60 percent drop [in my] harvest, which has [left] my household with a severe food deficit…. Those who have been doing conservation agriculture, they have still been harvesting enough despite the effects of El Nino,” Mitswati says.
Another characteristic of climate smart agriculture is engaging women and other marginalized groups, who are those most affected by the impacts of climate change. This can be difficult — in Malawi women have the less access to, and fewer legal rights, to land. But recently, the government has begun encouraging women to take leading role in environmental restoration work, and some women have taken it upon themselves to lead forest restoration efforts. One such woman is Mable Mailosi, a 62-year-old retired civil servant who has committed herself to replanting trees along riverbanks and hills in the Chipande area, another remote area outside Blantyre. Mailosi has also established her own tree nursery, where she produces indigenous tree seedlings. She plants the trees herself as part of her restoration efforts, and also offers the seedlings to other interested farmers at a small fee.
“When I look around the area as compared to the days of my childhood, I see that the forest cover has been destroyed… So I committed myself to replanting the trees along the river banks and hilly areas so as to mitigate the effects of climate change,” Mailosi says. “I also offer tree seedlings to other interested farmers so that they can also plant trees of their own and in so doing, together we can restore the ecosystem.”
Mailosi hopes in the next five years she will able to restore most of the ecosystem surrounding her village, as it helps provide farmers and other families with water, clean air, food, and other essential materials for livelihoods.
Based on the successes of farmers like Mulapula and Mailosi, more farmers are embracing climate smart agricultural practices in Malawi modern agriculture practices. Ultimately, this should help mitigate the effects of climate change among rural farmers in the agriculture-dependent country.