2. Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Interventions promoted will focus on increased crop production and diversification under rainfed and irrigated systems to improve household food security, nutrition and incomes with reduced risk. Agroforestry, conservation agriculture and use of organic manures will be integrated with these interventions to ensure sustainability and to enhance profitability by reducing labor and input costs under unpredictable conditions.  Improved land and water management practices will be promoted with all practices with enforcement of bye-laws established by the communities/associations.  Equipment, materials and other inputs will be provided on a cost-recovery basis with a minimum cash deposit.

Specific interventions are described below:

2.1   Conservation Agriculture (CA):

Conservation agriculture is an improved system of farming that involves minimal tillage of soil, retention of crop residues on the soil surface, weed control, and crop rotations. Soil compaction, erosion and run-off are significant problems with conventional methods of tilling the soil. Conservation agriculture offers opportunities to produce higher and more stable yields with significantly less labor, while dramatically reducing soil erosion and moisture loss. CA practices ensure minimal loss of top soil and runoff by building the carbon and organic base of the soil (conventional tillage promotes oxidation of carbon, which is the "cement" that holds the soil together).

Environmental benefits include: 1) improvements in soil properties, 2) protection against water runoff and erosion; 3) maximum infiltration of rainfall, 4) weed, pest and disease control, 5) retention of soil moisture and nutrients, 6) carbon sequestration and 7) lower carbon gas emissions from reduced burning. These benefits result in massive savings of runoff and loss of top soil, mitigating the risks and vulnerability of smallholder farmers to climate change. Conservation agriculture also saves much manual labor for land preparation and weeding, allowing optimal use of labor for other farm and household tasks, including opportunities for diversification, expansion, and small-scale enterprises.

Although the benefits have generated strong interest in this practice, its widescale adoption faces challenges to break cultural norms of tillage and initial costs of chemical inputs. In this context, the integration of agroforestry offers opportunities to attract greater support for conservation agriculture by increasing and complementing its many benefits to enhance productivity and sustainability.  The practices promoted include intercropping species of Tephrosia, Cajanus and Crotalaria,and integrating Faidherbia albida, an indigenous tree commonly retained and planted on farms for its effects on crop yields. Apart from improving soils, these deep-rooted plants ensure good root development to optimize crop growth by breaking up hardpans formed from years of continuous hand-hoe cultivation. Secondary benefits include effects on striga and other common crop pests, as well as wood, fuel and fodder. Collectively, the impacts demonstrate huge potential to transform smallholder agriculture in this part of Africa with increased capacity for adaptation to climate change.

Benefits of CA over Conventional Farming:

  • Saves much labor, allowing time for other important farm and household taks, including opportunities for diversification and expansion
  • Allows for early planting to maximize yields
  • Protects the soil against impact of rain & erosion
  • Maximizes effectiveness of rainfall and infiltration of water vs. runoff into rivers and lakes
  • Controls and suppresses weeds, pests and diseases
  • Retains soil moisture and nutrients and improves soil properties
  • Sequesters carbon, reduces CG emissions from burning
  • Complements & reduces need for chemical fertilizers
  • Integrating n-fixing leguminous crops and shrubs (e.g., Tephrosia, pigeon peas, cowpeas) improves soil fertility, HH nutrition, and incomes; reduces pests and diseases, increases soil cover, and helps to breakup shallow hand-pans formed from years of continuous cultivation

Net Results: Increased and more stable yields and incomes at lower costs.

2.2 Organic Measures to Improve Soil Fertility

An important feature to improve soil fertility involves a) crop rotations, b) organic manures, and c) the integration of certain agroforestry practices using nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs such as Faidherbia albida, Tephrosia candida, and Cajanus cajan.  Details of these practices are explained fully in the Manual of LandCare Practices in Malawi by Bunderson et al (2002) available at TLC in Malawi and International Research and Development at WSU.

2.3 Irrigation

Low-cost systems of will be promoted to increase food security, nutrition and incomes. Key elements are practicality, affordability, acceptability, and sustainability. The system used depends on local physical and social factors but all incorporate sound ecological principles to maintain the integrity of land, soil, water and plant resources. Systems promoted include:

  • Treadle pumps operate by pumping water manually from wells or streams to a high point on the farm from which water is directed by gravity through channels and basins to irrigate crops. This system is ideally suited to smallholders where ownership is controlled by individual households on land less than 0.5 ha in size.
  • River or Stream Diversion is suitable where terrain allows the diversion of water from perennial streams to irrigate crops by gravity. Canals are constructed manually to convey water to irrigable land, or to storage dams to improve water use efficiency and to extend water use. Sites typically support areas of 3-10 ha.  However, support can also be provided to develop, manage and expand large gravity fed schemes.
  • Rain Water Harvesting:  Where streams are perennial, small dams may be constructed to capture rainwater runoff. These are built by hand to irrigate areas close by using treadle pumps. The spillway will be protected by stone pitching. All the earth structures will be stabilized with conservation measures, e.g., contour ridges, tie ridging, fanya juu terraces, potholes, checkdams and stone bunds. The objective is to increase infiltration and recharge ground water levels that will result in better water yield at the point of extraction (either stream diversion or groundwater extraction to irrigate areas close to dams by gravity or with treadle pumps. Spillways are protected by stone pitching. Sites are typically <3ha sites.  Choice of the irrigation type depends on a number of physical and social factors that need investigation during site assessments.

2.4 Crop Diversification

A central objective is to increase household food security, nutrition and incomes by diversifying and marketing high value crops. Diversification focuses on beans, groundnuts, rice, cassava, root and tuber crops, bananas, fruit trees, and a wide range of horticultural crops under both rainfed and irrigated systems. The aim is to introduce high yielding, disease resistant varieties of these crops, which are in high demand among communities, and which fetch good prices in local and regional markets.  Legume crops have special emphasis because of their use as soil-improving crops in rotation with cereals and their high value for nutrition and income. It is the intention to promote those crops where sufficient knowledge on best production practices exists and where support mechanisms and market outlets are available. Specifically, selection of the crops has been based on the following criteria:

  • High market value and demand – location, size, potential for growth, number of business development service providers in the market chain
  • High potential for irrigation
  • Positive impact on women, youth and HIV/AIDS affected households
  • Positive impacts on the environment
  • Smallholder focus: 0.5- 1.5 ha of upland and/or 0.1-0.3 ha of irrigated land
  • Low level of capital investment to start up production with high returns to labour
  • High potential for value added processing and marketing

Below is a brief description of the crops selected and activities to be carried out on each.

  • Maize: TLC supports farmers to produce high yielding varieties of maize under irrigation with a focus on areas/communities where there has been crop failures under rainfed conditions. Yields of maize under irrigation can exceed 5 tons per hectare if farmers follow all the recommended agronomic practices. Activities to support maize production under irrigation will include linking farmers to seed suppliers such as SEEDCO, Monsanto, Pannar Seed Company and other agro-dealers, training farmers in best agronomic and sustainable farming practices and helping them in post harvest crop management especially using low cost methods for to protect stored grain or crops against against weevils.
  • Rice: Rice production will be promoted in suitable locations along the lakeshore where conditions in these areas are appropriate for rice production and potential is high. The usual practice involves growing rice under rainfed conditions on the alluvial lowlands, with a second crop during the dry season under irrigation.  Smallholder yields using local seed varieties are relatively high in the area averaging 3391 kg/ha. Production of rice has been constrained by two main factors, i.e., water availability and improved seed. Efforts by TLC will support organizing the participating communities into formal associations. This will include a constitution with details on representation, land tenure, specific operational guidelines and by-laws for the water use. The project will provide support to farmers in terms of extension and training, sound agronomic practices, access to improved varieties of Kilombero, Pussa 33 and Faya, seed multiplication, processing and development of market linkages for both inputs and outputs.
  • Vegetables and herbs: TLC promotes a wide range of vegetables and herbs suitable for different agro-ecologies and markets. These include tomato, onions, green maize, Irish potatoes, carrots, chillies, sesame, green pepper, green peas, okra, water melon, garlic, lemongrass, oregano and broccoli. Many of these have high nutrition and medicinal properties. Vegetables are often the sole source of income for smallholder farmers in Malawi, whether rainfed or irrigated. Currently, the largest market for vegetables are urban and peri-urban areas involving over 120,000 tons per annum based on current estimates. There is high potential for production of vegetables under a wide range of irrigation systems ranging from open furrow gravity systems, to treadle pumps. The project will support households in vegetable production through linkages to input and output markets and training in production systems, processing, preservation and utilization.
  • Beans: Phaseolus vulgaris or common beans are important for sustenance and are readily marketable (at consumer, institutional and southern Africa levels), providing much needed income for many rural households. Beans are also rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc which is important for HIV/AIDS patients to boost their immune system. TLC is currently collaborating with Bunda College in the multiplication and production of Kalima and sugar beans by smallholder farmers. The varieties promoted are high yielding, resistant to pests and disease, and fetch higher prices on the market than local varieties. TLC and its partners support communities in two areas: a) multiplication of basic and certified seed for increased income and seed self-sufficiency, and b) production of grain for sale and consumption. In this regard, TLC provides quality training and extension on multiplication and grain production with support on market linkages. Other high yielding varieties are also being promoted in collaboration with the Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, Association for Smallholder Seed Multiplication Action Group (ASSMAG) and International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
  • Cassava: Cassava is an important food crop in Malawi, but the national demand for cassava is yet to be met.  Although it is extensively grown in the project area, its integration varies from area to area depending on the use of the crop as a staple or as a cash crop. Key factors to consider include the following:
    • Cassava production is constrained by lack of available and sustainable disease and pest free planting varieties.
    • To expand production, the action will support commercial smallholder growers, aided by access to irrigation to develop sustainable systems for the rapid multiplication and distribution of planting materials.
    • There is an expanding national and regional market for cassava flour in food products (e.g., bread and biscuits), and starch for industrial uses such as packaging, manufacturing glue, biofuel and cassava silage for livestock feed.
    • New technology to support commercialization is now available. Locally made graters are estimated to cost about 74 EUR per machine and can be used to produce chips and flour at a cost of about 6 EUR per 25 kg bag. Promotion of technology use and access will also enhance food security at household and national level. TLC is identifying SMEs to stock and service processing equipment in response to demand. TLC is collaborating with the Southern Africa Roots and Tubers Network (SARRNET) in technology transfer with communities in several districts where TLC has projects.
  • Sweet potatoes: The importance of sweet potatoes as a food crop has increased with declining maize production levels due to the high inputs and costs of production for maize. Sweet potatoes perform well even in soils of marginal fertility. The crop matures within a period of 3 to 4 months. It is particularly valuable since it matures during the ‘lean’ period. TLC supports groups of farmers to explore opportunities to add value through processing into flour and grated chips. The flour can also be mixed with wheat flour and used to bake biscuits in confectionary industries. As with cassava, TLC is collaborating with the Southern Africa Roots and Tubers Network (SARRNET) in technology transfer.
  • Groundnuts: Groundnut production and supply has increased in recent years with the bulk of the crop being sold raw within the country and for export. Groundnuts have traditionally been used in local diets in the form of a powder and paste for cooking with various dishes.  Industrial processing has been restricted to urban centers, but there are strong local and external markets for processed groundnut oil and peanut butter. Proven low cost technologies exist to process groundnuts into peanut butter (developed by ITDG in Zimbabwe at an investment cost of about 34 EUR). Market prices for raw groundnuts are approximately 1 EUR per kg. Processing will usually double these returns. A farmer with 0.1 ha is likely to produce up to 200 kg. This is an ideal initiative to implement through farmer associations linked to the export market and to local entrepreneurs in the private sector. TLC supports existing local groundnut farmers in collaboration with the International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) with links to markets such as NASFAM to demonstrate best practices, including processing and marketing.
  • Paprika has become an important alternative cash crop (i.e. to tobacco) for smallholder farmers in Malawi. It commands a good economic return as an export crop with a significant market.  In recent years, sales and marketing have opened up with a broader range of buyers for both rainfed and irrigated produce. TLC is currently promoting winter production of paprika under irrigation. The results are encouraging in terms of yields, quality and prices. TLC provides training and extension support to farmers for growing paprika under irrigation, drying, grading, packaging and marketing. Evaluation of varieties also being conducted in partnership with the Agri-business in Sustainable African Plant Products (ASNAPP) and the Paprika Association of Malawi (PAMAP).
  • Tree Crops: TLC has initiated programs recently to promote a wide range of tree fruits, nuts and medicinal plants. Potential for fruit growing in TLC sites is immense due to the diverse agro-ecological factors. Fruits improve family nutrition, as they are good sources of fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals essential for good health. Their roles as sources of cash income, foreign exchange earnings as well as employment are high. Other spin-offs include the supply of raw materials to processing plants and the protection of soils and watersheds in the long term. TLC is currently exploring communities to support for establishing coffee, macadamia and a variety of fruit trees (citrus, mangoes, avocado, papaya, guava, peaches and bananas).   In addition, moringa (Moringa oleifera)and jatropha (Jatropha curcas) are under evaluation for planting in marginal lands, around homesteads, and as boundary hedgerows and live fences. Targeted households are trained in establishing mother blocks for providing quality planting material, which will include skills in grafting, budding and management.