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Sowing the Seeds of Change: Supporting agriculture in Malawi

Daniel Kampani and his wife Clara on their conservation agriculture demonstration plot

Agriculture in Malawi is a vital industry, accounting for more than 80% of employment, yet many farmers in Malawi struggle to produce enough food to feed their families.

Agriculture in Malawi is a vital industry, accounting for more than 80% of employment, over one third of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and about 80% of merchandise exports. Yet many farmers in Malawi struggle to produce enough food to feed their families. Low soil quality brought about by inefficient use of fertiliser and poor land and water management, the negative effects of climate change and high population growth all contribute to this situation.

Agriculture is a vital source of food in Malawi with maize being the food crop predominantly grown. However, productivity is generally low and the reliance on maize as a food source  makes nutrition deficiencies widespread.  In order to tackle these challenges, a programme was developed to assist the agriculture sector in contributing more to Malawi’s economy while also improving the nutrition intake of the population as a whole.

The Malawi Seed Industry Development Programme, established in 2008 and supported by Irish Aid, aims to improve the quality of seed available to small holder farmers. One of the goals of the programme is to encourage farmers to sow a greater variety of crops by  supplying seeds for legumes such as ground-nuts, pigeon peas and beans.

This provides an extra income stream for farmers while addressing nutritional deficiencies and also helps to replace lost nitrogen in the soil.

The Malawi Seed Industry Development Programme is managed by ICRISAT (International Crop Research for the Semi-Arid Tropics). ICRISAT engages directly with its own farmers’ clubs, contract growers, as well as clubs which are members of NASFAM (National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi).

Through the programme farmers are introduced to improved legume technologies and crops. Using this knowledge they can select crops and varieties which suit their own particular needs. The programme, which initially concentrated on legumes, has now been expanded to include rice and sorghum. Seeds are purchased on credit with the expectation that famers will receive a premium price for the seeds they produce. In addition, farmers are provided with training and technical support to enable them become self-financing producers of high-quality seed.

The seeds produced under this programme are certified and sold commercially under a nationally recognised brand, MASA (Malawi Seed Alliance). The majority of these seeds are then channelled through the Government of Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Programme, targeting approximately 1.5 million small holder farmers who each receive 2kg of certified legume seeds, improving crop diversification and productivity as well as nutrition.

During the 2008/2009 season the programme recruited 235 small holder farmers (46% of which were women) and by the end of the 2011/2012 season, the total number of participants had risen to 1,736 (37% of which were women).

250 tonnes of quality-certified legume seed were grown in 2008/2009 rising to 1776 tonnes produced in 2011/2012 which has contributed to a 19% increase in national legume production.

Part of the reason for the success of the programme has been the importance placed on partnership with smallholder farmers, the Government of Malawi, the private sector, ICRISAT and research institutions. Local knowledge and experience have been given a high priority which ensured that partners have a say in the policies that affect them.