Climate Smart Agriculture in Malawi

Author: Marije Schaafsma

Just over 2 months ago (already?!) I came back from Zomba. This was my third trip to Malawi for my ESPA Fellowship, linked to the ESPAASSETS project and locally hosted by LEAD SEA. After the data collection trip among rural smallholder farmers in 2015, it was time for follow-up: did the respondents of my survey approve of my conclusions? Would stakeholders be interested in my results? And I was also going to organise a scenario workshop on the question: Does climate-smart agriculture support river basin management in Zomba District?

I left the UK with some apprehension, not sure what I would find after the massive El Nino-related dry spell that hit Malawi this planting season. Farmers rely heavily on rainfed agriculture, but the rains came two months late and were intermittent once they finally arrived. Food shortages have led to increased food prices, making it even less accessible to the poorest people. Some people have received cassava and sweet potato vines, which grow relatively fast.


My research assistant and I were met with surprise when we came back. Apparently many researchers fail to report back and disseminate the results of their studies to the very same people that were willing to participate in (yet another!) survey. The most exciting discussions we had were on gender and youth issues. Whilst women own the farm land and do most of the cultivation, husbands usually make the decisions on what to plant, when to sell, and what to do with the money – disappointing for, and disempowering, their wives… Young people are faced with ever smaller land holdings, disappearing forests and rivers that dry up – some are heading to South Africa in search of greener pastures. Younger people complained about the fact that they are usually the last to receive anything when the fertiliser coupons are distributed, when land is distributed, when lucrative jobs are allocated…


Reframing my academic research question (a comparison of methodologies) into a policy relevance question (climate smart agriculture) resulted in interesting conversations with development practitioners, forest and agriculture specialists and policy makers. All are looking for the silver bullet to solve the linked issue of sustainable environmental management and poverty alleviation. My research on the suitability of financial incentives was met with both criticism and support. Criticism – because just injecting money into household systems without training in business skills does not lead to development. Support – because indeed money is needed but hard to come by, and short term benefits of agroforestry, conservation agriculture and other techniques are often negative or minute at best, one of the reasons that their scaling-up and adoption rates are limited.


In the last week of my stay, together with the Forest Research Institute Malawi, I organised a workshop on the suitability of climate smart agriculture for river basin management under different scenarios of climate change and economic growth. A group of more than 20 experts and practitioners from Zomba and national level participated in debates around the trade-offs between different objectives. Poverty specialists emphasised the need for (adult) functional education and empowerment before introducing new techniques; agricultural experts stressed the benefits of drought resistant seeds; foresters argued for the commercial benefits of indigenous trees. It was obvious that the most difficult trade-offs were found when environmental management and poverty alleviation were incompatible. Indeed, the main issue of my research…