The rains are almost here. The onset of main rains is mainly from November in the South and progressively spreading northwards in Malawi. This is the time smallholder farmers ponder on accessing quality seed.
But accessing groundnuts and soybean quality seed is a challenge for smallholder farmers despite the two crops earmarked as favourable potentials of becoming major export crops for Malawi.
This does not only affect their agricultural productivity, but income and resilience as well. Legumes such as groundnuts and soybean are now a key feature of the five-year National Exports Strategy (NES) launched in December2012. Government is trying to diversify exports from its high reliance on burley tobacco, and groundnuts and soybeans offer good export prospects.
Groundnuts and soybean are among the major valuable and versatile grain legume crops with tremendous contributions to improving household food security, nutrition, soil health and fertility in Malawi. Soybean is one of the most important and fastest growing oil-bearing crops. However, the major constraints to groundnut and soybean production are the unavailability of seed and structured markets.
Access and adoption of the improved seed varieties by smallholder farmers remains low. The main constraint to the adoption of improved groundnut and soybean varieties by smallholder farmers has been the lack of access by farmers to sufficient quantity of improved seed. Presently, there is absence of a stable and commercially viable groundnut and soybean seed market; hence, farmers recycle grain and use as seed.
Chief of Party for USaid Feed-the-Future Integrating Nutrition in Value Chains (FtF/INVC) project Bagie Sherchand in an interview recently noted that the seed sector needs immediate attention. “There is no seed policy. Seed is a sensitive issue in the country. The fact that smallholder farmers don’t have access to quality seed is a big problem; and also that quality seed is expensive, is an issue,” she said.
In an interview recently with smallholder farmers from Chikweo and Namwera agriculture extension planning areas in Machinga and Mangochi, respectively, smallholder farmers indicated they use recycled seed, which contributes significantly to low groundnut and soybean productivity.
The farmers claimed they are recycling seed because quality seed is expensive and can only be accessed in established trading centres such as Liwonde and Mangochi. “Good quality seed is rarely available here,” said Sofia Moyenda from Traditional Authority (T/A) Nkoola in Machinga. “That is why we sow saved seeds as a result we don’t get desired yields.”
Limbani James from T/A Ngokwe in the district said the only time smallholder farmers access certified legume seed is through the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), which targets approximately 1.5 million smallholder farmers, who can each access a two kilogramme pack of certified legumes seeds, improving crop productivity and nutrition.
But James expressed dissatisfaction with two kg package. “Unfortunately the quantities are not enough. The seed is also not accessible at the right time and then at least three or four families are forced to share that. That is too little for a smallholder farmer that is why we go back to saved seeds, which also let us down and we eventually abandon legume farming,” he said.
“We are in a situation where most of the farmers rely on their own farm-saved, recycled seed. Therefore, lack of effective improved seed demand will continue to be a critical constraint to the growth of the legume sector.”
–Strengthening farmer-based seed —
Meanwhile, National Association of Smallholder Farmers in Malawi (Nasfam) is strengthening farmer-based seed production programmes and revolving seed scheme by improving farmers’ skills in seed multiplication in Machinga and Mangochi to increase the supply of seed for improved varieties to the seed system.
The revolving seed scheme, where targeted farmers are often organised into groups access a certain amount of seed of improved varieties from a supplier and return at least the same amount of seed in-kind, is an important mechanism in the absence of adequate supply of improved seed to reach all farmers. The arrangement has excited some farmers such as Rose Mandala from T/A Jalasi in Mangochi, noting that seed multiplication has enhanced farmers’ participation in accessing improved groundnut and soybean seed. “We now can breathe a sigh of relief. We can sustain the use of improved seeds at large scale, thanks to the arrangement Nasfam has brought,” she said.
A recent study commissioned by FtF/INVC by Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), observed that seed producers, like most smallholders, usually produce small volumes of legume seed in scattered small pieces of land. The study adds that a lot of smallholder farmers interested in seed multiplication do not have adequate knowledge.
“Providing seed production training through lead farmers who then should train fellow smallholder farmers has serious limitations. Usually this transfer of knowledge is not done as required. Training all farmers involved in seed production addresses the challenge in addition to training extension frontline staff,” reads the study report.
FtF/INVC in its 2011-15 multi-year strategy states that legumes are both produced and consumed widely in Malawi, with approximately 16 and 38 percent of smallholders already producing soy and groundnuts respectively. Evidence also demonstrates that investments in legumes can support productivity both by increasing household income available for inputs and the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes.
“Soy and groundnuts similarly offer farmers opportunities to diversify from maize into higher value per hectare crops that can be sold on local and export markets. When rains are good, they can significantly increase crop yields and in dry years when the crop fails, they can provide fruit, fodder and fuel as alternative food and income.
“Because legumes are commonly used in Malawian cooking with roughly three-fourths of Malawians consuming legumes at least two to three times per week, there is significant potential for an increased supply of legumes to impact household level nutrition.
“As they are also traditionally grown by women, these legumes provide significant opportunity to support women’s economic empowerment, though all interventions affecting women will be viewed through a holistic gender lens and not just an economic productivity lens,” said the strategy
On the Seed Systems Investments, FtF-INVC reveals that a significant constraint to the development of competitive groundnut and soybean value chains is the inadequate production of breeder seed.
Meanwhile, Cisanet has recommended that contract farming or contract marketing arrangements can help farmer association organisations to produce high quality seed without worrying for a market. It has also recommended that successful seed production model for smallholders should incorporate a revolving fund as a sustainability measure for seed production programmes to continue even after project life cycle.
As groundnut and soybean provide significant potential for increased income among smallholder farmers, there is need for a conducive policy for input supply, production and marketing to be developed and implemented.
Otherwise a fragile and poorly defined relationship in the groundnut and soybean innovation systems and value chains will not achieve Malawi’s efforts to diversify exports from high reliance on tobacco while groundnuts and soybeans offer good export prospects.