Agriculture experts have called for a rethink of the country’s policy on smallholder farming to make it viable to boost socio-economic development, warning the future of smallholder faming is bleak.
The experts spoke on Thursday in Lilongwe during a virtual policy research seminar jointly organised by the Malawi Agriculture Policy Advancement and Transformation Agenda (Mwapata) Institute and National Association of Smallholder Farmers in Malawi (Nasfam).
They argued that given the current status of the country’s smallholder farming, the outlook is bleak; hence, the urgent need to change the status quo.
It was also learnt during the seminar that farm sizes in the country are small, with 76 percent of farmers operating farms below one hectare and that about 30 percent of the farmers are already landless and struggling to sustain a family on less than half a hectare.
Smallholder farmers, by definition, are those that operate less than five hectares of land and they constitute
the bulk on of agricultural producers.
In his presentation, Milu Muyanga, a researcher at Mwapata, decried that for several reasons, the returns from agricultural investments by many are low.
He said: “This may be due to the productivity of inputs used, especially fertiliser and the crop portfolios that farmers adopt, including the rate of mono-cropping.
“These factors, coupled with the fact that Malawian farms tend to be fairly small, contribute to an overall low rate of commercialisation.”
Muyanga, who is also assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University in the United States, said there is also an inverse relation between farm sizes and productivity in the country, adding this also extends to fertiliser application which declines as farm sizes increase.
Available figures show that farm sizes in Malawi declined more than six percent between 2010 and 2016, from an average of 0.78 to 0.73 hectares. Similarly, average landholding sizes declined by nine percent from 0.77 to 0.70 hectares during the same period.
Muyanga said most of the land held by smallholder farmers is usually devoted to growing grain or roots and tubers as compared to growing legumes or for horticulture.
Taking her turn, Nasfam chief executive officer Betty Chinyamunyamu observed that in recent years, there has been a lot of discussion on the viability of smallholder farming sub-sector in Malawi, saying the growth of the sector has largely remained unstable.
She said:“Have we developed appropriate technologies? Have we provided our farmers the right inputs? Why have we failed to increase yields sustainably and why smallholder farming remains low in terms of returns?.”
On his part, Mwapata acting executive director William Chadza described the seminar as critical, adding that it will help devise transition pathways and strategies for smallholder farmers in the country and that the future of the country’s agriculture depends on present actions.
Minister of Agriculture Lobin Lowe, who officially opened the seminar, admitted that the viability of the smallholder-led agricultural transformation strategy in Malawi has faced several challenges, including low productivity and dependence on rain-fed production systems.
“It is recognised that smallholders are diverse and there is a need for different combinations of policy strategies to help tackle the challenges that they face,” he said.