Climate change is bringing new challenges and, of course, new solutions but uptake of these solutions, as EMMANUEL MUWAMBA writes, is still very low.
The agriculture sector is facing a challenge from the adverse impacts of climate change and the growing population. As such, it is imperative that agriculture must undergo significant transformation if it is to meet the growing and interconnected challenges of food insecurity and climate change.
Consequently, there is a need to simultaneously improve agricultural productivity and reduce yield variability over time under adverse climatic conditions. A proposed means to achieve this is increased adoption of new technologies, for instance, conservation agriculture.
According to Food and AgriculturE Organisation (FAO), conservation agriculture is based on the integrated management of soil, water and biological resources, and external inputs. It attempts to achieve ‘resource-efficient’ crop production by utilising three farming principles: minimum soil disturbance, organic soil cover and diversified crop rotations.
However, despite research showing the benefits of conservation agriculture, adoption of this technology, though widely publicised, remains limited in many areas in the country.
Regardless of the wide publicity and demonstration plots along the main roads in the country adoption of conservation agriculture in Malawi is still modest. It is estimated that conservation agriculture is currently practiced on less than two percent of agricultural land in the country, according to a 2011 FAO report.
And a recent study undertaken by the Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) and Concern Worldwide to find out the adoption levels of conservation agriculture in three targeted districts of Nkhotakota, Lilongwe and Nsanje shows that adoption levels for are extremely low, just 0.3 percent of all respondents or 1.4 percent of those currently practicing all the three principles of conservation agriculture.
Farmers and field officers detailed several factors affecting the adoption of conservation agriculture technologies. Chief among them is that mulching competes with other farming systems and household usage, for example, fodder for livestock, fuel for household use and building materials.
At a dialogue meeting held in Nsanje, the Reverend Steven Tchereni attributed the limited adoption of conservation agriculture to lack of community enforced norms to protect farmers practicing the technologies. He cited the free grazing of animals and fires caused by hunters or other people with rivalries.
“We are usually free to manage our land during cultivation but many farmers have far more restricted ability to manage their plots after harvest. There are no by-laws to guard against free-grazing of livestock.
Others deliberately set fire on the crop residue so it means that it would be difficult to ensure that enough of your crop residue remains to cover the land, or to protect cover crops. Fencing will increase costs and it is not sustainable,” he said.
Maria Kambola, a farmer in Nkhotakota, who is not turning back on the technology, however, mentioned economic reasons such as the cost of inputs at the initial stages as a factor affecting the adoption of conservation agriculture.
She also pointed out that in most cases the benefits associated with conservation agriculture are mid-to-long term as such it is difficult to sacrifice short term yield increase to long term sustainability.
The CisaNet and Concern Worldwide report notes that in the initial stages of conservation agriculture requires use of fertilisers and herbicides as well as hiring of labour.
A district agriculture officer in Nkhotakota, blamed some traditional leaders of lacking the supporting spirit to practice and adopt conservation agriculture technology.
She also took an issue with some non-governmetal organisations (NGOs) who are promoting the technology but did not collaborate with the district agriculture office pointing out that in the end messages on conservation agriculture were not harmonised which confuses the farmers.
“There were some NGOs that short-circuited the channels and went straight to the farmers without going through the established district-led extension network, the district agriculture extension coordinating committee.
In some instances this caused duplication of efforts and completely missed stakeholder platforms that have been created for implementation and lesson learning amongst the service providers and between the providers and farmers,” she said.
The CisaNet and Concern Worldwide findings however show that although conservation agriculture is not new in Malawi, the concept in its comprehensive form is still not familiar to most farmers.
“Like elsewhere in Malawi and Africa, farmers in the study districts rarely adopted all three components of conservation agriculture, preferring to adopt one or two components depending on their specific circumstances. Targeting of conservation agriculture interventions will need to take into account the specific local conditions of farmers in different districts,” says the report.
The CisaNet and Concern Worldwide report recommends that conservation agriculture should be included in the National Agricultural Policy (NAP). The report also recommends that a review of extension methodology, a barrier analysis and an analysis on the knowledge gap for extension workers.
It should be noted that Malawi needs to develop clear guidelines for promoting conservation agriculture technologies but this will be achieved if there is a blueprint to be promoted as a “one-size-fits-all” approach through NAP.
Cisanet is of the view that there is a great need to harmonise conservation agriculture approaches among all sector players in Malawi, as well as harmonising monitoring indicators for the adoption of the technology.