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Conservation agriculture in Malawi: “We always have problems with rain here”

This blog is cross-posted from Africa RISING and the the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Earlier this year, Africa RISING funded an ‘early win’ project in Malawi led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). A news story from this project explains how smallholder maize farmers in Malawi are adopting sustainable crop management practices that cut labor and help capture and hold rainfall, salvaging harvests when water is scarce.

From CIMMYT:

One early-March afternoon along the way to Zomba about 150 kilometers south of Lilongwe, a rainstorm bursts upon parched, yellowed maize fields that roll far out over surrounding hills. A month prior, the water would have been a godsend to the crop, which was thirsting under another of the region's prolonged droughts. Now many dessicated plants are too far-gone to save.

Southern Malawi maize farmers will lose a third or more of their harvest to 2012's dry weather, according to agricultural extension expert Mphatso Gama. "Of course, we always have problems with rain here," he says, "but this year has been the worst, from the word 'go.' " Maize grain is the chief food of Malawi. Many southern households could soon face a long "hungry season"—the months until the next maize harvest, after last year's grain has been eaten.

Hope will not wilt

Some will escape hunger, among them more than 400 farmers and their families at a location called Lemu in Balaka Township, southern Malawi. Over the last six years they have begun using conservation agriculture—a set of practices that includes eliminating traditional ridge-and-furrow tillage systems, keeping crop residues on the soil, and rotating or intercropping maize with other crops. Conservation agriculture specialists have long sung the virtues of such approaches: labor and cost savings, improved soil structure and fertility, increased infiltration and water retention, less erosion or greenhouse gas emissions. Conservation agriculture is widely practiced by farmers in the USA, Canada, Australia, and the Southern Cone of South America.

For small-scale farmers in places like Malawi, where maize subsists on rain alone, the benefits of conservation agriculture are most dramatically manifest during dry spells. Then, residues, root holes, and earthworms catch and channel falling rain and retard evaporation. "Maize was wilting this year in conventionally-managed plots due to the drought," said a small group of Lemu farmers who gathered to talk about their management practices. "In fields managed using conservation agriculture, there is no problem."

"This area gets only an average 200-400 millimeters of rainfall per year," says Gama. That's barely enough to raise a maize crop. "The population is dense and the average farm landholding of less than half a hectare supports a household of five members," adds Gama. Farmers grow groundnuts, potatoes, cotton, and cassava, as well as maize, and keep chickens and goats.

"We started (conservation agriculture) with six farmers in 2005-06 and financial assistance and training from CIMMYT." By the 2011-12 crop cycle, nearly one-fifth of the area's 2,200 farmers had adopted the practices. According to Gama, many more would like to, but the country's present lack of currency for imports has constrained access to fertilizer or herbicide—the latter needed to stop weeds in no-till systems.

Read the full story on the CIMMYT website and watch a video in which John Chisui of Total Land Care talks about how Conservation Agriculture is spreading through Malawi with the help of CIMMYT training: