Malawi’s Strengthened Extension System Pivots During the Pandemic
This post is written by Anna Snider, Boaz Mandula, and Clodina Chowa.
The dry season would normally find agriculture and nutrition extension workers in Malawi in the field, planning agricultural fairs, advising farmers on the harvest and making farm visits. The scene looked a bit different this year, as most agricultural fairs were canceled and the government-imposed restrictions limiting the number of people in a gathering.
Extension services are critical to Malawi’s two million farm families who rely on group trainings, village meetings and visits from lead farmers to maximize their harvests.
“The COVID-19 prevention measures came at a time when farmers need extension services the most. This is the time when farmers have to harvest their crops, secure the harvest from pest damage, engage in marketing of produce, and engage in winter production,” said Henderson Chikanaulanga, Chairperson for Ntchisi DAECC, when asked how the COVID restrictions would affect farmers in the district, before adding that, “There is certainly need for agriculture stakeholders to think of solutions to ensure that services are not interrupted."
AgReach at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has been strengthening Malawi’s extension system through its Strengthening Agricultural Nutrition Extension (SANE) Activity for the past five years. This includes improving communication and linkages among all stakeholders in the system. For SANE, ensuring that interactions between extension workers and farmers continue during these difficult times is key to institutionalizing the work that has been done. One strategy SANE has used is engaging the District Agriculture Coordinating Committees (DAECCs) in all the 13 districts it operates in to consider utilizing online platforms like Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp to convene and conduct their DAECC meetings.
“With the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19, we were not sure how our DAECC would be operating. How would the DAECC fulfill its role of strengthening coordination without stakeholders meeting? The idea of using online platforms to conduct DAECC meetings was very brilliant. So far we have been able to meet online several times and discuss pertinent issues regarding coordination of extension activities in our district.” Says Mphatso Mbulukwa, Chief Agriculture Officer (CAO) for Blantyre District.
The meetings enabled the DAECCs to share and discuss strategies that can help in ensuring that service provision is not interrupted and to also come up with safety measures for stakeholders to follow when conducting extension work at the community level. At the request of front-line extension workers, SANE provided training on producing hand sanitizer and face coverings so workers could safely visit farmers.
At the field level, some field staff have already adjusted their way of working and employing the prevention measures proposed during the online meetings, along with other measures recommended by the Ministry of Health.
For example, in Ntchisi some staff from the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM) recently conducted trainings for farmers on marketing skills using the COVID-19 preventive measures they learned about at the Ntchisi DAECC online meeting. The marketing skills training was held in-person due to a lack of access to smartphones and internet at the village level. The training was conducted successfully, albeit reaching fewer participants than was originally planned.
“We made sure that COVID-19 prevention measures were in place and strictly followed during the trainings. We invited fewer farmers to the trainings, put up hand washing stations and insisted that participants always observe social distancing. The topics covered also included a general discussion on COVID-19 led by a community health worker focusing on how the virus spreads and what one can do to avoid contracting it. This helped the farmers to better understand why the preventive measures were necessary,” said James Mkokoko, an Association Field Officer for NASFAM in Ntchisi.
A similar approach was also followed in a district-level training on stakeholder mapping in Nsanje, where the training was conducted in a well-ventilated spacious room, with participants sitting at least two meters apart. In addition to washing hands with soap and disinfecting their hands with alcohol-based sanitizers, participants were given cloth masks to wear during the sessions.
Coordination and communication throughout the system have been essential to quickly pivot and adapt to the pandemic.
As the country continues to record increasing numbers of new infections, it is likely that the Government might enforce even more strict Covid-19 preventive measures that may disrupt the provision of extension and advisory services even further. It is therefore important that extension stakeholders start to become more innovative in coming up with strategies to ensure continued services and mainstream the adaptations that have already been made.
“We really need to be innovative in coming up with strategies that will enable us to offer advisory services to farmers during this period.” Says Chikanaulanga, before adding that “perhaps this is the time we focused more on the use of ICTs for extension provision on top of other strategies proposed during the [district] meetings.