Strengthening farmers’ resilience in a changing climate

Agriculture extension workers learning compost making in Kasungu
Agriculture extension workers learning compost making in Kasungu

In Malawi, climate change has negatively impacted rural farmers by reducing their crop yield and increasing their vulnerability to climatic shocks, weakening or completely eroding their livelihoods and ability to achieve food and nutrition security.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is aiming to support farmers’ adaptation to climate change and resilience building through several projects and partnerships. The first is with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, by supporting implementation of the Sustainable Land Management Promotion (SLMP) project, focusing on use of high quality compost manure to improve soil fertility.

Use of quality manure is one of the strategies for achieving sustainable agriculture in Malawi, but national evaluations on manure indicate that most farmers use poor quality manure which in turn fails to produce high yield.

 Under the partnership, 66 agriculture extension workers from 20 districts have been trained in compost making and soil testing which is critical to determining the composition of nutrients in the soil and the amount of organic or inorganic fertilizer to apply.

 Drive Kachitsa, an agricultural extension worker in Phalombe, says: “In the past, we were just producing compost using the residues from the maize field but now we have learnt that when making compost manure, we need to add another layer of residues from a leguminous crop such as groundnuts in order to improve the level of nitrogen.

 “We have also learnt that we should add ashes at every layer in the compost making process to speed up decomposition. Apart from that, we have also learnt to use plastic coverings to produce the compost quickly.”

 With recurrent dry spells that further reduce crop production, Cornelius Chisambi, a trainer from Lunyangwa Agricultural Research Station in Mzuzu says farmers who apply compost manure are better off because compost manure improves soil moisture.

 “Compost manure increases water holding capacity in the soil. In that way, a farmer – despite dry conditions – will be more likely to harvest something and have a greater yield,” he says.

 To effectively improve soil fertility, Chisambi says farmers ought to first know the nutrients already available in their soils so that they can make better crop and fertilizer choices but this is not the case for most farmers in Malawi, hence, the inclusion of soil testing component in the training.

 “Each and every year, farmers cultivate their fields and apply the same fertilizer without knowing the levels of nutrients in their fields. In other areas, they over-apply the nutrients while in some areas they under-apply,” says Chisambi.

 Currently, the trained agriculture extension workers are now transferring the knowledge and skills on compost making and soil testing to smallholder farmers in their areas to boost crop production.

 The JICA partnership under the Sustainable Land Management Programme builds on the bedrock of one of WFP’s core resilience-building programmes known as Food Assistance for Asset Creation (FFA), whereby participating food insecure and disaster-prone households receive food or cash in return for their work on household and community asset creation and rehabilitation activities.

 Through the FFA programme, WFP’s community projects focus on addressing climate change as a ticking time bomb for sustainable food and nutrition security. The FFA projects aim to reduce disaster risk through better soil and water management and improved agricultural infrastructure such as small dams for irrigation in order to improve food and nutrition security as well as boost farmers’ income from agriculture. This is in line with WFP’s vision of supporting the shift from relief to resilience.

 Katalina Sinango, 35, from Jumbe Village in Balaka is one of the farmers benefitting from WFP’s FFA activities. Last year, drought affected her three-acre maize field but with WFP’s monthly food rations, she was able to have energy to participate in rehabilitation of water harvesting and irrigation structures as well as tree planting in her community.

 Farmers in Balaka are also learning to adapt to a changing climate through innovations that help build resilience to extreme weather shocks – one of these is a simple-to-use rain gauge that contributes to technically advance innovation of weather-indexed microinsurance.

 As part of WFP’s resilience programme, 15 farming villages in Balaka district received rain gauges at the beginning of the current rainy season to record rainfall amounts and help them in tracking rainfall patterns. The data recorded from the gauges is used to corroborate satellite readouts that trigger automatic insurance payments to farmers if rainfall is insufficient.

 This microinsurance builds on the FFA work in an effort to reduce overall disaster risk and is further linked to a climate services pilot called the Global Framework for Climate Services that improves the flow of agricultural and climate information to farmers through training of trainers, text messages and radio.

 Maintaining food security continues to be challenging in the midst of climate change and its resulting effects on annual planting seasons. WFP’s investment in new climate innovations and climate services in Malawi is essential to helping farmers prepare themselves for climate-related shocks and for reducing their risk of falling into food and nutrition insecurity.