Apr 23
April 23, 2014

Four Questions About Climate Smart Agriculture in Malawi


Adapting to the negative impacts of climate change is a pressing challenge for  anyone engaged in the agricultural sector. Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to these changes such as erratic weather patterns, increased water shortages, shorter growing seasons, and changes in plant and animals diseases and agricultural pests. As a result of these challenges, water availability and soil quality decline. The knowledge and skills that help farmers protect themselves against these changes are imperative. The Clinton Development Initiative (CDI) works with 25,000 smallholder farmers in Malawi to apply Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) adaptation and mitigation techniques on their farms. We sat down with Austin Ngwira, CDI’s Director of Agriculture, to learn more about how CSA is helping improve farmers' food security with techniques that are more resilient to climate change. Read our Q&A with Austin below.

1. We know that climate change is impacting agriculture all over Africa, particularly in Malawi. Can you explain some of the ways that you’ve personally seen agriculture and the environment impacted?

Some rivers that used to flow perennially now flow only seasonally. The most notable example is the Bua River that crosses Mchinji, Dowa and Kasungu Districts in Malawi. Additionally, many of the wetlands and swamps have dried up. Rainfall patterns have also become increasingly inconsistent, resulting in delays in the onset of rains, rainy seasons ending early, and prolonged drought spells. In central Malawi, first rains used to arrive as early as October. Nowadays, most farmers have to wait until December to start planting, when the first rains arrive. Due to abbreviated rainfall seasons, long duration and late maturing crop varieties, which typically produce the highest yields, are affected, lowering crop production and increasing farmer’s vulnerability to food insecurity.

2. How does Climate Smart Agriculture benefit smallholder farmers? What about the technologies that they’re adopting is important to bolster their resilience to climate change?

Climate Smart Agriculture helps smallholder farmers obtain improved harvests in times of adverse climactic conditions. Practicing conservation agriculture (CA), a component of climate smart agriculture, is particularly important as it bolsters smallholder farmer’s resilience to drought spells.

One of the key aspects of Climate Smart Agriculture is to build resilience to agricultural systems. Resilience can be physical, economic, social and human. Resilient systems are more diverse, providing multiple safety nets for smallholders in the face of climate change. The Clinton Development Initiative (CDI) engages in both adaptation and mitigation measures to ensure that all farming activities are resilient to climate change. Both adaptation and mitigation to climactic changes are achieved through many avenues.

3. What Climate Smart Agriculture technologies are you and your team implementing in the field to help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change? Both on CDI’s Anchor Farms and on smallholder farmers’ land?

The promotion of crop diversification provides smallholder farmers with increased household income and food and nutrition security. Diversified cropping systems, as opposed to mono-cropped systems, are more sustainable and resilient to erratic rainfall patters, pests, and diseases. If one crop fails, the farmer has a variety of other crops to rely on for income and sustenance.

CDI also promotes the introduction of high yielding and resistant varieties of seeds into their smallholder farmer’s fields. Research has proven that these types of seeds, compared to locally sourced varieties, have the ability to help provide farmers protection from the random shifts in weather patterns.

The introduction of irrigation systems is another strategy. As rainfall patterns become increasingly varied, with rainy seasons starting later and ending earlier, irrigation allows our farms and crops to take advantage of a full growing season. Irrigation has also provided the Anchor Farms with an opportunity to have multiple cropping seasons a year, further increasing our farmer’s access to income and food security.

CDI also encourages smallholder farmers to introduce leguminous crops and trees throughout their farms. These crops and trees have the ability to take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a compound in the soil that improves overall fertility and quality. Additionally, leguminous trees are integrated into the landscape of the farm, and when pruned, the foliage from these trees is mixed into the soil, building up soil carbon as the leaves decompose. Trees also have the ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere, which contributes to greenhouse gas sequestration.

Finally, promoting conservation agriculture provides farmers with low-input technologies to help maintain the quality of their natural resources including soil quality. Minimizing field tilling and using crop residues to protect the top soils from erosion and sun damage, while also increasing soil carbon through decomposition of crop and tree residues, help preserve high soil quality throughout the Anchor Farms. The ‘top soil’, or the first two inches of the soil, contains the highest concentration of organic matter, making it integrally valuable to crop production and yields.

4. Can you share a story with us explaining how one farmer has benefited from integrating climate smart agricultural technologies into their gardens and fields?  

Mr. Joseph Mateche from Kapiri East, Mchinji District, a smallholder participating in the Anchor Farm Project, has fallen in love with Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA). Mr. Mateche was first exposed to CSA upon visiting a demonstration plot exhibiting fertilizer trees. The plot exhibited two beds of maize. The first was grown under the principles of conservation agriculture, while the second was maize grown under conventional farming methods. After seeing the difference between the plots, Mr. Mateche vowed integrate the principles to Climate Smart Agriculture into all of his fields, converting half of an acre each year.

Now, Mr. Mateche’s family has conquered hunger and achieved food security. He has double the production yield of maize, the staple food crop in Malawi, because of his exposure to, and gained knowledge and skills relating to climate smart agriculture.

Mr. Mateche has noted that now, when people pass by his field, they marvel at his bountiful maize crop. He has become a leader of this intervention in his community, and has been an inspiration to others to adopt conservation agriculture technologies in their own fields.

CSA is critical to long-term sustainable vitality of our farms in Malawi. Climate change is impacting agriculture now. It is our job to provide farmers with the knowledge and skills required to combat the impacts of climate change, and maintain vitality of the natural resources available to them. 

This weekend, CDI will be highlighting its projects that are working to combat climate change while providing farmers with livelihood benefits. Join us at the New York City Green Festival® on April 26th and 27th at Pier 94 from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. The Green Festival® is a sustainability event where companies and organizations converge to showcase their green products and services, and where individuals go to learn how to live healthier, more sustainable lives. The Festival provides the opportunity for the public and organizations to meet and work towards building awareness and relationships around sustainable living practices.