Smallholder farmers in Malawi face complex production constraints that include low soil fertility, increasingly unpredictable rainfall, pests, and unaffordable farm inputs. Yields of the main staple, maize, are typically less than 0.5 tons/acre, which is considerably below what is attainable under improved crop management. Individual land holdings average less than two acres and, with only one cropping season per year, many families are unable to produce enough food. They also lack diversity in their diets, which adversely impacts on family health: 46 percent of Malawian children under five years of age are stunted.
The Best Bets project in Malawi has been funded by CCRP since 2006, with the current phase due to end in July 2018. Over the past 12 years, the project has been carrying out research to improve soil health, crop productivity, and family nutrition in three districts in the country (Mzimba, Kasungu, and Ntcheu). The project has developed a “doubled-up” legume system—pigeon pea and groundnuts/ soybean/ cowpea planted in rotation with maize—which has now been approved by the Malawian government. Benefits associated with doubled-up legume-maize systems include improved soil fertility through biological nitrogen fixation, increased maize and legume yields, reduced risk of failure due to climate variability, and increased legume consumption. There are, however, wide variations in performance of the technologies across farms. Some factors contributing to this heterogeneity have been identified by the project (e.g., soil texture, plant density, rainfall, weed management, and gender), but it is not yet understood how different factors interact and contribute to crop performance and thus, how these can be managed by farmers.
The overall objective of this project is to improve food and nutrition security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Mzimba, Kasungu and Ntcheu districts of Malawi. The research will lead to the following outcomes:Increased agricultural production and total farm productivityImproved soil healthInnovations meeting farmers’ needs across diverse environmentsFRN scaled out across the 3 target districts with strengthened farmer-researcher-extension collaborationIncreased integration of soil health principles in farming systemsIncreased knowledge of farmers, researchers and policy makers on soil health and FRN. Research outputs will be:Maize-legume technologies for different socioeconomic and biophysical nichesGood agronomic practices for optimizing crop productivity and soil health benefitsKnowledge on how to manage non-responsive soilsUnderstanding of the effects of different ISFM technologies on soil organic matter (SOM) poolsKnowledge on long term change in total SOM and short term change in active soil carbon and other nutrients, with recommendations on strategies for building SOM poolsEconomic, social and environmental assessment of the different legume optionsToolkit on FRN for extension and research stakeholdersParticipation of FRN in local and national forum on ISFM and farmer-led innovationPolicy briefs on FRN and ISFMFive Masters students trained in agroecology, agricultural innovation and natural resource economics; researchers and extension partners trained in FRN and ISFM.
Outputs and Outcomes:
Increased agricultural production and total farm productivity
Improved soil health
Innovations that meet farmers’ needs across diverse environments
FRNs scaled out across the three target districts with strengthened farmer-researcher-extension collaboration
Increased integration of soil health principles in farming systems
Increased knowledge of farmers, researchers, and policy makers regarding soil health and the FRN approach.
Maize-legume technologies for different socioeconomic and biophysical niches
Good agronomic practices for optimizing crop productivity and soil health benefits
Knowledge on how to manage non-responsive soils
Understanding of the effects of different ISFM technologies on soil organic matter (SOM) pools
Knowledge on long-term change in total SOM and short-term change in active soil carbon and other nutrients, with recommendations on strategies for building SOM pools
Economic, social, and environmental assessment of the different legume options
FRN toolkit for extension and research stakeholders
Participation of FRNs in local and national forums on ISFM and farmer-led innovation
Policy briefs on FRNs and ISFM
Five Masters students trained in agroecology, agricultural innovation, and natural resource economics; researchers and extension partners trained in FRN approaches and ISFM.