Best Bets

Lead Organization:

Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Partner Organizations:

Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (Ntcheu, Kasungu and Mzimba North District Agriculture Offices), Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich

Community of Practice:

East & Southern Africa, Farmer research network (FRN)






Smallholder farmers in Malawi face complex production constraints that include low soil fertility, increasingly unpredictable rainfall, pests, and unaffordable farm inputs. Yields of maize, the main staple, are typically less than 0.5 tons per acre, which is considerably below what is attainable under improved crop management. Individual land holdings average fewer 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 affects family health: 46 percent of Malawian children under five years of age are stunted.

The Best Bets project in Malawi has been funded by the CCRP since 2006, with the current phase due to end in early 2021 Over the past 15 years, the project has carried out research to improve soil health, crop productivity, and family nutrition in three districts (Mzimba, Kasungu, and Ntcheu) in the country. The project has developed a “doubled-up” legume system—pigeonpea and groundnuts/soybean/cowpea planted in rotation with maize, which was 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 from 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.

Grant Aims:

The overall project objective is to improve food and nutrition security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the Mzimba, Kasungu, and Ntcheu districts of Malawi. Proposed outcomes include:

  • Increased agricultural production and total farm productivity as well as improved soil health
  • Innovations meeting farmers’ needs across diverse environments; FRN 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 policymakers on soil health and FRN
  • 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 nonresponsive soils
  • Understanding of the effects of different ISFM (integrated soil fertility management) 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
  • Toolkit on FRN for extension and research stakeholders
  • Participation of FRN in local and national forum on ISFM and farmer-led innovation
  • Policy briefs on FRN and ISFM
  • Five master’s students trained in agroecology, agricultural innovation, and natural resource economics; researchers and extension partners trained in FRN and ISFM