FRNs and METs for Soil, Maize-Legume, and Livelihoods

Lead Organization:

Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR)

Partner Organizations:

University of Greenwich Natural Resources Institute (NRI); NGOs (SFHC, MALEZA, LOMADEF); government extension Kasungu, Ntcheu, and Mzimba North District Agriculture Offices; Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development

Community of Practice:

East & Southern Africa






Agricultural productivity in Malawi remains low because of poor soil fertility, unpredictable weather, pests and diseases, and poor agronomic practices. These negatively impact the country’s food, nutrition, and income security as well as rural livelihoods (Chirwa & Dorward, 2013). Over the past 15 years, McKnight-funded Legume Best Bets I, II, III, and IV projects have conducted research on improving soil health, crop productivity, and livelihoods in selected Extension Planning Areas of Mzimba, Kasungu, and Ntcheu districts.

Findings show benefits associated with the integration of legumes in maize-based systems. For example, yield of maize following legume systems increased by 60 to 200 percent (Mhango et al., 2012) and reduced risk of failure with climate change (temperature or rainfall) (Ollenburger, 2012). Integrating legumes in maize systems efficiently is, however, constrained by knowledge gaps (e.g., reasons why some soils are nonresponsive to legumes). Best Bets has thus delved into questioning heterogeneity in performance of maize-legume cropping systems in different contexts.

Literature and field observations show that uptake of soil health innovations has been low because of failure to suit diverse contexts of smallholder farmers (Kanyama-Phiri et al., 2000). This informed the Best Bets team to introduce the FRN model. Results show that the model facilitates engagement of diverse farmers in research on soil health innovation process and increased capacity of farmers to experiment and apply agroecological principles. Farmers were linked to researchers and extension workers (Richardson et al., 2021). Recently, the team focused on understanding how FRNs could be scaled up and FRN dynamics operationalized in diverse contexts.

The project builds on previous phases’ experiences and lessons during which some legume soil health innovations for improving productivity were developed. Heterogeneity in performance of these technologies on-farm and contributing factors were documented: organic fertilizers to complement doubled-up legume options on nonresponsive soils, improving performance of doubled-up legumes, farmer training on legume utilization, and processes for formation of FRN groups.

Pathways for scaling out innovations were developed in partnership with the McKnight-funded ISFM project.

Grant Aims:

The overall goal is to support agroecological transitions in smallholder farming systems for improved soil health, crop productivity, food and nutrition security, local economies, and equity in Mzimba, Kasungu, and Ntcheu districts of Malawi, enhancing farmer capacity to innovate and adopt of maize-legume technologies.

Specifically, the project seeks to:

  1. Evaluate agronomic packages for improving crop productivity in different environments.
  2. Identify context-specific soil health options for improving soil health and crop productivity.
  3. Evaluate impacts of maize-legume systems on soil health (soil organic matter pools, soil biology, and selected physical properties).
  4. Investigate implications of AE transitions for rural livelihoods.
  5. Conduct economic assessment of different legume options for improving soil health and crop productivity.
  6. Investigate how FRN influences research and extension system institutions and policy processes on agroecological transitions.
  7. See how FRNs’ innovation process influence scaling up and out AE innovations from plot to landscape level.

Outputs and Outcomes:


  • Knowledge on systems-based agronomic packages for improving crop productivity in different environments
  • Legume-based soil heath options tested and validated through METs and FRNs in different contexts
  • Configuration of soil health improving options that offer socioeconomic gains in terms of productivity, environment, resilience, food sovereignty, and cultural values to diverse farmer categories
  • Strategies for scaling-out benefits and minimizing negative effects of agroecological transitions on rural livelihoods
  • Strategies for FRNs to influence scaling-up and -out options for agroecological transition at landscape level
  • Strategies for FRNs to influence behavioral change (knowledge, skills, and attitudes toward soil health principles) at community level
  • Methodology for using FRNs to influence research, extension, and policy processes to support AE


  • Improved soil health at landscape level, subsequently increasing crop productivity, food and nutrition security, local economies, and equity
  • Sharing of context-specific legume-based soil health innovations at community level
  • Adoption and adaptation of optimal soil health innovations by smallholder farmers in diverse contexts
  • Application of agroecological principles at landscape level
  • Integration of agroecological and FRN principles in agricultural research and extension programs and policies