Based on reporting by Frank Tchuwa and Kate Wellard as well as deep dive M&E work and interviews with project leaders.
Productivity on smallholder farms in Malawi is generally very low. Yields of the main subsistence crop, maize, are substantially below what could be achieved with improved crop management. Soil fertility is declining, so the productive capacity of farms is being eroded. Low incomes mean that few farmers can afford to purchase inorganic fertilizer, and the number of them benefiting from government input subsidies has fallen drastically. Individual land holdings are small and, in many areas, only one crop can be grown per year. Erratic rainfall—floods and dry spells—also has an impact on crop production. As a result, a large number of people do not produce enough food to meet their needs. So, too, do they lack diversity in their diets, which adversely affects the health of farm families. The incidence of stunting in children under 5 years of age averages 46 percent.
This project is led by LUANAR (Malawi) and Natural Resources Institute (U.K.).
The project has carried out research into ways in which legumes can be incorporated into maize-based cropping systems in three districts in the country: Mzimba, Kasungu, and Ntcheu. The aim has been to achieve multiple benefits of improved soil fertility, enhanced crop productivity, diversified incomes, and better family nutrition. The project has researched so-called “doubled-up” legume systems, and farmers in the target areas have shown interest in growing a groundnut/soybean/cowpea-pigeonpea intercrop in rotation with maize. This system saves labor and adds nitrogen and organic matter to the soil, thus increasing the yield of the maize crop and contributing to more diverse diets and income sources for farming households.
Best Bets III FRN grew out of a previous phase of this research in which farmer groups tested new technologies using multi-environment trials (MET). In the current phase, the MET continue to do this but FRNs have been established as a more farmer-focused innovation mechanism. In some cases, a MET and FRN operate in the same location. The FRN model is being studied through an action research approach in which it is being compared with participatory models such as farmer field schools, farmer research teams, and the established lead farmer system. The project works with farmer groups and seeks to enhance their capacity to innovate. The initial farmer groups in the FRN are now expanding, comprising 15 groups of up to 20 farmers.
Farmers are free to choose from the list of technologies they draw up jointly with researchers and extension. These include technologies developed through formal research and farmers’ traditional and recently conceived practices (e.g., incorporation of tobacco and bean residues instead of legumes; using urine instead of inorganic fertilizer). Farmers are responsible for setting up and managing the trials. In some cases, FRN members form subgroups to work on each other’s plots. Farmers collect agreed data in notebooks, assisting each other and discussing recordings at group meetings. Organized learning and sharing activities include field days and joint reflection and learning days. The research process is facilitated by experienced facilitators and supported by extension specialists from LUANAR.
What This Project Is Helping Us Learn About FRNs
- Power dynamics can affect experimentation. This includes intra-household power relations such as a husband planting on his wife’s experimental plot.
- Social capital is important in the smooth functioning of a FRN. This suggests that FRNs are likely to be most effective when based on networked groups of farmers rather than building a network of individual farmers.
- Depth of farmer engagement and quality of experimentation improve with time. Knowledge of and skills with agronomic practices and research principles increase each season, as does practice and confidence in making presentations. This means that facilitators need to support the research capacity building process.
- Implementation of FRN activities is affected by unavailability of field extension personnel. This can be attributed to not only the low extension worker-farmer ratio but also to the lack of interest in learning FRN concepts, which may be new and require a change in usual extension tasks and different facilitation skills.
- Distance between group members and villages affects the FRN process. Subgroups form organically in individual villages where members interact regularly; however, when meetings are held in different villages many farmers do not attend. Thus, whilst cooperation is enhanced between subgroup members, there is a challenge in scaling the network.
- Develop strategies for recognizing farmer research. Farmers in Kandeu expressed interest in having their research publicized through local radio or newspapers or presenting to FRNs in other districts. There is need to develop strategies for recognizing farmers in the research and dissemination process.