Features

Agricultural platforms help farmers lead in research trials

By Watipaso Mzungu:

HOPEFUL—Nkomaula shows a maize leaf damaged by fall armyworm

In Ntonda Area Stakeholder Panel (ASP) on the outskirts of Blantyre, a group of 14 smallholder farmers are working with extension officers in a study aimed to find most effective low-cost, smallholder-friendly pesticides to contain fall armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda).

They are using tephrosia vogelii (Wombwe) and fish soup to fight the pest in gardens designated for the trials.

“Once a week, we pound wombwe leaves and soak them in water overnight. In the next morning, we press the pounded leaves to extract the bitter juice, which is then applied on one plot under study,” explains 46-year-old Brenda Ntukane.

Ntukane, a smallholder farmer and member of Nasundu Irrigation Scheme in Traditional Authority (T/A) Somba in Blantyre, says, on another plot, the group is applying fish soup to fight the pest.

“We boil usipa for 20 minutes; let it cool for few minutes before extracting soup to apply on the crop under study. We have designated three separate maize plots under this study to check the potency and the effectiveness of each method in fighting the fall armyworm,” she narrates.

Similar trials are taking place in selected ASPs in Nsanje, Ntcheu, Mangochi and Lilongwe, all in an effort to contain one of the most destructive pests to have hit farmers in Malawi in recent times.

The fall armyworm (Faw) was first detected on the African continent in 2016 and has subsequently spread throughout the continent and across Asia.

Faw, a voracious agricultural pest native to North and South America, is one of the most serious crop pests that feed on over 80 different crops including maize, rice, sorghum and sugar cane as well as others such as cabbage, groundnut, soybean, onion, cotton, pasture grasses, millet, tomato, potato and cotton.

A scoping study conducted by Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Agriculture Organisation in the 2016-17 season revealed that Faw was responsible for over 65 percent of crop damage in some Agriculture Development Divisions across the country, thereby threatening the livelihoods of thousands of poor farmers, according to agricultural experts.

Faw is capable of migrating long distances on prevailing winds and can also breed continuously in areas that are climatically suitable.

The pest has attacked maize plants covering one fifth of Malawi’s arable land, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Agricultural stakeholders and farmers are fighting back through the use of synthetic pesticides and other local methods.

Over the years, the Malawi government has promoted the use of chemical pesticides, which, apart from having human health and environmental risks, are costly and could undermine smallholder pest management strategies that depend, to a large degree, on natural enemies.

Additionally, the effectiveness of this control option is challenged by several issues such as failure by a lot of farmers to correctly use the recommended chemicals, limited access to the pesticides whenever they are needed and pesticide resistance.

As one way of addressing the problem, researchers at Bvumbwe Research Station are collaborating with the United States Agency for International Development-funded activity, Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension (Sane), to partner with farmer groups to conduct on-farm research to assess the potential and effectiveness of local methods for controlling the pests.

The research activity is being implemented as one way of strengthening involvement of local agriculture platforms in meaningful research activities that better addresses farmer’s needs.

The Sane activity is being implemented in 10 districts across the country, namely Mchinji, Lilongwe Rural, Dedza, Ntcheu, Mangochi, Balaka, Machinga, Blantyre Rural, Chikwawa and Nsanje.

The Faw research activity is, however, being implemented in only five of these districts, namely Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mangochi, Nsanje and Ntcheu.

To improve accountability, DARS signed service agreements with District Agriculture Extension Coordinating Committees and ASPs, to implement the participatory on-farm demonstrations, which are being used as platforms to facilitate farmer learning and interactions with research and extension.

Sane Chief of Party Clodina Chowa says researchers’ involvement in District Agricultural Extension Services Systems (DAESS) provides a platform for extensionists, farmers and researchers to share information on available innovations for increased productivity.

Chowa adds that diverse DAESS membership provides opportunity for farmers to be linked to diverse service providers along the value chains such as marketing, value addition and input suppliers.

Thus, DAESS help farmers to access diverse extension services.

The learning events are important activities in extension as they provide room for farmers, extensionists and researchers to engage in a joint learning.

“So far, 242 farmer learning events have taken place through DAESS platforms at different times of the agricultural seasons, engaging 2,446 farmers. DAESS is a decentralised extension framework for enabling all agricultural stakeholders to engage in a participatory process of identifying and addressing issues for collective action,” she explains.

Chowa adds that DAESS structures at village, area and district levels report to the Local Government coordination platforms – the Village, Area District Development Committees and provides an oversight role.

Ntonda Agriculture Extension Development Coordinator Thoko Mwape says the project offers an opportunity to create an enabling environment that brings together all key stakeholders to take control of Faw as a shared responsibility.

Mwape believes, with proper implementation and adequate resources, the expected outcomes of the trials will contribute to increased awareness on Faw and adoption of effective strategies for dealing with the pest.

“And if the results of these trials prove effective in combating the pest, we expect to have reduced resurgence and spread of Faw. We also expect improved crop production, and productivity, including the enhanced export market for maize. And, in turn, this will lead to improved income, poverty alleviation, reduced hunger and malnutrition for the benefit of smallholders and the entire community,” he says.

Bvumbwe Research Station Research Assistant Mwayiwawo Nkomaula says the participatory and iterative form of the research embedded in research sites allows ownership of the research process and outcomes by farmers.

Nkomaula adds that, while researchers recognise limited impact through conventional research and extension systems, the uniqueness about this study is that it provides insight for an emphasis on action research on innovation development in complex farmer situations for impact.

“And should these trials prove effective, the local fall armyworm control methods will put Malawi on the map,” she says.

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