Malawi’s agro-based economy continues to face numerous challenges some of which are being precipitated by climate change. In the midst of such challenges, services which were once handy in meeting the production needs of farmers are no longer readily available. As YOHANE SYMON pores over in this FRIDAY SHAKER, there is need to revisit old ways of supporting farmers.
Sixty-seven-year-old Wyson Mussa of Lukala Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chowe in Mangochi recalls that every Saturday, he used to take his family’s cattle to a dip tank which was located at the offices of Mayiwa Agriculture Extension Planning Area (EPA).
At the same area, there was a veterinary officer who used to bathe dogs and treat them of different health problems that they had.
Mussa’s family, just like several others in his area, could also ask for extension services to be provided at their homes. It was possible because the officers were staying within the same area.
Then things just went wrong. Growing crops and rearing animals continues but the extension services are no longer there.
“We used to have our animals treated right here in our village. We could also get pesticides and other chemicals for free. The structures are now gone,” said Mussa, pointing at structures that used to be handy in serving agriculture needs in Mayiwa EPA.
He said people in rural areas struggle to get advice from extension workers employed by the government because most of them do not stay within their duty stations.
“When we want to access extension services from extension workers, we are either told there are no services available or the instructions are given on the phones. People who are keeping livestock are now buying drugs and it becomes a problem when there is no money,” Mussa complained.
Some government structures in districts such as Mangochi, Balaka, Salima, Machinga and Zomba have been taken over by members of the community who have turned them into their own property which they use at will.
EPA offices in most parts of the country are in bad shape and abandoned with roofs blown off, doors removed and windows damaged.
For instance, a house for an extension worker at Ibrahim Village, T/A Namavi in Mangochi was abandoned by the government and a community member turned it into a beer hall.
“There was an agriculture officer who used to stay in this house a long time ago. But he left the area and we don’t know where he went. When he left the house, there was nobody to take care of it and I started to use it as a bar,” said Awusi Amini.
He says since he started using the house six years ago, no any government official has ever visited him to claim it back.
“Some government officials stop here and buy beer on their way from Makanjira. The house is now mine and I am planning of renovating it when the rainy season is over,” he said.
All this is happening at a time available extension workers do not have proper houses and office space from where they can operate in rural areas.
A lot of extension workers, as a result, have moved away from their duty stations, thereby disadvantaging local farmers who rely on their advice.
One extension worker, who asked not to be named, blamed authorities for killing extension services in the country.
“We are government employees and we need to be motivated just like other employees. You have seen the houses and our offices in most rural areas and there is no way we can be staying in those structures and work. So most of us are living in areas where there are decent houses,” he said.
Neglecting the facilities and the extension services obviously has an impact on the country’s economy which depends on agriculture.
According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Malawi’s agriculture sector accounts for one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and nearly 80 percent of local employment.
The majority of farmers in Malawi are subsistence and depend on expert advice from extension workers to make a mark amid the devastating effects of climate change.
Between 2005 and 2011, more than 80 percent of the country’s total exports were agriculture commodities, primarily tobacco, sugar and tea.
In order to achieve agricultural development goals and to meet Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme targets, Malawi developed the Agriculture Sector-Wide Approach (Aswap) (2011- 2015).
This national plan advocates for and drives strategic investment towards programmes and initiatives that fall under three distinct pillars such as food security and risk management, commercial agriculture, agro-processing and market development and sustainable agricultural land and water management.
Currently, Aswap includes two major agriculture-sector development programmes namely the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) and the Green Belt Initiative (GBI).
FISP and GBI programs account for 70 percent of the total ASWAP budget towards food security and risk management.
Within Aswap, the government used to provide funds for maintenance of houses and structures in rural areas under the Ministry of Agriculture.
But an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, who refused to be named because he is not mandated to speak on behalf of the ministry, said the money which was being provided by maintenance is not enough.
He said lack of resources for sustaining the extension services has contributed to the downwards trends in the agriculture sector.
“Initially, things were moving properly. But when we adopted multiparty dispensation, extension services were liberalised. This was one way of government running away from the responsibility of taking care of services in rural areas,” he said.
The source said unlike in other sectors, structures and services under the Ministry of Agriculture do not benefit from development funds that are provided at the district level such as Constituency Development Fund, Local Development Fund and District Development Fund.
This, he said means that the Ministry of Agriculture has to find its own money to construct new structures as well as maintain the existing structures, especially in rural areas.
“But we have noted that this is not working because the other recurrent transactions allocation provided to district offices cannot manage to incorporate maintaining of the extension services and structures such as offices and houses,” he said.
He suggested the need for the government to find separate funds to go towards rehabilitation of the houses and offices so that extension workers can go back in the rural areas and assist the farmers.
An agriculture expert Tamani Nkhono-Mvula described the state of the extension services and structures in most rural areas as being in disarray.
He said failure by the government to revive the extension services in the country has contributed to the hunger that has been hitting Malawi almost every year.
Nkhono-Mvula faulted the government for prioritising quick-fix solutions to food security like Fisp instead of investing in long-term measures that can help farmers engage in agriculture practices that have the potential to sustain the economy.
“The agriculture extension policy of 2000 is providing pluralism of extension services. Other organisations were allowed to provide extensions services. But these organisations also rely on extension workers employed by the government,” he said.
Nkhono also faulted the idea of heavily relying on lead farmers for provision of extension services, saying the lead farmers also need some advice from experts for them to perform in their fields.
Commenting on the dilapidated extension service offices and houses in most parts of the country, Nkhono-Mvula said the government is to blame for neglecting the structures.
“These structures were put up to support and provide motivation to extension workers in rural areas. Extension workers face a lot of problems as if they are not employed. As a result, most of them have left their areas, leaving them without extension services,” he said.
He said renovating the available houses can help to motivate the extension workers into returning to rural areas where the farmers are.
“There is lack of foresight on the part of the government. There is also politicisation of the agriculture sector. This is not helping the country,” Nkhono-Mvula said.
He added that lack of vibrant extension services is also making other government programmes like the Fisp not to perform well.
Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Priscilla Mateyu admitted that most of the extension services facilities in the country’s EPAs are dilapidated and need maintenance.
“However due to strained resources, we cannot maintain a l l properties at once. That is why we are doing the maintenance in phases with resources from the Department of Agriculture Extension Services,” Mateyu said.
She also claimed that the department is available in all districts and rural areas to provide extension services.
Mateyu then advised farmers to seek these services on demand basis and that where they are not assisted, they should consult local leaders for direction.