By Charles Mpaka
At the heart of all that Malawi desires to achieve in agriculture are extension and advisory services.
But we can report that extension services in Malawi are suffering badly under the weight of fertiliser subsidy largesse.
Funding patterns in the past 17 years Malawi has implemented fertiliser subsidies show that while extension services, like all the pillars in the Ministry of Agriculture, have been starved of funding, fertiliser subsidy programme has been swimming in public money, literally.
In that period, government has allocated over K700 billion to fertiliser subsidy alone, with the allocation grabbing between 30 and 59 percent of the total agriculture budget in more than 12 of the 17 years.
One study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that between 2007 and 2012, Malawi spent 52 percent of the agricultural budget on fertiliser subsidies, but only one percent went to extension services in that period.
Over the past two months, we have visited a total of 30 subsistence farmers individually in Lilongwe, Machinga, Zomba, Kasungu and Dowa to appreciate extension services activities on the ground.
We have also examined District Social and Economic Profiles (SEPs) and other records covering 20 of the 28 districts of the country, alongside speaking with several district agriculture officers and extension workers.
We can report that extension services are underfunded, understaffed and ill-equipped they are standing on fragile legs.
All the 20 districts we covered fall way down government’s own recommended ratio of one extension worker to 750 farmers.
For instance, Zomba has 49 extension workers against the requirement of 150 and Machinga has 57 extension workers while it needs 140 extension personnel.
Lilongwe and Kasungu have a field officer to farmer ratio of 1:1,436 and 1:3,334 respectively, according to their SEPs.
In Mulanje the ratio is at 1:4,287, Dowa at 1:3,046, Mzimba North at 1:1,750 and Chikwawa at 1:1,259.
And while the subsidy programme is said to target the poorest, we found that these are the less likely to be reached by extension services.
When asked why she does not demand extension services to assist in her farming, a woman farmer in Mayaka in Zomba, Agnes Njiragoma, said: “Do I even know what I am getting wrong? What I know is that I have been unable to produce enough maize in the 6 years I have been getting this fertiliser.”
Raft of challenges
Stretched with workload, the available few extension workers contend with a raft of challenges in their line of duty, a situation which they have officially made known to the authorities.
In one of their petitions dated 10 July 2020 and addressed to Minister of Agriculture, Lobin Lowe, the extension workers complain that they are struggling with mobility.
In addition, the petition says the ministry has overdue salary arrears for some field officers from back in 2014 and that some of them enter and retire from the system without any change in their grade.
We can also report that the extension workers are stuck in the decentralisation maze, with no definite authority to come to their rescue.
While the Ministry of Agriculture is their mother employer, every time they press for solution to their challenges, they are shunted across ministries of labour, finance, local government and Office of President and Cabinet.
And after years of pushing to be heard, they hoped the new administration would assist them at last, only for it to leave them grasping at straws again, as even the current budget under debate in Parliament has not attended to their concerns, they say.
“The [subsidy programme] invests more cash from our [agriculture] budget but demotivates extension services. The ministry has turned into an institution for distributing fertilisers,” said Isaac Kwisongole, General Secretary for Agriculture Technicians Union of Malawi (Atum), a grouping of agriculture extension workers in Malawi.
Development economist and Chief Executive Officer for Africa Institute of Corporate Citizenship (AICC), Dr Felix Lombe said, by their very nature, extension workers “should and ideally must work with farmers at all stages of the value chain activities that farmers undertake”.
“Everybody agrees that [FISP/AIP] should culminate into increased productivity, increased food security, increased access to market and increased value addition. But increased productivity means modern farming technologies and climate smart methods. This is where extension work comes in,” he said, adding: “In a nutshell, FISP/AIP should have been tools in the hands of extension workers and not a replacement of extension services.”
In its official documents, Capital Hill acknowledges the moribund state of extension services in Malawi.
It admits that it has been providing limited financing to extension services due to what it says are “competing needs for same resources”.
“This has been manifested in limited service delivery, inadequate maintenance of extension workers’ offices, houses, limited staff capacity building, low provision of potable water, no access to electricity, and poor means of transport for staff especially at grass-root level,” says Capital Hill in the National Agriculture Extension and Advisory Services Strategy (2020-2025).
‘Not worth the sums of money’
Director of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources for Machinga district, Nditani Maluwa, said politicians have killed Malawi’s agriculture, in their obsession with fertiliser subsidies programme.
“It’s not just about handing out fertiliser that will deliver this country from food insecurity. There is also the question of skills and knowledge transfer for efficient use of that fertiliser and adoption of more effective farming practices,” he said.
He said the high figure of maize harvest which politicians are quick to declare, what Malawi is producing is not worth the huge sums of money it is investing.
“That’s why 17 subsidies years on, beneficiaries of cannot be weaned off. We have destroyed farmer knowledge and skills systems. Most of our farmers are producing 2.5 tonnes on a piece of land they could have produced 10 tonnes if extension services were reliable and efficient.
“So fertiliser subsidies are giving us less than they should while we are also using them to kill agriculture in general. We can’t go anywhere like this,” he said.