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Filling agriculture extension gap with farmer field schools

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ENLIGHTENED— Kenson (right) and wife

In Maloya Village, Traditional Authority Mpama in Chiradzulu District, farmers gather in a field of bananas, eggplants and other fruits of the soil.

The field belongs to leading farmer in the area, Batson Kenson.

They are observing how farming methods are impacting crop production.

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Apart from that, the farmers will also learn how Kenson has, in the recent past, been able to deal with pests such as the Fall Armyworm, which has proved to be a headache to farmers across the country.

They will then apply whatever they learn here to their fields back home.

Kenson himself is an accomplished farmer, who is generating a lot of money through banana farming.

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“Just last month, I generated K530,000 after selling bananas. I also generated close to K200,000 through the sale of banana suckers to other farmers. As such, the future looks good,” Kenson says.

For years now, Kenson has provided on-field training to other farmers in the area.

He is among 82 lead farmers in Chiradzulu District that have received training to provide on-field assistance to fellow farmers through farmer field schools (FFSs).

Each lead farmer reaches out to 30 farmers.

Through the FFS, Kenson is providing 30 farmers with extension services.

The FFS also provides the farmers with the opportunity to engage in research that results in homegrown solutions to challenges they face in their fields.

“Through the FFS, we try various types of farming, different methods of controlling or indeed preventing pests and diseases in our fields and then we adopt methods that are working and do away with the less effective ones,” Kenson says.

It is through the school that farmers in Chiradzulu have learned how to control the Fall Armyworm which has proved resistant to various pesticides.

“Most of the farmers now are controlling the spread of the Fall Armyworm by removing and killing them by hand or sometimes spraying fish soup on the plant; this (fish soup) attracts ants which later then attack and kill the worms— we leant all this through the FSSs,” Kenson says.

In Chinseu village in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Kadewere in the same Chiradzulu District, Evance John, a lead farmer, has been advising other farmers to adopt modern methods of farming.

John is among many farmers in the district who are making a killing out of farming.

Tomatoes and other vegetables have done well in the fields this year and John is already planning for the future.

“I have been making a lot of money through these crops. I have been generating between K250, 000 and K300,000 from the sales of these crops to the extent that I am not under any pressure when it comes to paying for my children’s education. I have built a modern house and I am planning to expand,” John says.

As lead farmers, John and Kenson are still benefitting from the FFS approach.

“It’s participatory and all of us, farmers, learn from each other, apart from seeing and adopting the methods that work. For me, I have learned, through the same approach, about the profitability of irrigation farming and planting vetiva in our fields such that I support my fellow farmers though the schools. I have, therefore, benefitted a lot from the approach,” John says.

It has been years since the FFS method was introduced in Malawi and it is already bearing fruits.

Through the approach, experts and the government are able to reach out to as many farmers as possible, in the shortest time possible, with modern methods of farming, messages as well as tools.

Through the approach, farmers have also been able to identify and find solutions to challenges they face.

An agriculture economy, Malawi has failed to make strides in the agriculture sector, partly due to shortage of agriculture extension workers.

For example, the country has slightly over 1,700 extension workers against a population of close to 4 million farmers.

One extension worker serves between 2,500 and 3,000 farmers against the targeted 1: 150 ratio, a situation that is denying most farmers, especially those in rural areas, vital agricultural information.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) of the United Nations says FFSs provide a participatory and complementary way of reinforcing the traditional provision of agricultural advisory services, helping smallholder farmers, in particular, acquire new skills and knowledge and become more resilient to climate change.

In Chiradzulu alone, for example, where Fao is collaborating with the Government of Malawi in implementing a Kulima Project, over 34,761 farmers have been reached through their participation in FFSs.

Fao district nutritionist in Chiradzulu, Esther Mthiko, said, through FFSs, farmers in the district have been encouraged to adopt modern techniques of farming.

Mthiko also says, through the schools, the farmers are able to diversify their farming and are in turn making profits through farming.

“Through the approach, we have managed to help farmers produce enough food, thereby achieving zero hunger, and, once they have enough food, they are now able to sale the surplus and make an income,” Mthiko said.

According to Mthiko, lead farmers that head FSSs were trained in how to help fellow farmers identify problems and then, through engagement, find solutions to address the challenge.

“For instance, farmers here identified the Fall Armyworm as one of the major factors contributing to low yields in maize.

“And, through the approach, farmers, on their own, were able to come up with natural remedies to fight off the pest,” Mthiko said.

She says the FFS has also assisted farmers to receive vital information on agriculture in the soonest time possible.

“By design, a typical FFS will contain about 30 farmers who meet regularly to share ideas and good practices. So, once lead farmers get any information from government extension workers, they then share such information with members of their FSS, making it possible for such information to reach as many farmers as possible in a short time, “Mthiko said.

A typical FFS group comprises between 25 and 30 farmers and the approach focuses on learning-by-doing principles, which take into consideration innovations and indigenous knowledge.

The approach encourages farmers to implement informed decisions by analysing and understanding local agro-ecosystems.

It gives farmers an opportunity to experiment and identify solutions to challenges they face in the course of their work.

Agriculture Minister Lobin Lowe indicated, recently, that the ministry was working with stakeholders to improve crop and livestock productivity in the country as one way of making the country food secure.

Despite embarking on the cultivation of myriad crops, tobacco remains the main foreign exchange earner.

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