‘Malawi should diversify its food and export base’

NAKHUMWA — Agricultural diversification will address the household and
national economic challenges

The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have disrupted global supply chains, adversely impacting many smallholder farmers. Candida Nakhumwa, Vice President and Malawi Country Director for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, speaks to our contributor MIKE CHIPALASA about available fertiliser options and overreliance on maize. Excerpts:

How would you describe the current status of agriculture in Malawi?

Despite its critical importance to the economy, the agriculture sector is characterized by low productivity due to lack of use of modern technologies, such as quality seeds and both organic and inorganic fertilizers. Most farmers have poor access to competitive structured markets. There is also a heavy reliance on rainfed agriculture, and the frequent floods and dry spells caused by climate change are diverting funds intended for development investments.

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), with support from its affiliate, the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (ATI), is strategically investing in science, technology, and innovation (STI) to support agricultural diversification efforts. ATI is promoting dissemination and adoption of alternative value chains through the Centre for Agricultural Transformation’s (CAT’s) STI and Business Incubation and Commercialization (BIC) programs. Through collaboration with the government, other development partners, and the private sector, there are opportunities to scale up some of the promoted value chains as part of diversifying the export and food base of the country. In fact, the private sector has been developing and selling improved seed that has the potential to more than double crop harvests.


The high price of fertilizer is a main concern. Can smallholder farmers afford fertilizer in this market?

Malawian farmers suffer from low yields on the farm in large part due to poor seed and soil quality. Poor soil quality doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it steals productivity from farmers every day. Low-quality soil is a silent killer that can make fertilizers ineffective, so that not only do farmers often end up with less product, they also waste money on fertilizer. We believe farmers can address the challenges of high fertilizer prices through several alternatives. Organic fertilizer, manure, biochar, and even conservation agriculture (including zero tillage and allowing crop residues to decompose in the field) increase the organic matter in the soil, improving soil water retention capacities and overall productivity. Programs that aim to increase commercialization, diversification, and productivity bring hope to the farming community and the whole country.

How can Malawi make progress when we still rely on the hand hoe as a main implement for farming?


Dependence on the hand hoe does limit our progress towards attaining a competitive agricultural sector. Only 13% of all agricultural activities are mechanized; serious investments are required in this area. In addition, poor transport and road networks, limited telecommunications, and inadequate digitization are responsible for high agricultural production and marketing costs that seriously undermine our competitiveness. Mechanization and the introduction of improved and affordable farm equipment and technologies across agriculture value chains, from farm to fork, would change the perceptions of agriculture and help attract much-needed youth engagement.

We’re seeing a shift in that direction with the government providing grants to support acquisition of farm equipment. Some financial institutions have also developed products to support farm mechanization; hopefully these financial vehicles will provide favorable terms for farmers. In addition, the CAT is supporting entities such as the Malawi University of Science and Technology to develop simple innovations that will facilitate farm operations.

Maize is the staple crop for most Malawians, yet it has high production costs and often produces low yields and incomes. What can we do to reduce overdependence on maize?

As long as maize continues to enjoy fertilizer subsidies, smallholder farmers will find it artificially cheaper and in their best interests to produce this crop instead of other crops. We therefore need a program that supports diversification. The use of poor technologies to produce maize results in low crop yields. Hence, more land has been allocated for growing of this crop. Strategies that help increase maize productivity should be promoted so that less land is used to grow the crop without compromising maize supply. Land can then be released to other high-value crops and sectors.

FSFW’s ATI has been promoting agricultural innovations and technologies to propel Malawi’s agricultural transformation agenda within the Malawi 2063 vision. What are some key ATI projects?

Since 2018, the ATI has spearheaded strategic partnerships and programming aimed at preparing smallholder farmers in Malawi for an era of reduced global tobacco demand. This includes several programs funded by FSFW, including the CAT and the Mwapata Institute.

The CAT is working to increase agricultural productivity and production through investments in STI along with BIC. The STI programs have introduced smallholder farmers to new and improved seed for crops such as soybeans, groundnuts, upland rice, bananas, sorghum, and millet; plant nutrition products such as inorganic fertilizers, organic fertilizers, and plant catalysts; and plant protection products, including herbicides and pesticides. In addition, good agronomic practices have been demonstrated at the CAT’s smart farms. By helping smallholder farmers appreciate how improved technologies can enhance performance, these are proving to be effective models in facilitating adoption.

The CAT’s BIC programs support the development of new markets for alternative commodities and innovative businesses that want to provide improved services to farmers and support their efforts to venture into value addition. These small but growing businesses will help to diversify agriculture and increase opportunities for Malawian farmers.

The ATI is also supporting the Mwapata Institute’s targeted policy reform projects aimed at facilitating agricultural diversification. The Institute has been instrumental in generating evidence to inform policy development.

Human and institutional capacity building is another important element of our work, which includes supporting Malawian scholars and fellows in their pursuit of advanced degrees and research in strategic areas such as agricultural engineering, biotechnology, data science, and food science.

Partnerships are key to driving the diversification agenda forward. Why is this particularly important for farmers?

First and foremost, it is critical that we give smallholder farmers a consistent message on the need for diversification and pooling resources for meaningful impact. Second, the private sector must play a role in supporting diversification through agrifinance; competitive and sustainable markets; and supply of improved and affordable technologies such as seeds, plant nutrition products, plant protection products, and livestock breeds.

It’s also important to remember that the agricultural sector is an ecosystem— the government, the private sector, farmers, and development partners must all operate together to make it work. For example, universities and research stations must talk to farmers to understand their challenges, and they must work with farmers to test their solutions.

Any final thoughts?

Malawi has a great opportunity to mechanize, commercialize, and diversify its food and export base. For diversification to be realized, strategies that support it must be evidence-based and applied consistently to avoid reversals that limit private investments in the sector. Malawi needs to consider diversification of both its food and export base as a matter of urgency, addressing the household as well as national economic challenges. To maximize value from the agricultural sector, promotion of high-value commodities and value addition is essential.

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