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Analysis of Existing Institutional Arrangements and Policy Environments for Managing Climate Related Risks to Smallholder Crop Production and Post-Harvest Handling in Malawi
30 April 2016
Trust Donga


Overview of agriculture, food security and crop production and post-harvest handling issues in Malawi

Agriculture remains the main source of livelihood for more than 70% of the population of Malawi, contributing about 45% of Gross National Product and more than 90% of the country's export earnings (Chilowa, 2005). The main crops grown are maize, tobacco, cassava, tea, sugarcane, groundnuts, cotton, coffee, rice, and pulses (cowpea, common beans, pigeon pea). These crops are grown both for household consumption and income generation.

Crop production and utilisation are constrained by a set of interacting factors. The factors include: pests and diseases, high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, small landholding sizes among small-holder farmers, limited access to agricultural inputs and credit, low technology adoption, poor and declining soil fertility, land degradation, climate change and heavy reliance on rainfall, and poor institutional linkages and policy harmonization.

The main biotic factors that limit crop production are insects, weeds and diseases. Abiotic factors include low soil fertility, poor infrastructure, high cost of farm inputs, reccurent adverse weather patterns (UNEP, 2006; Mugo et al., 2002) and lack of farmer-decision support systems. Estimates by the African Post-Harvest Losses Information System (APHLIS) indicate that Southern Africa incurr crop losses of US$1.6 billion per year or about 13.5 % of the total value of grain production (US$11 billion). Table 1 shows a record of post-harvest losses for maize in Malawi (APHLIS, 2014)

Table 1: Estimated post-harvest losses (t) 2003 - 2013

Various low cost and effective technologies have been developed to reduce the impact of pests and diseases (Langyintuo, 2004). However, the adoption rate of such technologies remain low as they have been adopted by less than 50% of the population (Cock et al., 2009; Chirwa, 2005). High costs and inavailability of such technologies; and other uncertainities are the major reasons for non-adoption. Since 2005/06, the Government of Malawi has investeded in providing agricultural inputs to smallholder farmers in an effort to assist them in overcoming these challenges. However, the criteria for selecting target households is not very clear (Dorward and Chirwa, 2013). Through a coupon system, the Government provides inorganic fertilizers; maize and some legume seeds; and maize grain protectants at subsidized prices to 77% of rural households who cannot afford to buy inputs at non-subsidised prices (Dorward and Chirwa, 2011). Such households are usually food insecure throughout the year. However, the Government is not investing in training farmers on the safe and effective use of the pesticides.

Description of climatic risks faced by smallholder farmer crop production in the study country

Malawi is divided into the following three agro-ecological zones:

  • low (rainy season of between 3-4 months from December to February/March, average annual rainfall 700-800 mm, >= 30 ℃);
  • medium (rainy season of between 4-5 months December to February/March, average annual rainfall 875 mm, moderate temperatures); and
  • high altitude areas (characterised by cool temperatures and overcast conditions).

Since much of the crop production is rain fed, the major climate risk factors to farmers include flooding, dry spells, drought, strong winds and late onset of planting rains.

According to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR, 2014), Malawi is highly prone to disasters and likely impacts of climate change. The effects of climate change are already being felt in Malawi (USAID Vulnerability Assessment Report, 2012).

Table 2 - Evidence of climate change impacts in Malawi

Since the year 2000, the frequency of natural disasters has increased (Table 2). According to the Malawi National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA, 2006), Malawi reported over 40 weather-related disasters between 1970 and 1992. Droughts and dry spells in Malawi are reported to cause on average of about 1% of annual GDP loss (World Bank, 2010). Droughts and floods are the major climate related disasters reported in Malawi and they can result in high fatalities and huge economic losses. Changes in the onset and pattern of rainfall are further evidence of climate change in Malawi.

Description of crop production and post-harvest handling activities and risks faced by smallholder farmers in the country

The commonly grown crops in Malawi are maize, groundnuts, beans, rice, cassava, tobacco and assorted vegetable. Many of these crops are intercropped. Crop rotation is not practiced widely since farmers have small land-holding sizes. For rain fed crop production, farmers start land preparation in October/November; plant, weed and apply nitrogen based fertilizer in December (January, late planting); with second fertilizer application and ridge bundling in February. Harvesting for most of the grains starts in May and continues through August. Harvesting of beans starts in February. For tobacco, nursery activities are done during the months of August and October. Transplanting is done in November and leaf picking and processing during the months of February through April. Markets open in early March. It should be noted that all post-harvest handling work are done manually. All family members participate in this exercise.

Land preparation for crops grown under irrigation or residual moisture (mostly vegetables, maize) is in July. Planting is in August. All the recommended agricultural practices such as weeding are then followed.

Post-harvest handling activities for grains include sun drying, shelling, and application of grain protectants, bagging and storage. The majority of the grains and vegetables are sold in nearby local markets or to vendors who come to the villages. Vegetables are sold fresh with no value added or commercial packaging. Some farmers (mostly in rural areas) sundry the vegetables are a method of vegetables.

Presently in Malawi, management of field and storage pests are heavily dependent on use of synthetic chemical pesticides (Kananji et al., 2009; Singh and Oswalt, 1992). However, the majority of farmers cannot afford to buy synthetic insecticdes (Turnbull et al., 2013; MoAFS, 2012; FAO, 1993). Instead, farmers are reported to use locally available botanical pesticides (Nyirenda et al., 2012). Variations in quantities of the active ingredient effectivess, application rates, and preparation of extracts exist in pesticidal plants (Belmain et al., 2012). Biological control has been tried with minimal impact on crop losses (Hell et al., 2006).

Hermetic storage systems have been exploited as a way of managing pests of stored products. Metal and concrete silos are effective in controlling pests, but they are not affordable to farmers and not feasible with farmers' storage practices. For example, nowadays farmers prefer to keep their grain stored inside their houses to reduce the chance of theft, and fixed size silos are more bulky than sacks. Initiatives to address abiotic factors, such as small scale hermetic storage systems like Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags, Grainpro supergrain bags and use of entomopathogenic fungi capsules, are more convinient for farmers. PICS have been used successfully to control cowpea bruchids at farmer level (Baributsa et al., 2010; Quezada et al., 2010; Tefera et al., 2011; Baributsa et al., 2012; Moussa et al., 2013).

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