Malawi: Farmers diversify crops to withstand climate, market volatility (Trust)

| August 28, 2017

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Elias Kanyangale is ecstatic about his maize harvest. Balancing on a homemade ladder, the farmer retrieves cobs from a full granary, the bounty of this year’s good rains, which broke three years of drought in Malawi.

Mr. Kanyangale is 44 years old, from Kalumbu village, part of the capital city, Lilongwe. He harvested five tonnes of maize this year, twice as much as last year. He harvested some soya beans too.

But he is still worried about his income.

Mr. Kanyangale says: “I am not sure I will get good prices for my crop. I planted more maize for home consumption and more soya beans for sale because the rains were good after the drought of last year. But if I do not get good prices, I will not have enough income to help my family.”

Many of Malawi’s small-scale farmers who grow maize as a cash crop have diversified into legumes like soya and groundnuts, hoping for better market prices should one crop fail due to drought.

But faced with rapid changes in climate and market prices, many farmers are struggling to decide how much of which crop to plant, and when.

Last year’s extreme weather, which brought both floods and drought, left many in a fix.

Some farmers followed specialists’ advice to diversify away from maize, and grew tobacco and soy instead. But a glut in the market caused prices to drop.

Peter Kaupa is a field officer with the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi. He works with the Nyanja Farmers’ Association, which has 1,500 members, including Mr. Kanyangale.

Mr. Kaupa says that changing farming systems does not happen overnight. Farmers who are used to growing just one crop are sometimes reluctant to change their practices. They struggle to make quick decisions in the face of climate extremes, government policy, and other factors.

He says, “This year farmers will grow more tobacco because the price is right, and might grow less maize and soy because of what they have seen this season.”

Mr. Kaupa’s organization offers training on farm business practices, including a cost-benefit analysis of which crops to grow, and climate-smart agriculture practices to adapt to erratic weather.

Malawi is projecting a bumper harvest of 3.2 million tonnes of maize this year, an increase of one-third over last season.

But that might change next year.

Luis Navarro is head of cooperation for the European Union in Malawi. The EU has made investments in developing Malawi’s agriculture. He says that, with an El Niño weather system forecast for this year, farmers would do well to brace for another drought by diversifying their crops.

Mr. Navarro adds, “Maize is a crop that is very sensitive to climate change.”

On top of that, maize prices in Malawi are the most volatile in the region, making farmers think twice before investing in a crop they cannot be sure they will sell.

This story is based on an article titled, “Climate extremes, policy confuse crop choices for Malawi farmers.” To read the full article, go to: