Malawi: Lead Farmers Filling the Gap to Combat Drought and the Fall Armyworm

With inconsistent weather patterns, and the recent rise of the Fall Armyworm, crop yields across the country have fallen alarmingly over the last three seasons. Now, the government of Malawi is equipping rural subsistence farmers with the skills and equipment to deal with such challenges.

words Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

Kenson Mulapula is a subsistence crop farmer from Makata, an area outside of Blantyre, the commercial and financial hub, and second-largest city, of Malawi. He says he has been farming for his entire adult life and depends on agriculture for his and family’s livelihoods. He grows maize, which is a staple food for most Malawians, as well as sorghum, groundnuts, and pigeon peas.

For the past three farming seasons, however, things have not been going well for him, nor for many other farmers in southern Malawi. The crop harvest has been heavily affected by nature disasters. First, it was flooding in 2015, which washed away thousands of hectares of crops. Then, in 2016, it was a prolonged dry spell as a result of an El Nino weather pattern that saw most crops drying up in the fields. To make matters worse, in late 2017, a partial drought allowed the invasion of the Fall Armyworm, which has destroyed over 400,000 hectares of cereal crops in the maize-dependent south east African country.

Catch-up: Read our story on the Fall Armworm

Maize plant with evident damage from the Fall Armyworm
A Fall-Armyworm-affected maize crop

“It has been difficult for me and other farmers here,” he told us, “to have enough harvest to last a whole year, due to among other [things], dry spells, flooding and the Fall Armyworms, all of which have made farming difficult for us in the last three farming seasons.”

Things are now improving, however. Mulapula, and other farmers like him, are being equipped with skills, techniques and equipment to combat challenges—such as a lack of information on the weather and the emergence of Fall Armyworm—thanks to a new government initiative, enacted by the agricultural ministry, which has trained a few select farmers in the worst-affected areas to take the lead in agricultural extension planning.

These “lead farmers” are local people who are chosen for their commitment to modern agriculture practices, and are given one-week-crush training and regular refresher-skills training by expert agriculture extension officers, and in turn they pass on these newly-learned skills to other farmers. This is helping to make up for the absence of professional agriculture extension workers, who are in short supply within the public sector due to several factors: primarily, that of young university graduates’ lack of interest in joining the public sector over the private sector, with the most commonly cited reason being the lack of incentives. This has left most agriculture extension planning areas in Malawi without trained personnel. According to recent statistics, there is a 45 percent vacancy rate in agriculture extension services in Malawi.

In Makata, which covers an area of 30 square kilometres, there is only a single extension worker servicing a population of about 50,000. This would have been simply too large an area for one person to effectively cover, but this extension worker is now complimented by four lead farmers. Mulapula is one of them.

“I am of the four lead farmers in the area,” explains the 54-year-old, “and together we teach fellow farmers modern agriculture techniques so that they are able to harvest enough yield despite the challenges of inconsistent weather pattern[s].”

He says that he and the three other farmers were trained, apart from in crop husbandry skills, in the detection of animal diseases and pests like Newcastle diseases (which affects chickens), Foot-and-mouth disease (cattle and goats), and the African Swine Fever (pigs). Through this training, he says they are able to detect diseases early and alert the veterinary and agriculture authorities to take necessary action.

Echoing Mulapula’s sentiments is Patrick Kakande, the Agriculture Extension Development Coordinator for the Chipande Extension Planning Area (EPA), who says lead farmers’ effectiveness in extension services is there for all to see. Kakande cited a case from earlier this year, during which Malawi, particularly in the southern parts of the country, was affected by the devastating Fall Armyworm, which destroyed over 400,000 hectares of crops, mainly maize and sorghum. This is where lead farmers came to the fore, as they were able to detect the pest and alert authorities, who subsequently came in with chemical pesticides to treat the affected crops.

As Kakande informed us, “Through lead farmers like Mulapula, we were able to detect the Fall Armyworms, and alerted other EPAs and surrounding areas. Thereafter, we made field visits to ascertain the magnitude of the problem and how to deal with it.”

Use of technology

As Kakande explains, the final stage in the life cycle of the Fall Armyworms is that of a moth, and each female moth lays about 2,000 eggs, each one hatching a single larva after just three days. It is the larvae that are destructive, as they feed on crops of the grass family like maize, sorghum, and millet, such that in very little time they can completely wipe out vast areas of crop field. Kakande says that, to detect the prevalence of Fall Armyworms in an area, lead farmers like Mulapula have been given moth traps, which they are using to monitor the re-emergence of these pests.

Moth traps help farmers in Malawi combat the Fall Armyworm
Kenson Mulapula showing a moth trap

Kakande describes their use thusly, “The moth traps are put in a cereal crop field and inside it there is a scent which is attractive to the male moth. This makes them to enter the trap and farmers find them trapped there when they make daily inspections.”

Kakande said if a farmer checks the moth trap and finds two or more moths, it means the area is affected by the Fall Armyworms and they are instructed to report to the FAW emergency number at the district level, which then sends an inspection team immediately to ascertain the severity of the problem before recommending an action.

“We have a 24-hour helpline on the Fall Armyworms to which farmers can call at anytime to report suspected cases of destructive pests which we swiftly respond to,” he said.

Another challenge faced by farmers nowadays is inconsistent rains. Sometimes the rains are erratic, affecting thousands of farmers as they are made uncertain about the best time to sow. As a result, farmers have mostly ignored the first rains opting to plant after the second rains. This has eventually led to poorer crop outcomes, as the rains frequently stop midway through the season. In order to combat this, Kakande says the lead farmers have been given rain gauges, which they are using to measure the rainfall and make an informed decision about planting.

Farmer in Malawi takes rainfall recordings in an effort to combat erratic weather patterns and drought
Kenson Mulapula making the day’s rainfall recordings

Catherine Chimera is one farmer who was given a rain gauge. She says that, with the equipment, farmers in the area are able to know when it is right time to plant or not, for if the rain gauge records 100 millimetres of rainfall, then that is enough to plant crop seeds. This amount is deemed to be sufficient for the germination and sprouting of the seed before more rains come.

“If we record 100 millimetres of rainfall, we are sure of survival of the seed even in the face of a dry [spell] so we plant,” she said. “Otherwise, if it is less than 100 mm, we don’t plant as there is a likelihood of the plant not surviving when faced with adverse weather.”

Chimera says if more subsistence farmers in the country were provided with rain gauges, crop yield would be likely to improve, since sowing will always occur at the optimum time, reducing the chances of farmers losing seeds to dry spells. She adds that rain gauges also help farmers to keep records of rainfall patterns of their areas, which could be handy at times.

Malawi is an agro-based economy, where recent statistics by the World Bank have indicated that 80 percent of its foreign exchange income comes from exporting agricultural produce and products. Subsistence farming accounts for more than half of annual agricultural productivity. Much of the crop farming is rain fed; however, with the effects of climate change, the rains have been inconsistent of late, translating into poor harvest for most farmers. The devastating effects of the Fall Armyworm have greatly exacerbated the problem. A poor farming season means a bad economic outlook for the country, hence all the efforts by government and other stakeholders to come up with interventions and innovations to deal with challenges facing the agriculture sector.

For more information, visit the Malawian Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development

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