Taking Malawi farmers a step closer to recovery

In 2016, following El Niño-induced drought, Wilson Milambo, 46, from Zomba was unable to produce enough food for his family of eight children and a wife. “For over six months, we were depending on food aid because in 2015, all our crops were washed away by floods and in 2016, they were affected by a prolonged dry spell,” he said. “Although I was grateful for the food, I felt that I had fallen short of one of the greatest marks of dignity,” he added. In November 2016, most parts of Malawi started receiving rains that would usher in the 2016/17 planting season. However, vulnerable farmers like Wilson did not have seeds to plant.

Likewise, farmers such as Wilson had also depleted their assets in trying to cope with the situation thereby eroding their livelihoods and compounding their already difficult situation. “Most of the farmers were finding difficulties in accessing seeds for the 2016/17 growing season because the country had experienced two consecutive years of crop losses due to climatic shocks. Farmers had also lost their purchasing power due to high inflation and high food prices,” said James Okoth, FAO Malawi’s Resilience Officer.

With the support of several donors, some of the affected farmers received the much-needed cereal, legume and vegetable seeds through seed fairs that were organized by the FAO in Malawi and implemented by partners with technical support from Catholic Relief Services (CRS) between November and December 2016. Seed fairs are special markets that foster the exchange and trade in seeds between farmers and commercial seed firms, as well as local seed producers and traders. The purpose of the fairs is to create and foster market linkages by improving the availability and accessibility of modern varieties and locally produced seed in the community.
Beneficiaries are given vouchers that they exchange for seeds of their choice from certified vendors. Agriculture authorities at district level are responsible for ensuring that farmers receive appropriate seed varieties, conducting quality assurance and providing technical guidance depending on the local production conditions. Over 50,000 households or 255,000 people, whose vulnerability was determined through the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) with access to land and labour, benefited from the programme.

FAO and the Government of Malawi have also sought to support farmers involved in resilience-building activities in recent years in order to protect the gains obtained and facilitate a rapid recovery of agricultural livelihoods. “The people in this category were those at risk of hunger and malnutrition, especially those that were affected by floods and drought,” said Chesterman Kumwenda, FAO Malawi Food Security Programme Officer.

Funded by the Government of Italy, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the ONE United Nations Response Fund of Malawi, the aim of the seed fairs was to restore the food production capacity and agricultural livelihoods of Malawians that were affected by disasters. FAO’s interventions were in 11 districts most affected by the El Niño-induced drought: Balaka, Blantyre Rural, Chikwawa, Kasungu, Mwanza, Mzimba, Neno, Nsanje, Phalombe, Salima and Zomba. Nearly 90 markets with the participation of approximately 120 agro-dealers were organized simultaneously, seeking to provide inputs to farmers selected in the different locations in a timely manner.

Promoting diversity to address malnutrition

Enabling the farmers to pick seeds from diverse certified and locally produced crop and vegetable seeds is crucial for improving the food and nutrition security of vulnerable farming communities. With around 37 percent of children under-five stunted, 21 percent underweight, and four percent wasted, Malawi has one of the highest malnutrition rates in Southern Africa. “Farmers were educated about nutrition and cropping diversity before and during the implementation of the fairs. They were also encouraged to pick seeds of cereals (including sorghums and millets), vegetables and pulses,” explained Norias Kayira, Deputy Head of Programmes at CRS in Malawi.

The vouchers were capped for maize at between 24 percent and 45 percent of the total value depending on the land suitability. Some locally adapted crop varieties that are not available in the formal seed sector such as the “mthawajuni” pigeon pea variety – which is well adapted to conditions in Phalombe district – were also brought to the fairs. “This is helping to conserve local varieties that have desirable attributes such as drought tolerance,” observed Kayira.

Patterson Kandoje, District Agriculture and Development Officer (DADO) for Zomba district, who attended all the fairs and inspected the seeds that were brought by vendors in the district, lauded the initiative for giving farmers an opportunity to choose. “Unlike the blanket distribution of seed aid in which farmers have no options, the seed fairs enable the farmers to purchase seeds of their preferred varieties and mix of those varieties, depending on the monetary value of the vouchers,” he noted. He said the DADO’s office continues to provide extension and advisory support to the farmers after the distribution, to ensure that they get the best out of the seeds.

Boosting seed markets and injecting cash into local economies

For vendors like Surey Liphava, 50, who participated in the seed fair in Blantyre Rural district, the fairs boosted their sales. “I sold five times more seeds in two fairs than I normally do in my shop in a month,” she said, smiling. A widow looking after five children, Surey plans to use part of the profit to pay for her children’s education. Victor Chikwama, 37, another seed vendor based in Phalombe district said the fairs enabled him to interact with the farmers and understand their preferences. “This interaction through seed fairs is important for fostering business in the local community,” he said. As per the initial tallies, it is estimated that the FAO-sponsored seed fairs have injected nearly USD 740,000 into local seed markets in the selected locations.

Bridging the gap between emergency support and longer-term development

Apart from meeting the immediate seed needs of the communities affected by disasters, the seed fairs are also fostering the sustainable production of and trade in appropriate seed varieties in the communities. In the same vein, the opportunity to close trading gaps between farmers and local traders brings new opportunities for commercialization in the future and also reshaping productive activities. Besides, seed fairs put farmers on top of the agriculture extension agenda and make it easier to understand needs and challenges that they face due to the changing climate conditions. “This makes the communities more resilient to future climatic shocks,” said Luis AmayaOrtiz, FAO Malawi International Emergency Consultant.