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Malawi, a small, landlocked, highly dense and very poor country in Southern Africa, experiences food crises in dry years. Better seeds, crop diversification, better on-farm resource use and building capacity in post-harvest management to reduce aflatoxin contamination are some research-for-development priorities to improve food security and livelihoods of Malawi's smallholder farmers. 

0.23 - Hectare of land per person in Malawi's rural areas

47% - Percentage of Malawi's children under five children stunted

38-53% - In Malawi, the yield gap for cereals; 40 to 75% for legumes (Ag Sector Wide Approach, 2010)

64% - Percentage of people in Malawi tested in 5 rural districts who are highly exposed to aflatoxin


General context

Malawi is a poor, small, land-locked country, where three out of four people live on less than US$ 1.25 a day, 90% of them being subsistence small farming households. Malawi has one of the highest population densities in Sub-Saharan Africa, with only 0.23 hectares of land per person living in the rural areas - compared to 0.86 in neighbouring Zambia, for instance.

Most rural families rely on their staple crops, in particular maize. There being only one rainy season from November to April, compounded by low input and irrigation use, yields are very low. Consequently, in a normal yearr, rural households enjoy food security from their own produce between 6 and 7 months (the hunger season is from November to March). An average family of five grows around 800 kilograms per hectare on their land holding of 0.65 hectare, leading to a harvest of 520 kilograms, roughly half their needs. Around 75% of the calories consumed comes from maize. 

Staple crops are often affected by dry spells or floods. Malawi has experienced several food crises in past decades.  

In addition, the diet of the vast majority of farmers lacks protein, oil and vitamins. Malnutrition is high, with 47% of children under five being stunted. Micronutrient deficiencies are affecting vulnerable groups. Eighty percent of preschool children and 47% of pregnant women suffer from anaemia (National School Health and Nutrition Baseline Survey, 2006). The prevalence of HIV/AIDS is estimated at 12%.

Agriculture employs about 80% of the workforce, represents a third of the national GDP and 80% of exports such as tobacco and groundnuts.  Seventy percent of the workforce are women, mostly producing food for themselves and their families. One out of four farms is headed by women. Yet, gender inequality is very high (Malawi ranks 120 out of 136 countries in the Gender Inequality Index.)

Malawi has experienced significant  agricultural growth in recent years after having invested in increasing acess to inputs like hybrid maize seeds and fertilizer, through the Starter Pack Programme  and Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP) (see IFPRI 2011 impact evaluation).

But progress has been slow given the fast growing population (expected to more than double by 2050), unsustainable agricultural practices like monocropping of cash crops, the predominance of maize in staple crops, and the impact of climate change which may worsen  the frequency of droughts and other weather-related shocks.

Better seeds in the hands of smallholder farmers: Small farmers in Malawi find it dificult to access improved seeds of crops other than maize. ICRISAT is building the capacity of Malawi research and farmers' organizations in legumes crop breeding, especially groundnut and pigeonpea, to develop pest-resistant and high-yielding varieties such as medium-duration pigeonpea that avoids terminal drought and open grazing damage during the dry season, or rosette-resistant groundnuts. 

Under the Generation Challenge Programme, the search for molecular biomarkers for resistance to important groundnut diseases (rosette, rust and early leaf spot) and the identification of drought-tolerant germplasm will lead to new opportunities for groundnut improvement in the coming years. [ref: Groundnut improvement, Janila and al, 2013]

Farmers cannot adopt high-yielding improved varieties of dryland cereals and legumes, unless appropriate seed production and delivery systems are in place. Working with farmers' organizations and local seed entrepreneurs, over 1,700 smallholder farmers are now able to supply high quality certified legume seeds to the Farm Input Subsidy Program [Seeds for change case study]. An umbrella brand, Malawi Seed Alliance (MASA), will help market this smallholder-centered seed industry.

More efficient  agroecological farming practices and systems: Responding to limited fertilizer access and to improve the resilience of rural communities, researchers are working with farmers to test more efficient agroecological cropping systems like pigeonpea-maize intercropping, the use of dual-purpose maize, and conservation farming. Optimizing the benefits of crop residues in crop-livestock farming systems is another priority.

Linking agriculture and health: Research also focuses on how to increase legume cultivation and boost their demand, leading to increased production and consumption of protein and micronutrient-rich legume crops. 

Crop contamination by aflatoxin, a poisonous toxin produced by a fungi, is a major public health issue. A recent study showed that 64% of the population tested in rural Malawi are highly exposed to aflatoxin, with links to liver disease incidence (Read Mc Knight project  Groundnut Varieties Improvement for Yield and Adaptation, Human Health, and Nutrition; 2010-2014.

Training farmers’ groups and associations on appropriate handling, drying and storage of grain, eg Mandela cork, use of sisal bag for storage, as well as setting up proper quality control systems (with low-cost aflatoxin screening kits) helped Malawi smallholders mitigate aflatoxin contamination and regain markets (watch the CEO of  NASFAM’s testimony).

ICRISAT works in Malawi with farmers’ organizations like the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM), Malawi’s agricultural research institutions, eg Chitedze Agricultural Research Station, and numerous development partners. 

Key documents

USAID best analysis

Feed the Future Malawi Factsheet

DFID Malawi operational plan 2011-2015

Rural poverty country profile, Malawi (IFAD)