Testing new farming methods in Tanzania and Malawi

Participatory action research involving farmers and agricultural services

As communities gain practical knowledge, their experience is helping to shape better policies and practice. Early analysis suggests that a combination of strategies is effective for agricultural adaptation, focusing on: timing of farming activities, crop diversification, seed varieties, water and soil management, and diversifying income sources for farming households.

Poor farmers are most vulnerable to climate change

“We used to harvest hundreds of maize sacks, but due to rain scarcity we plant much and end up harvesting almost nothing,” says Dickson Mnyukwa from Chibelela village in Tanzania’s Dodoma district. He supports a family of eight on crops watered only by what falls from the sky. In recent years, he has seen his crops fail repeatedly.

Agriculture is crucial throughout Tanzania and Malawi – for employment, export revenue and food security. As in other parts of Africa, droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe. Both countries depend heavily on rain-fed agriculture, leaving them highly vulnerable to climate extremes and variation.

Even as they face increasingly unreliable growing seasons, farmers in both countries lack access to modern farming methods. They have limited financial means and poor infrastructure. And their success – or lack of it – has nationwide implications for income and food security. Poor communities are particularly vulnerable.

Adapting to uncertainty demands innovation

With climate change, and unchanged farming methods, crop yields are likely to fall. The Institute of Resource Assessment at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam is leading participatory action research to test innovative farming methods to protect rural livelihoods and strengthen agricultural systems. Using trial plots, farmers are testing approaches to the range of possible conditions they may face from season to season. But farmers alone cannot achieve these innovations. Their options depend also on government policies, guidance from agricultural extension services, and the products and pricing of private-sector distributors of seeds, tools and fertilizers.

Decision makers in Tanzania and Malawi recognize that climate change threatens their economies and people, but they are far removed from farmers’ daily lives. The idea of this project is to link farmers and service providers in shared learning. The research helps farmers to use reliable information, and provides training and tools to give them options. The aim is to see stakeholders learn together and then to scale up successful strategies. “This study intends to promote two-way communication, involving all partners and supporting their information and other needs,” says project leader, Amos Majule.

Integrating knowledge and experience at different levels

The research draws on the experience and coping strategies of farming families. It also builds on existing initiatives, including National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) in both countries, which emphasize agriculture and farmers’ livelihood strategies in relation to climate change.

The Nazareti Women’s Group in Chibelela village is among those involved in establishing a farmers’ field school to test modern techniques in water, soil and crop management. “We are participating in the research as local partners,” says Keziya Magawa, Chair of the group. “We discuss with other researchers how we can make agricultural practices more flexible to climate change.” The villagers are noticing changes in Tanzania: “In the past, the rains lasted from November through April, but this year, we experienced only drops of water in February. We planted, but we do not know if we will harvest anything,” says Magawa.

Learning from practical experience

Growing conditions vary widely within Tanzania and Malawi, and this project is working in eight villages in each country, reflecting the range of regional conditions. In the learning plots, farmers, researchers and suppliers test innovations proposed and mutually agreed through participatory planning. In central Tanzania, for example, stakeholders opted to test a range of tillage equipment – from power tillers to ox-drawn ploughs and hoes – and different fertilizers and seed varieties, including drought-tolerant varieties of sorghum and maize.

In Malawi, activities have focused on crop diversification, with crops including improved forms of maize, sweet potato and sorghum. In Mphampha village, rain-fed agriculture proved almost impossible due to a prolonged dry spell during the growing season, so irrigation was added, and may have saved an otherwise lost food supply.

Benedict Mwaluko, an agricultural extension officer in Tanzania’s Dodoma region, credits local farmers for their contributions to informing policies on adaptation: “We hope this research will result in policy change and the adaptation of agricultural systems, since farmers are already responding by providing their lands for field experiments”.