Fostering agroecology in Malawi

Governance and Human Rights

In Malawi, a large section of the rural population lives off subsistence farming, struggling to generate income to meet their daily needs. They face several factors that affect their environment: high population growth, deforestation, low livestock numbers, limited access to land, and climate instability with an increased occurrence of extreme weather events. According to the World Bank’s 2019 report, an average 1.6 million Malawians have been affected by droughts and floods every year since 2010. This makes crops and farming incomes increasingly uncertain, and compromises livelihoods that are heavily depend on agricultural production.

In Lilongwe (central-western) and Phalombe (south-Eastern) districts, rural families are dependent on one single rainy season, which lasts only four months. Currently, the majority of households are only food self-sufficient 7 months in the year; they have to engage in substitution strategies for the other 5 months (occasional day labour, borrowing from loan sharks, temporary migration, etc.).

These families struggle daily to access basic foodstuffs but also energy sources for cooking, washing and heating. Trees remain an essential resource for the majority of Malawian rural families in a context of rapid deforestation, with three main effects:

  • disappearance of natural forest environments and their biodiversity;
  • severe erosion and degradation of soil quality affecting agricultural crops and groundwater levels; and
  • scarce and expensive access to energy for rural households, resulting in the use of crop residues and preventing their contribution to soil fertilisation.

In this context of scarce forest resources within villages, and with the increasing price of wood from protected areas, families are increasingly turning to unsustainable strategies. For these poor families, spending on wood can represent up to 15% of their annual budget, sometimes equalling their food budget.

Since 2018, the Embassy has been supporting agroforestry development programmes rolled out by the organisation Inter Aide in Malawi, to strengthen the sustainable productive capacities and incomes of smallholder families. These interventions help families and communities implement new agricultural practices on a substantial part of their land, start a small livestock, and plant trees. The innovative model developed with families around the dissemination of agro-ecological practices, including agroforestry, contributes significantly to improving their resilience. This model combines a collective approach (group formation, exchange visits, model plots, village nurseries) with more individual support to referral-farmers who showcase successful practices and models within their village.

Since the early 2000s, the association has developed an approach that integrates the production and planting of tree seedlings by village farming groups. Inter Aide proposes innovative agroforestry techniques whose effectiveness has been proven on the ground, such as the planting of trees in hedges based on the bocage model (mixed woodland and pasture). In addition to the numerous ecosystem services provided (biodiversity shelters, soil and water conservation, erosion control), this practice contributes to meeting the energy (wood) needs of families while allowing them to generate new income through the sustainable pruning and sale of wood.

Inter Aide’s programme currently reaches around 2,500 families every two years. In preparation for scaling up the programme in 2022, a first extension is underway in the 2 current programme areas, in a “buffer zone” between forest nature reserves (supply of wood) and urban areas (demand for wood).

As part of this process, the Embassy is supporting Inter Aide to study some of the key factors for a more ambitious programme:

  1. The issue of gender and the rules of usufruct and transmission of land ownership
    While women represent up to 70% of the people involved in preparing agroforestry plantations (implementation and management of nurseries), the involvement of men in planting choices (how many trees, where to plant, at what distance, …) and how gender impacts decisions on the use of the trees, remain poorly understood. These “hidden” factors could potentially undermine women’s inclusion in the benefits of the programme in the long run. It is therefore important to understand the distribution of agricultural and agroforestry tasks within households (decision-making power regarding tree planting and management), but also the influence of gender on tree use rights and the management of associated benefits.
    Tree planting also serves as a means to delineate land and assert the right to use or own a plot of land. In order to best help communities make choices that will bring them the best possible benefits in the future, one must understand existing land tenure regulations and customary practices and the extent to which these may influence households’ technical decisions and future management of plantations.
  2. The functioning of the firewood sector to optimise future household income
    In order to better support the future business strategy of households engaging in woodfuel production, it is necessary to understand the structure and functioning of the sector in and around the rural areas of intervention, primarily in Lilongwe District. Preliminary surveys on the commercial wood-energy sector in the Lilongwe district point to a large number of actors, and indicate that the sale of firewood offers a significant income opportunity with a relatively limited investment requirement. The predominance of bicycle transport to bring wood to urban and peri-urban areas is also a feature of this sector. However, at this stage, many aspects remain to be studied in depth for a full understanding of the sector and pricing mechanisms. This will allow for identifying a business model for the sustainable management of trees planted around agricultural land in the next stage of the programme.
  3. The potential for further promotion of fruit trees
    There is strong demand to start or expand fruit tree production in the communities Inter Aide works with. The organisation has found that there are more fruit trees in the villages in Phalombe district than in Lilongwe district. Preliminary surveys indicate that households see fruit sales as an important opportunity for additional income. Based on this observation, Inter Aide seeks to better understand the fruit sector actors in the area, and whether the production of certain fruits could become a profitable activity with real marketing opportunities.

The organisation is therefore carrying out 3 studies in 2021-2022:

  • a baseline study to determine the extent to which “gender” and “land tenure” factors can potentially impact the strategy and results of the agroforestry programme in the districts of Lilongwe and Phalombe.
  • a study to identify the actors in the wood-energy sector in Lilongwe, understand their current strategies and price mechanisms, in order to propose commercial directions for woodfuel producers in Inter Aide’s intervention areas.
  • a study to identify the actors in the fruit sector in Phalombe, understand their current strategies and price mechanims, in order to propose suitable fruit species in the nurseries and commercial orientations for producers in the intervention zone.

Gender is a cross-cutting topic within the fruit and wood-energy sector studies.

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