Around 80% of the Malawi population depends on smallholder agriculture for their livelihoods, the majority farming at a subsistence level using traditional methods. However the context of agriculture in Malawi is changing with increasing challenges of reduced soil fertility, erratic weather patterns due to climate change and changing markets. In order to counter these challenges, smallholders need to change the way they farm in terms of what they grow and how they grow it, but they lack the skills, knowledge and capacity to improve their productivity within this context.
Malawi’s potential productivity is impacted by poor education and function literacy levels, with 28% of men and 51% of women being illiterate. This problem is compounded by poverty which affects the majority of the population, and reduces access to and affordability of quality farming inputs. In addition lack of planning skills, financial management skills and understanding of the value of a business approach prevents smallholders from achieving their full potential productivity.
Individual smallholders suffer from the lack of organisation and voice that could help them increase economies of scale and collective bargaining power. The concept of democracy was only officially adopted in Malawi in 1994 and traditional power structures still retain much influence. However, in order for farmers to benefit fully from effectively work together in groups, democratic processes and structures must be encouraged and maintained.
The lack of organisation of farmers also creates an obstacle for dissemination of information and guidance on Good Agricultural Practices. While the Government provides extension workers with a remit to support farmers on the ground, the reality is that this service is reducing in quality and impact due to loss of staff and lack of funds. It is important to equip farmers with capacity to respond to the changing agricultural environment, through extension support, training on techniques and sharing of best practice. The presence of farmer groups formally organised into an extension structure, assists this process, and can increase group productivity.
The Solution – NASFAM’s Interventions
NASFAM acknowledges the need to support and train member farmers so that they can reach their potential capacity for farming, and thus implements a series of interconnected activities that address the challenges facing member capacity.
- Farming as a Business Concept: The NASFAM Farming as a Business concept aims to increase understanding of the value of a business approach, in order to improve productivity and livelihoods from smallholder farming. The concept is based around the training of members in the principles of business, planning and management of their farming activities. This integrates with the Extension Support activity, guiding training on crop production and marketing, development of Association sustainability and democratic governance as well as mainstreaming of gender, HIV and AIDS issues which can impact on farming productivity.
- Monitoring and Evaluation: To ensure accountability and efficiency of programme management, NASFAM invests in a robust monitoring and evaluation package which is designed to report outputs and results from activities and projects, as well as evaluating the ultimate impact of these interventions on members lives and livelihoods. The M&E strategy is therefore able to inform future programme development based, on lessons learned.
- Extension Support for Increased and Diversified Production: NASFAM uses its extension structure to empower members with the skills and knowledge needed to respond to the changing farming environment. Individual farmers form Clubs, which form Action Committees, which form the NASFAM Associations. Each Association has at least one Field Officer, trained in the latest techniques for effective crop production and productivity, as well as information on market-demanded crops and varieties for diversification efforts. Techniques include land preparation, crop choice, planting, crop management, harvest and post-harvest management. To increase the impact and reach of their technical support, the 70+ Field Officers train and support 1,500 progressive Farmer Trainers who pass on the techniques and information to their fellow farmers in a peer-to-peer approach.
- Functional Literacy and Basic Business Skills: Illiteracy is a national problem that is more prevalent in rural areas and is thus impacting on social and economic productivity of smallholder farming communities. NASFAM runs a comprehensive training programme, which focuses on literacy, numeracy and basic business skills for all members who are partially or completely illiterate so that they have greater capacity to farm as a business.
- Livelihoods for Women: Women are often not able to access productive assets and yet evidence shows that income earned by women is spent on household welfare. NASFAM works with a proportion of female members, particularly female headed households, to help set them up in sustainable income generating activities so that they can farm as a business and support their families. Some of these women may have benefited from the functional literacy training.
- Strengthening Leadership and Governance: Given that the principles of NASFAM lie on a foundation of democracy which is a fairly new concept to Malawi, NASFAM has to work hard to educate and train members to uphold the democratic constitution. All levels of the NASFAM system are governed by democratically elected Committees of farmers, with leaders serving two year terms, and no more than two terms. All Committees experience turnover of holders of office each year, and it is vital to ensure that all new leaders are educated on their roles and responsibilities. Given the importance of their representational roles, leaders must be clear of constitutional policies and By-Laws as otherwise could have a detrimental impact on the operation of the NASFAM system. Therefore NASFAM delivers regular training and updates to leaders to ensure continued and genuine representation and voice for the members.