Farmers find relief in weather insurance, drought tolerant seeds

By Watipaso Mzungu - Consultant Reporter

Small scale farmers in Traditional Authority (T/A) Nsamala in Balaka are grappling with the impacts of the 2017 prolonged dry spell, which devastated harvests and led to food shortages to their households.

The long-awaited rains are expected to replenish pastures, and communities are being encouraged to plant short-term crops.

But those that can, fear losing their produce again, when the rains stop before the crops mature.

“Last year, we laboured in vain after our crops wilted before maturity. This year, every farmer is sceptical. No one is eager to risk his or her money on this type of seed again,” Marita Charles, 32, says, pointing to an empty packet bearing the name of the seed and company she bought for the 2017-18 agricultural year.

The unpredictable rainfall phenomenon has driven the agricultural calendars crazy, resulting in small scale farmers yielding next to nothing after breaking their backs the whole year.

“The whole harvest cycle has been turned upside down. And if this continues, we’ll surely die of hunger in this area,” Charles continues with her face wearing anxiety.

Lately, Malawi has become synonymous with increase in the number of adverse climatic hazards each rainy season, with the most serious being dry spells, seasonal droughts, intense rainfall, riverine floods and flush floods.

Some of these, especially droughts and floods, have increased in frequency, intensity and magnitude over the last two decades, and have adversely impacted on food and water security, water quality, energy and the sustainable livelihoods of rural communities.

In January 2015, severe flooding swept large tracts of cash and food crops in Chikwawa, Nsanje, Phalombe and Mangochi in the South, Salima in the Centre and Karonga and Rumphi in the North, among others.

Up north, in Mzimba, the moist air tumbles down in globules of quicksilver. Withered trees and shrubs from the prolonged dry spell lap up the long-awaited rains and swallow hard.

“The harvests failed in the last growing season, but the rains have come…” says Charles Kamanga, a lead farmer from Malembo Village in T/A M’mbelwa in Mzimba.

“There were concerns about the condition of livestock as rivers were drying up and the conditions of the grange lands, but now it’s raining, so all the livestock will be fine. We also have to return to the field to plant.”

The 2017-18 food and dry spells left over 3.3 million people in desperate need of food aid, according to the latest assessment by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC).

“People cultivated their lands, but when it was time for harvesting, their crops never came,” reveals Group Village Head (GVH) Kwitanda in Balaka, one of the worst affected districts in last year’s (2017) natural disasters.

Kwitanda adds: “The sun scorched them beyond redemption. The weather changes are destroying everything. We’re just left at the mercy of heavens.”

The National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM) estimates that 84 percent of Malawians are affected by droughts, floods and emerging pests and diseases.

NASFAM Head of Farm Services Unit, Wycliffe Kumwenda, says with an agro-based economy and a rapidly growing population estimated at 3.3 percent per annum, Malawi’s vulnerability continues to increase annually.

Kumwenda states that as a result of this as well as their low adaptive capacity, the majority of rural communities is currently experiencing chronic food deficits on a year-round basis and is among the most vulnerable to climate change.

“To address climate change-related challenges, smallholder food systems have to become adaptable and resilient. This requires ingenuity and innovation to produce more food on less land in more sustainable ways,” he stresses.

With support from Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) of Netherlands, NASFAM is implementing Scaling-Up Climate-Resilient Solutions (CRS) for Smallholder Farmers in Malawiproject.

Three climate resilient solutions that underpin this project include: weather-based index insurance (WBI); information communication technology (ICT)-enabled weather information services; and drought tolerant seeds.

Kumwenda says WBI allows smallholder farmers to better manage climate risk, enabling investment and growth in the agricultural sector.

“It has the potential to build the resilience of smallholder farmers by providing a pay-out in bad years to help farmers survive and protect their assets. And through promotion of drought resistant seeds, we ensure seed availability to smallholder farmers at affordable prices, and sustain seed demand among them,” he narrates.

He says the association is working with the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS), which provides weather information to NASFAM for dissemination to farmers and other stakeholders.

“NASFAM realises that accurate weather information and forecasts enable farmers to make informed decisions, take advantage of favourable climate condition, and adapt to change.  Despite these benefits, access to regular and reliable weather information by smallholder farmers is very limited – generally in developing countries and more specifically in Malawi.

“As such, farmers rely on historical weather patterns for decision-making - but increasing unpredictability in weather systems has increased the risk for farmers. The most important decisions made by smallholders are based on seasonal forecasts. Shorter real-time meteorological information and daily forecasts further help farmers to determine timing of various activities such as sowing, weeding, spraying and harvesting,” he explains.

NASFAM has also been organising seed fairs in Extension Planning Areas (EPAs) to encouraged farmers to take advantage of the enhanced rainfall to plant early-maturing crops; and most importantly, drought tolerant varieties.

Kumwenda emphasises that all this is aimed at contributing towards enhancement of productivity and adaptation of agriculture under a changing climate.

The project further aims to increase farmers’ usage of ICT-based weather information services.

Kamanga and GVH Kwitanda can now see unlocked opportunities in the greening countryside.

“Now it’s a case of understanding how you enable those whose harvests have failed to get through the lean season. As for the right seed to plant, the seed fairs have provided the information while the WBI will offer the relief in case of other natural calamities next year,” Kamanga sighs.