AFRICAP in Malawi: Scoping research and strengthening partnerships

Interdisciplinarity is more than just a buzzword in AFRICAP. In January 2019, researchers from three different faculties at the University of Leeds visited Malawi to scope opportunities for research activity, ably supported by the Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET), the lead Malawian partner for AFRICAP. Here, Alfred Kambwiri, programme director at CISANET and Dr Joseph Galani, postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, reflect on the experience.

We had three key aims for our week together in Malawi: to sample villages for the household survey to be conducted later this year; to visit ongoing conservation agriculture field trials; and to strengthen and explore potential opportunities for collaboration with researchers in Malawi.

Accompanied by colleagues from plant, soil, animal production and social sciences, we began with a visit to the Chitedze Agricultural Research Station in Lilongwe. The team at Chitedze have been running conservation agriculture field experiments for 12 years, comparing practices for maize cropping such as basin sowing, intercropping with pigeon pea and cowpea, and rotating cowpea and groundnuts. As an interdisciplinary group, we discovered several opportunities in which researchers at Chitedze and the University of Leeds could facilitate each other’s work through AFRICAP. The food scientists among us noted the ongoing research at Chitedze into the effects of conservation agriculture on the nutritional composition of maize, and how it can influence maize contamination by aflatoxins (toxins produced by certain fungi on food). Our plant science colleagues were interested in research into root architecture and the effects of conservation agriculture on mycorrhiza and soil mycotoxin-producing fungi. The soil scientists observed and planned lab work to understand how soil structure and composition change under conservation agriculture. Crop residues in conservation agriculture plots were scrutinised by our colleagues in animal research, who are investigating the trade-off in using mulching versus animal feed.

An important component of AFRICAP’s field research is a household survey, which—as well as identifying the challenges facing small-scale farmers in our four focal countries—will provide a baseline from which to measure the programme’s impact on increasing resilience to climate change. As such, we incorporated visits to Nkhotakota and Balaka Districts, which will constitute the main AFRICAP survey sites in Malawi.

At Mwansambo Extension Planning Area in Nkhotakota, we visited conservation agriculture field trials run by CIMMYT and Total LandCare. These include fields where maize and cowpea have been grown for five years alongside those that started growing pigeon peas and maize just a year ago. Farmers here reported increased yield and moisture retention alongside reduced labour and fewer weeds as a result of conservation agriculture practices, and we were also interested to hear more about their postharvest peeling, shelling and storage practices. In Bazale Extension Planning Area in Balaka District, approximately a third of the 3500 households apply conservation agricultural practices. Similar benefits were reported, although several farmers struggle with insect infestations—mainly fall armyworm—despite the use of insecticide. This is likely caused by late sowing.

While not one of our field sites, we continued to Zomba district where we visited Chancellor College, part of the University of Malawi. A range of research is ongoing at the college on maize varieties and food crop diversity, while a recent survey on nutrition may also be of use in AFRICAP research. Chancellor College is also expanding its degree offerings in food science and nutrition, so plenty of scope for further conversations with our AFRICAP food science contingent.

It was valuable for CISANET staff, as lead AFRICAP partner in Malawi, to spend time with researchers from Leeds as they discovered more about ongoing and potential future fieldwork. For example, a key learning from the site visits for our food science work is the emphasis on aflatoxins in groundnuts, as a major export, over maize, a staple of the Malawian diet. Levels of aflatoxins in both crops should be observed and analysed so that the potential health risk to communities can be identified.

In turn, University of Leeds staff gained a better understanding of the priorities and challenges for organisations like CISANET as they work to promote agricultural development and sustainable livelihoods for Malawi’s rural poor. Particularly crucial will be continuously updating local stakeholders on AFRICAP’s aims and achievements and ensuring any concerns are addressed at regular intervals.

We look forward to continue working together to contribute to a more climate-smart future for Malawi.

To find out more about AFRICAP’s work in Malawi, contact CISANET or the AFRICAP project management team.

…and while you’re here, please take a look at our recently launched survey for those working on seed systems in Africa. We’d love to hear from you!