Malawian farmers learn new ways to combat climate change

Chief Luka Ndendende (center) said the village civil protection committee he leads in Katute village, Mulanje district in Malawi, helps to make people more aware of climate change. The Enhancing Community Resilience Program aims to build rural communities’ resilience to climate change. Photo by: Nicky Milne / Christian Aid

With some 85 percent of its population of 16.8 million people dependent on agriculture for food and livelihoods, Malawi is a country that is susceptible to the effects of climate change, including droughts, heavy rain and flooding.

The Enhancing Community Resilience Program is a major effort to support rural livelihoods, which brings together two consortia made up of national and international partners to help people in rural communities adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. ECRP is funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, Irish Aid and the Norwegian Embassy to Malawi to a total of more than 19 million pounds ($28 million) from 2011-2016.

Devex talked to a range of civil society and business partners to learn what lessons can be drawn from ECRP — and where it goes from here.

Tackling problems

ECRP aims to build rural communities’ resilience to climate change, which in early 2015 caused floods that rendered thousands homeless and destroyed crops and livestock.

Farmers already face challenges, such as how to farm sustainably on small plots, limited access to advice, poor land-use practices, weak access to markets, and lack of energy — only 1 percent of the rural population has access to electricity.

The program has developed a number of interventions to help overcome these challenges, including supporting farmers to implement conservation agriculture and other “climate-smart” agriculture techniques, take part in village and loan schemes, climate forecasting, seed banks, improving small-scale livestock, irrigation, postharvest management and engage with low-carbon technologies.

Novel approaches

The program employs a wealth of approaches. One action developed by the international nongovernmental organization partner Self Help Africa used mobile phones to provide information on climate forecasting and agricultural information to improve farming patterns. Currently 1,300 farmers receive weekly SMS messages with weather forecasts.

5 tips on building climate change resilience

● Offer a portfolio of services for local communities
● Ensure programs are flexible and community driven
● Get the village to choose a lead farmer, who passes on advice
● Encourage local and international businesses to provide free services to expand business outreach
● Move interventions from assistance towards promoting inclusive growth and diversified livelihoods

Subscribers to Malawi’s Airtel mobile phone network can also access a suite of farm information services. A successful initiative involved asking villages to select “lead-farmers” who impart their knowledge of local conditions, constraints and solutions to follower farmers, teaching them a simple set of technologies to conserve the natural resource base; and provide community-based fora for sharing knowledge and information.

Another element involves the production of fuel-efficient cookstoves, to reduce deforestation across the country. Almost 6,600 were produced in just two weeks after village-based trainers were supported to act as “multipliers,” training others to produce stoves for communities.

A ‘portfolio of solutions’

However, actions like these are not taken in isolation.

“We are developing a package of interventions to give people a portfolio of solutions to tackle different challenges at the same time,” Sabine Joukes, Christian Aid’s ECRP leader, told Devex.

This is built on the “minimum input” principle: “We endeavor to build resilience by giving people options to make decisions about what they want, rather than on what we give out for free, as this is more sustainable,” Joukes said.

This is where the Village Savings and Loans scheme comes in, with almost 48,000 households (70 percent of which are women) receiving loans for small investments. Joukes sees the VSL as the catalyst that links the different interventions, so a farmer can decide to get a loan for school fees, buying livestock, a cookstove, fertilizer, or other things. Making these links through VSL is an important lesson from the project, she said.

Self Help Africa country director for Malawi Amos Zaindi, told Devex that the lead-farmer program was one of the project’s biggest successes, able to disseminate information, good farming practices and climate-smart agriculture through a person chosen by the village.

Joukes agrees with the approach, explaining that programs must always be community driven and flexible. “People identify the tailor-made solution that is going to work for them,” she said. “It needs to be a package that is relevant, but flexible enough to cater for individual households.”

Involving the private sector

Like many current programs, ECRP is harnessing private sector expertise and technology. For example, Airtel Malawi’s biggest mobile network is providing an agriculture advice service. While it offers a service free of charge, it also helps to add subscriber loyalty.

Given its success —  it is receiving 30,000 calls a month —  there are plans to expand it into a dedicated call center to provide information on new crops and livestock, using funding of more than $300,000 to the service over a three-year period and contributions from the U S. Agency for International Development and the Global Mobile Association. 

Commenting on its involvement, GSMA said it believed that “mobile operators are uniquely positioned to provide impactful and relevant services to the rural population, especially considering that rural segment represents the next big opportunity for growing mobile subscriber user base.”

Scaling up the project

Given the overall success of ECRP — 1 million people have higher household incomes and increased the value of their personal assets, and a 19 percent yearly increase in the number of beneficiaries expected to have enough food they produced themselves for at least nine months — there are moves to scale up efforts with a wider remit.

DfID has recommended extending the project beyond its finish date of June 2016 to 2019, with an additional 20.5 million pounds from DfID’s International Climate Fund. The aim is to deepen DfID Malawi’s work on resilience, focusing on reducing existing vulnerability to multiple risks and building longer term capabilities to manage these, moving away from dependency on repeated humanitarian assistance towards one that diversifies livelihoods and promotes inclusive growth.

As Christian Aid’s Joukes points out, this means developing resilience in other national systems beyond agriculture, such as social cash transfers, and food distribution. “We know that all programs need to be better integrated at all levels,” she said, “so we don’t work in different silos and ensure those that need it benefit from it most.”

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Daphne Davies

    Daphne Davies is a London-based freelance journalist and consultant with more than 30 years' experience in international development. She has worked with the U.N., the European Union, national governments and global civil society organizations, including Amnesty, WWF and LDC Watch. Her expertise is in monitoring government policies in relation to international cooperation. Her interests are in sustainability, social and economic matters, women and least developed countries.