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Sustainable Intensification in East and Southern Africa: Participatory Research Enlists Farmers in New Food Security Efforts

Across Eastern and Southern Africa, poor farmers struggle to grow enough food to feed their families, generate income, and escape poverty. But declining soil fertility and a changing climate are eroding crop yields, while increasing threats from weeds, pests, and plant and animal diseases leave smallholder farmers vulnerable to catastrophic losses.

To find innovative, sustainable farming strategies that address these challenges, a recently initiated Feed the Future program led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture is linking poor farmers across Tanzania and Malawi with local, regional and international research partners. Through their participation in research, these farmers are helping USAID-sponsored scientists identify and integrate the multiple technologies needed to transform agricultural production in key agro-ecosystems and are dramatically reducing the time between the development of research innovations and their widespread adoption by farmers.

In the program’s first year, an initial round of pilot projects set important benchmarks in:

  • Participatory research: Researchers worked with local farmers to establish field trials of legume intercropping (growing two or more crops in the same farming area) and no-till soil management techniques in four districts of Malawi. They also collected baseline data and surveyed local farmers, including women, about cropping practices and key agricultural challenges in rural Tanzania and central Malawi. Researchers will build on these relationships with an active co-learning approach, collaborating with farmers to adapt combinations of promising agricultural technologies to local practices and agro-ecological conditions.
  • Local seed production systems: Many smallholder farmers lack access to high-quality seeds. This limits crop productivity, particularly for legumes, which hold many unrealized nutritional and agronomic benefits. To help meet farmers’ demand for more and better legume seeds, one pilot project contracted Tanzanian, Malawian and Zambian farmers to plant and multiply high-quality starter seed developed by agricultural research institutions, then sell the harvested grain for commercial distribution through local agro-dealers. The program distributed more than six tons of starter seed to its contract farmers, who have already used it to generate more than 30 tons of legume seed for commercial distribution.
  • Small-scale agricultural manufacturing: Along with poor-quality seed, smallholder farmers identified lack of access to labor-saving equipment as a major challenge. To address this, two projects built the capacity of small-scale entrepreneurs to meet the manufacturing needs of their local farming communities. The first project demonstrated that small, locally manufactured metal silos could reduce post-harvest grain losses from as high as 60 percent to below 10 percent, then invited Kenyan master artisans to train 20 local manufacturers to produce the silos. The second project tested the labor-saving potential of different rotary weeding tools and then trained 34 local blacksmiths to manufacture three different models.

In addition to laying a strong foundation for ongoing participatory research efforts with local farmers, these first-year activities also built crucial partnerships between international and African research institutions, government offices, national universities, and NGOs. As the most promising technologies are taken to scale, these partnerships set the stage for local food security stakeholders to extend successful approaches across broad agro-ecological zones, where many farmers face similar constraints and opportunities.

This story from Tanzania and Malawi comes from the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) program, part of Feed the Future’s efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to the Southern African systems described here, the program is active in the Ethiopian Highlands and the Sudano-Sahelian zone (within Ghana and Mali). The three regional efforts are coordinated under an overarching research design, monitoring and evaluation framework, communications strategy, and collaborative management structure

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