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As climate changes, farmers are growing food the ‘smart’ way

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CTA project helps farmers to grow drought tolerant crops and to diversify into livestock by adapting to increased droughts, floods and high temperatures as a result of climate change.

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Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) which encompasses a bundle of production techniques and inputs that help farmers adapt to changing weather conditions, is being promoted under CTA’s climate-smart initiative in Southern Africa for increasing climate resilience and improving farmer incomes.

Mary Mtonga is a smart farmer, not only based on how she dresses but also by how she grows and harvests crops. Mtonga is one of 30,000 smallholder farmers across five districts in Malawi who have been trained on climate smart agriculture (CSA) practices and approaches. Promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), CSA increases productivity and incomes, enabling farmers to curb hunger in the face of drought, which has become the ‘new normal’ in Southern Africa.

Digging and planting seeds in holes filled with crop residue and manure, Mtonga is practising conservation agriculture, one of several approaches under the broader scope of CSA.

“The project is helping farmers grow drought tolerant crops and diversify into livestock by adapting to increased droughts, floods and high temperatures as a result of climate change”, says Mariam Kadzamira, Climate Change Officer with CTA.

“Climate change has necessitated changes in how farmers cultivate their land to be able to provide food and secure incomes in a sustainable manner; and CSA has proven solutions which have to be scaled out to more farmers. The project review has enabled us to take stock of how CSA solutions are working for farmers in the region and has given pointers on the need for more awareness raising, training and knowledge sharing on CSA approaches, as well as innovative partnership for scaling up.”

A smart change

In 2013, Mtonga noticed a drop in her maize yields and failing soil fertility on her 8 ha plot in Mzimba district, northern Malawi. As a result, she adopted conservation agriculture. “I am successful because of practising conservation agriculture,” says Mtonga, a member of the Champira Farmers Association, an affiliate of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi representing 130,000 farmers. “I have realised the benefits of using conservation agriculture. Because when I started, I used to harvest 15, 5 kg bags of maize and now I harvest 40 bags. I also grow pigeon peas and groundnuts as cash crops, and I have adopted drought tolerant maize varieties. My yields have increased and my income too,” explains Mtonga.

Intercropping, a smart solution

“Diversification is important in CSA interventions”, says Joyce Mulila-Miti, a plant production and protection scientist, noting that drought tolerant maize should not be promoted in isolation from other crops. ‘’CSA supports the resilience of farmers because the innovations and interventions, such as intercropping and use of drought tolerant seeds, respond to the changing weather conditions that are facing farmers in the region’’

“The insurance of a farmer is diversification,” says Paxie Chirwa, Professor of Forestry Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. “CSA expands on forestry. The farmers’ food system is integrated and looks at wood use and energy demands. We cannot separate trees from agriculture crops.

“We need awareness creation because most CSA interventions require time, it is not a case of farmers adopting the approaches today and seeing the benefits tomorrow,” Mulila-Miti cautioned, recommending a deliberate targeting of farmers already engaging in practises that are climate smart, such as agroforestry. Pearson Chiutsi, a farmer who grows maize, groundnuts and soybeans alongside trees on his plot in central Malawi, says agroforestry improved his crop yields while ensuring food and energy security for his family.

Knowledge is key

“While having to deal with the impacts of climate change on a regular basis, farmers are not aware of all of the CSA solutions, or the information they receive is not packaged for their use”, says, Joram Nkhokwe, Director in the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services in Malawi. Nkhowe asks: “While weather information is key for farmers, are they interpreting the information correctly and effectively? There is a case for the better delivery of information so that farmers can adopt smart farming practices faster and more effectively. We have realised this gap and are setting up weather information clubs called ‘Zanyengo community clubs’, which will ensure farmers have frequent meetings at which they receive, discuss and share weather information for informed decision making in their farming.”

Farmers in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe are receiving weather information via their mobile phones under the CTA CSA regional project. In addition, the project, which is targeting to reach 200,000 smallholder farmers by February 2020, is promoting the use of drought tolerant seeds and weather-based index insurance to farmers as part of the CSA interventions.

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