The World Bank/WBI’s CBNRM Initiative

Case Received: February 5, 1998

Author: Paulanco Thangata

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Farmers' Perception to Agroforestry Adoption for Soil Erosion Control: A Case Study from Malawi


Malawi, located in Southeastern Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. With an average of 90 people per km2 of land area on a total land area of 9.4 million hectares, Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries. The southern region is the most populated, accommodating over 50% of the people. Maize is the staple food crop grown on 85% of smallholder land. Due to the growing pressure on land in Malawi, it is unrealistic to prevent farmers from cultivating steep sloping marginal lands. The result of a diagnosis and design exercise by ICRAF implemented in 1986 showed that soil fertility is the major biophysical constraint for smallholder farmers in southern Malawi (Minae, 1986). Shortages of land have forced farmers to crop maize continuously which has lead to soil fertility depletion. Further, losses due to soil erosion have been estimated to exceed 15% of gross agricultural income, or more than 5% of GDP (Bishop, 1991). Therefore, erosion control measures have to be taken in order to make use of these lands in a sustainable way. It is important that the technologies that are developed for this purpose are economically attractive to farmers, and that community participation is ensured to enhance the adoption of such technologies. The first step in that direction is to gain an understanding of the needs perceived by the farmers and knowledge of their socioeconomic status. The report presents the results of a study undertaken with that objective. Data were obtained through a structured questionnaire. A total of 49 smallscale farmers were interviewed. Twenty nine were participants in the testing of agroforestry technologies with ICRAF and 20 were non-participants who were randomly selected within the same area.

*This paper is based on the author’s MSc thesis, "Adoption and Perception to Agroforesty Practices by low Resource Farmers in Malawi –a case study", Edinburgh University, 1996. The author would like to thank the Joint Japan/World Bank Graduate Scholarship Program for funding the studies and travel costs to Malawi and ICRAF (Malawi) for the field travel costs.

1 Presently pursuing further studies for a Ph.D. degree in Agroforestry at the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA.

The area of this study is the Domasi Valley in Malosa EPA, Zomba Rural Development Project (RDP), in southern Malawi. The area is characterized by a high population density of over 126 person /km2 with small fragmented land holding sizes from 0.42 ha to 0.76 ha per farm family and a population of 17,000 farm families. Soils are mainly sandy loams and crops grown include maize, the staple food crop, as well as tobacco, soya bean, sweet potato, Irish potato, pigeon pea, sorghum and rice. Seventy-five percent of the area is cropped with maize intercropped with cassava, groundnut and pulses (mainly pigeon peas), while only 15% of the maize is grown as a sole crop and rice occupies 7% of the area (Malosa EPA Report, 1996).

The initial situation

Land tenure

Most of the land in Malawi is under a traditional customary land system. Smallholder farmers live under the control of the family heads, and are also subject to the rule of village chiefs and traditional chiefs. The chief, through village headmen, grants a cultivation right, rather than ownership. Unlike in the north, the southern region practices a matrilineal system wherein the wife inherits cultivation rights.

Agricultural production

Agricultural policies after independence in 1964 up to the early 1970s favored the estate sector and the Special Crops Act (1972) prevented smallholder farmers from growing burley and flue-cured tobacco. This resulted in establishment of estates for tobacco growing, mostly by politicians and top civil servants. During that time smallholder farmers lost substantial customary land to the estate sector.

The present situation is that most of the smallscale farmers in this area are farming on lands that have steep slopes, some greater than 12% and considered non- arable (Shaxson, 1977). Some people resorted to brick making as a source of income. This practice causes serious degradation of neighboring fields. At the top of the list of concerns of many farmers is the need for fertilizers. At present, farmers apply any type of fertilizer they are able to get from local markets. The present recommended fertilizer rates of 96 kg N and 40 kg P205 per hectare for hybrid maize, 76 kg N and 20 kg P205 per hectare for composite maize and 40 kg N and 10 kg P205 per hectare for local maize, are beyond the reach of most farmers. Fertilizer prices have doubled since the subsidies on fertilizer were removed as a result of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Most of the farmers use local maize varieties which respond less to fertilizers than the hybrids. Moreover, the hybrid seed has to be purchased every season and it is costly.

Livestock production

Most farmers in southern Malawi do not have livestock. Many (34% and 20% of the participating farmers and non-participants covered by the survey, respectively) did not even own a chicken (Thangata, 1996).

Extension methods

The government of Malawi uses a centralized, top-down, "block-extension-system" approach to extension needs. This is a modification of the train and visit approach introduced in the 1980s. This approach has proved to be unresponsive to farmers’ needs and priorities. Farmers used to attend extension meetings when the government was offering fertilizer credit. Now they do not see any reason to attend the meetings. And, there is low extensionist to farmer contact. Every extension planning area has one land husbandry officer who is responsible for the soil and water conservation and agroforestry activities (Ministry of Agriculture, 1993/1994). Although most of them are well trained in soil and water conservation techniques, they need more training in the area of agroforestry, which is new to most of them.

The change process

As one of its roles in agroforestry research, the SADC/ICRAF project has developed two agroforestry technologies for soil improvement: mixed intercropping of maize with Gliricidia sepium and relay cropping of maize with Sesbania sesban and Tephrosia vogelli (Maghembe and Kooi personal communication). These multipurpose trees are being tested in three major systems. The first is "type I" research. This is researcher designed and researcher managed. The researcher manages the trials in the farmers’ field. The second is "type II"; where the farmer manages the crops while the researcher manages the trees. The last is the "type III", where farmers are left to plant the tree species in any arrangement that fits them. And this is the major focus of this presentation. This system assesses farmers’ adaptability of the technologies so as to check the potential for adoption. The exercise consisted of:

Farmers were very eager to plant the trees. Some of the farmers with very steep and degraded land asked for a supply of vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanioides). The participants (farmers who received the Gliricidia sepium seedlings) shared some of their seedlings with their friends who did not have a chance to get any. On some of the farms the survival rate was very low due to late planting. This led to farmers asking for more seedlings. As ICRAF could not supply more seedlings, the farmers asked to have community nurseries. After consultation with the chiefs, an agreement was made to have the community village nurseries so as to ease the supply problem. Depending on the closeness of the farmers land and water source availability, farmers grouped themselves in three groups.

The outcome

Three nursery sites were proposed depending on farmers’ closeness to each other and a water source. Materials and nursery management training were to be provided by ICRAF. This was seen as a very encouraging achievement for the farmers who had need for tree seedlings. As of August 1997, the nurseries had not been established due to other problems such as water scarcity. However, the farmers’ desire for more seedlings is an indication of their willingness to plant more trees. This in turn will help control erosion and sustain the natural resource base of the area.

The need for more trees is in itself a positive achievement. This has shown how knowledgeable the farmers are in their need to control soil erosion and improve soil fertility. The government needs to step up efforts to support farmers’ needs rather than leaving such work to NGOs and external donors.

Lessons learned

Four lessons were learned from this study:

Lesson 1: The participants shared the seedlings they received from ICRAF with those who did not get any. This reflected farmer’s interest hence the need for the establishment of the community nurseries.

The nurseries would give a chance to other farmers to plant trees and would act as a back up to fill in gaps where some seedlings have died. Timely availability of seedlings would also be ensured.

Lesson 2: Although there is much documentation on the need for labor in most tropical systems, when it comes to agroforestry systems, it was learned that farmers are practicing communal labor. They help each other during peak periods of labor demand. Most farmers felt tree planting was not labor demanding as this could be spread over time.

Lesson 3: Farmers did not maintain the same ridges, as is the case in mixed intercropping in researcher managed trials. Normally (in research) in the mixed intercrop, the tree species are planted in the furrow and the maize on the ridges. The ridges are maintained year after year and are only split along the middle when applying mulch and then rebuilt. Farmers are not used to this new mixed intercropping system but use ridge shifting, whereby the ridges shift from furrow to the ridge and vice versa each season. Farmers were given the chance to do what they felt was manageable. Farmers felt that the opening of ridges and rebuilding after the application of biomass could be labor demanding. And, the shifting of ridges helps in getting rid of some weeds.

Lesson 4: As seen by the farmers, the government needs to change its extension approach. Since the government is no longer providing fertilizer loans, the farmers have no need to attend the ‘top-down ‘ meetings. This shows that although this approach had, apparently, been popular among farmers because of the fertilizer ‘catch’, they were not fully supportive of it, and therefore not a good strategy for encouraging agroforestry adoption.


Bishop J. (1991): The Cost of Soil Erosion in Malawi, report prepared for the World Bank Economics Mission on Environmental Policy, Malawi, July-Aug 1990.

Ministry of Agriculture (1993/94): A Guide to Agricultural Production in Malawi.

Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y, Wellard, K. and Kamangira, J.B (1994): Preliminary Findings on the Adoption of Agroforestry Technologies by Smallholder Farmers in Zomba RDP. Paper presented at the Second Agroforestry Symposium held at Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station (24-28 October 1994).

Minae, S. 1986 (Ed): Agroforestry Potentials for the Land-Use Systems in the Unimodal Plateau of Southern Africa, Malawi. AFRENA Report No 5.

Thangata, P. (1996): Adoption and farmer perception of agroforestry practices by low resource farmers- a case study from Malawi. Unpublished MSc. thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Shaxson T.F., Hunter, N.D., Jackson, T.R., and Alder, J.R (1977): A Land Husbandry Manual for Malawi. Government Printer, Zomba, Malawi.