In Southern Malawi, the United in Building and Advancing Life Expectations (UBALE) project, completed in 2019, helped over 240,000 families in three districts produce more abundant harvests, increase income from agriculture, and learn important skills to help cope with changing climate patterns. The project linked agriculture with nutrition interventions to maximize the impact the program had on family nutrition. UBALE promoted conservation agriculture, improved post-harvest handling, increased diet diversity, and promoted nutrition gardens with a care group model. The combined effect of these approaches resulted in a significant improvement in family nutrition and a reduction in child stunting.
Farming is the predominant occupation of most rural dwellers in southern Malawi. Sande, 41 years old, is one such farmer. For generations, Sande and farmers like him have provided for their families by farming. In the past decade, however, a shift in climate conditions has meant that Malawian smallholder farmers are finding it progressively more difficult to produce enough harvests to feed their families. Climate events like droughts, cyclones, and resulting floods have become more frequent. In any given year, farmers in this region are at risk of losing their harvest to inadequate rain, too much rain, or both.
Sande, who lives in Mchacha village, Nsanje district in southern Malawi, learned all he knows about farming from his father. His parents were farmers, and their parents before them. In the last decade, however, changing weather patterns and poorer soil fertility saw Sande’s farm begin to produce smaller harvests each year, despite the increasing effort he put into farming.
Five years ago, Sande’s harvest had dwindled to the point where all of the food he harvested at the end of the planting season was only enough to feed his family of six for two months out of the year. He found odd jobs like carpentry and bricklaying to earn money to feed his family for the rest of the year.
“The two biggest issues we had were that we were using local crop varieties that took a long time to mature and did not yield much. Also, for long periods, there will be no rains; then, when the rains come, it floods and destroys the crops,” Sande said.
Outsmarting climate shocks
Sande and other farmers learned to adopt technologies to cope with external stressors and strengthen their capacity to bounce back from climate shocks. For instance, Sande now plants sesame, a drought-tolerant crop, on his farm. He learned to use maize seeds specially cross-bred to withstand pests and changing climate conditions. Sande lost his maize crop to flooding in 2017, but he planted sesame that he received through the UBALE project and produced a crop that provided some income after the floods. These methods have made a big difference in farmer’s harvests, their income, and their ability to adapt to unpredictable climate conditions.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) implemented the UBALE project with funding from the USAID Office of Food for Peace. The project taught farmers like Sande how to use easy-to-learn farming methods to replenish soil, maintain water tables, and improve their harvests.
Partnering with the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture, CRS taught rural small-scale farmers like Sande conservation agriculture methods that helped them adjust to the changing climate conditions. The project also provided farmers with improved, high-yield, drought tolerant seeds to plant.
Now that he uses these new methods and has access to improved seed stocks, Sande’s farm yields enough food to feed his family for ten months. Sande was trained as a lead farmer by the project. Lead farmers teach other farmers in their community the farming methods they learned through the project. Because other farmers in his community are able to see Sande’s improved crop yields, they are incentivized to learn and adapt these new farming methods.
Dooshima Tsee is the regional information officer for southern Africa for Catholic Relief Services. She serves as the point person for media, actively connecting journalists with engaging stories about CRS’ work throughout the region. Operating out of Lusaka, Zambia, Dooshima travels throughout the area to report in-depth stories on a wide range of issues, including food security, combating and treating HIV-AIDS, and programming to protect and serve orphans and vulnerable children.