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A. Orr, B. Mwale, J.M. Ritchie, J. Lawson-McDowall and C.S.M. Chanika
The Farming Systems Integrated Pest Management (FSIPM) Project worked successfully to develop low-cost, sustainable IPM strategies for four food crops - maize, beans, pigeonpea and sweet potato - grown by small-holders in the Blantyre Shire Highlands, southern Malawi. However, the project soon discovered that the priority constraint for farmers was not pests or diseases causing crop losses but poor soil fertility and the high cost of chemical fertilizer, which resulted in low maize yields. Thus, the project's focus on pest management could not, on its own, meet the most pressing needs of small-holders. Besides producing IPM recommendations, however, the project also generated new knowledge about the farming system and learnt some important lessons. In this report we review these aspects of the project's experience for the benefit of researchers, policy-makers, and donor agencies in Malawi.
Participating farmers were selected from each lineage group in the village. Since households share resources and information first with relatives, this ensured that the benefits from the project were widely distributed. Households were classified into five types according to crops grown, sex of household head and food security. Modelling the impact of IPM strategies for each household type suggested an average increase in household income of 13%. Although agriculture was the most important source of livelihoods, the nature of the farming system - small farms, low productivity and a single growing season - meant that a large share of household income had to be earned off-farm. Case studies of household income suggested that 'vulnerable' households with low food security were not necessarily poorer than others because a higher share of their total income was earned off-farm. Thus, a livelihoods approach gives a deeper understanding of the nature of poverty in southern Malawi.
Although the project was supposed to work only with 'resource-poor' farmers, it proved expedient to include local leaders and better-off households with the time and resources to participate in meetings and field trials. In practice, therefore, projects may find it more effective to work with a cross-section of villagers in resource-poor communities and not just with the poorer farmers. We developed several strategies to encourage farmer participation. Compensating farmers for low yields in project trials was important in allaying suspicions and winning trust. Simplifying experiments, teaching farmers about pest biology, and allowing farmers to design their own trials made farmer evaluation of new technology more meaningful. However, the emphasis on farmer participation limited the number of households with which the project could work. Projects that adopt a participatory approach must, therefore, plan an exit strategy that links their farmers with other agencies - NGOs, extension networks - so that others may benefit from their experience and skills.
The project saw learning as an integral part of the project, not something delegated to external reviewers. Indeed, learning became an output in its own right, accorded equal status with the attainment of the project's technical objectives. The project systematically reviewed the lessons from each season's fieldwork and incorporated its 'new learning' into the research programme. Examples include: the potential of IPM for small-holders, the variability of pest attack and the implications for field trials, and the scope for farmer-to-farmer extension. Attempts to redesign the project, to make it more relevant to farmers' needs by focusing on soil fertility rather than pests, proved largely unsuccessful, however. We used the McKinsey 'Seven S' framework to analyse the institutional lessons from this experience. The framework highlights the importance of project structure and of shared values between key actors in determining the scope for changes in strategy.
Future initiatives to improve the incomes of small-holders in the Blantyre Shire Highlands will require a broad mandate focused not just on better crop management but on linking resource-poor farmers more closely with markets. Farmers need food, but they also need cash and information. Food security may be enhanced through green manure crops in combination with chemical fertilizer. To raise cash income, new varieties of legumes - especially beans and pigeonpea - are required that are not just superior in terms of yield or pest resistance but also have the qualities that processors and consumers want. Information about how households can exploit these new technologies will spread faster and more efficiently if they are organized into producer groups. Finally, the experience of the FSIPM Project illustrates the need for flexibility in the use of logical frameworks to allow continuous learning to be incorporated into the project cycle.
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