Global Farmer Field School Platform

Innovating for continued Farmer Field School engagement amidst COVID-19 uncertainties


“Even after we learn how to live with COVID-19, our households will need food, farmers will need the knowledge that we are learning from ongoing farmer field school studies. We are just happy to be able to continue with FFS activities and to do something to ensure that we have food in our homes,” Rabson Katsilizika says.

Rabson is a farmer field school (FFS) Community Based Facilitator (CBF) in Kasungu, supported by the Government of Malawi and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) under the European Union (EU) funded KULIMA programme. He is CBF for Mgwirizano FFS, which continues with learning activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, taking on board all recommended measures, frequent hand washing, physical distancing and reduction of meeting numbers for group activities such as Agro-Ecosystem Analysis (AESA), and field management for prevention of transmission of the virus.

“At the start and end of every meeting, FFS members use soap and water or hand sanitizer. We have also started meeting in shifts, on two separate days with activities such as AESA limited to two people, an observer and a recorder. Even then, we are observing a minimum of 1 meter distance at all times during such meetings,” Rabson says. 

Following the declaration of a state of disaster in Malawi due to the COVID-19 pandemic last April, Malawi has had 71 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 27 recoveries and 3 deaths as at 20 May 2020. While the country has not put stringent containment measures or a lockdown in place, national prevention measures such as closing of schools nationally, cancellation of international flights, limiting terrestrial transport influx into the country only to cargo and not passengers, limiting public gatherings to not more than 10 persons, are being implemented.

FFS Master Trainers’ courses aligning with the government’s preventive measures

FFS Master Trainers’ Courses that were being run across four Government of Malawi residential training centres (RTCs) by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) and FAO were suspended in late March 2020. To ensure that FFS programme activities continue to operate and moderately engage with learners, FAO and MoAFS worked collaboratively to initiate innovative learning processes and modalities for the programmes.

With the temporarily suspended courses, two to three extension workers, also FFS Master Trainers, who operate within their mandated agricultural extension area close to each training centre have been identified and engaged, to conduct regular study field observations / AESA, data collection, and offer in-situ guidance on logical field management operation as and when required.

“When the courses were suspended, field studies had already been established with some AESA having been done by learners. In order to continue the studies, we have agreed to maintain the fields as a learning resource, and a skeleton team is conducting AESA, documenting observations and submitting management decisions, which are being actioned,” explains Jane Kokota, District Crop Protection Officer and FFS Master Trainer, who continues, with two other colleagues, to support continuity of field studies and data analysis in Kasungu district.

Messaging and exchange platforms such as WhatsApp, are playing a significant role in supporting information sharing, maintenance of networks and group discussions for learning to continue. Data collected, photographs and short amateur videos showing field conditions are shared with the rest of the course participants for discussion and agreements on any actions that need to be taken. ICT-based platforms are also linking FFS experts, government subject matter specialist, FFS Master Trainers’ course participants, strengthening the technical support system.

Kokota acknowledges that FFS learning by doing has shifted from a field-based learning to a remote one, at least at RTC level, until such a time when classes can resume.

Working for zero hunger in times of COVID-19

The importance of the continuity of ongoing FFS programmes as part of the farmer learning process for sustainable agricultural production in Malawi cannot be over emphasized, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Implementation of containment measures to curb down the spreading of COVID-19 might represent challenges for farmers’ access to timely technical support, compromising their ability to maximize productivity and to cope with an already affected economic environment.

“While duty of care is a priority, it is essential to offer alternatives to farmers, agriculture extension workers and technical experts, to continue supporting food production activities, looking at safeguarding the country’s food security for the coming months, while also protecting rural and urban livelihoods, ” says Luis Amaya Ortiz, Head of Project Coordination Section at FAO Malawi. 

For farmers who depend solely on agriculture for food and income, interruption of FFS activities is not an option as indicated by CBF Rabson in Kasungu, who stresses that innovating and adapting to the situation should be relied upon to sustain productivity.

“We are working from the perspective that our FFS operations are as essential as they ever were and are agreed that we must find new ways of operating to prioritise health in its entirety, that is, prevention of COVID-19 transmission, as well as access to adequate and nutritious food,” Rabson says.

FAO and the Government of Malawi with funding from the EU, the Government of Flanders and the UKAID are implementing several interventions to strengthen the resilience of small-scale farmers in Malawi through the FFS approach in 17 out of Malawi’s 28 districts. Thus far, there are 422 trained FFS master trainers supporting 1,640 operational farmer field schools and over 5000 community based facilitators.


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