Improving emergency response to help Malawi’s farmers rebuild stronger after El Niño

06/02/2019 - 

 “I sold five times more seeds in two fairs than I normally do in my shop in a month.” Surey Liphava, 50, a vendor in Blantyre Rural district.

In December 2015, FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System issued a special alert on the effects of El Niño in Southern Africa. Based on this information, FAO drafted the Southern Africa El Niño Response Plan 2016 to support the rapid recovery of agricultural production and to safeguard livestock-based livelihoods in ways that boost household and national food security in the subregion.

With financial support from Italy, FAO has invested in recovery and resilience-building activities in Malawi. This includes supporting subsistence farmers with agricultural inputs, particularly seeds and irrigation tools, to help them recover and build a stronger asset base. In Malawi, FAO focused on reducing the food gap and improving access to nutritious food in the short term through off-season crop and vegetable production, while also supporting farmers in the main 2016–17 season through seed fairs. Farmers received drought‑tolerant short-cycle crops (cereals and legumes), vegetable seeds, planting materials and fertilizer to quickly grow foods to meet their immediate needs.

Because climate change has stretched the ability of Malawi’s traditional rain-fed agriculture system to produce enough food, FAO also supported small-scale irrigation and water conservation works using cash-for-work schemes. Farmers learned to apply climate‑smart technologies and practices, including water harvesting and conservation agriculture techniques. What is more, farmers learned to better protect their crops against seasonal flash floods. Through the project, FAO also boosted its ongoing efforts to enhance coordination and better manage information between partners working in the food security and agriculture sector to ensure appropriate, timely and effective responses to shocks.

A seed fair is an innovative strategy that combines access to a diversity of seeds with training on improved agricultural practices, adapted to local conditions. Seed fairs are specially organized markets that foster the exchange and trade in seeds between farmers and vendors, who may be commercial seed firms or local seed producers and traders. The aim of the seed fairs in the 2016–17 cropping season was to restore the food production capacity and agricultural livelihoods of Malawians who were affected by disasters. With support from Italy, FAO conducted 90 seed fairs across Malawi that allowed farmers to resume their agricultural production after two consecutive years of drought, floods or a combination of both. The intervention benefited over 50 000 households — some 255 000 people — in eight of the worst-affected districts of Malawi at once. As a result, seed fairs have now become one of the most reliable and empowering mechanisms for seed distribution in responding to an agricultural emergency.

On the day of the seed fair, farmers are given several denominations of vouchers that they exchange with vendors for the type of seeds they desire. The latter, include new varieties and indigenous, locally produced seeds. During the fairs, participants also receive information on good farming practices so they can put their new seeds to the best use. At the end of the seed fair, the vendors redeem the vouchers for money from the organizers of the fair. Local government authorities usually conduct quality assurance of the seeds and the methodology, and ensure that farmers receive appropriate and good-quality seed varieties. To ensure the greatest impact, assessments are conducted before the seed fairs, to determine market prices and set price ceilings so that vendors do not exploit the farmers, and to select the beneficiaries. Overall, farmers purchased more than 290 tonnes of seeds, through 93 vendors who participated in the initiative.

Resource partner: Italy

Contribution: EUR 935 000 (USD 1.1 million)

Photo: Malawi – Women harvesting groundnuts in a field at Mzingo Village ©FAO/Amos Gumulira