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MALAWI: A Cellphone, a Bicycle and Sound Agricultural Advice

Charles Mpaka

THYOLO DISTRICT, Malawi, Aug 12 2010 (IPS) - It is 11 am and Mary Jusa seems unconcerned by the sun beating hard on her back. Humming a traditional tune, she carries on uprooting weeds in her maize field between two water canals.

One of 24 members of this irrigation scheme in the rural district of Thyolo, Jusa’s plot measures just 50 by 20 metres. But she says it gives her enough income to meet the basic needs of her family of three children. She attributes her success to agricultural extension services.

“Mr Sakaika [the government extension worker] comes here often. It’s because of his instructions that we are able to benefit so greatly from such small fields,” she says.

Amongst the lucky few

But the Thyolo farmers are a happy exception to the rule. Research by the global anti-poverty group ActionAid, suggests that extension services, which provide advice and training for farmers, have collapsed in most parts of Malawi.

The government admits that extension services are weak, but it blames the AIDS pandemic for shortage of staff.

Malawi’s Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET) says Malawi’s farmers used to enjoy vibrant support from the ministry of agriculture, when government was the main provider of the services. That was before the introduction of market liberalisation policies in the 1980s.

The new policies, according to CISANET national coordinator Victor Mhoni, eliminated government’s role as the principal extension services provider. The expectation was that the private sector would fill the gap.

The government cut back sharply on spending in this area. ActionAid says between 1996 and 1998, government allocated 67 percent of the agricultural budget to extension services. That spending had fallen to just seven percent last year, it says.

In the 2010/11 national budget, government has allocated 213 million dollars for the ministry of agriculture. Out of this allocation, the farm input subsidy programme gets $133 million. Research and extension work gets $9 million – four percent of the total agriculture budget. The balance will purchase maize for the national strategic grain reserves.

Bretton-Woods at fault?

Action Aid specifically blames donors such as the World Bank for the government’s retreat from agricultural support. Their fixation on agriculture for economic growth rather than food security, the organisation says, has resulted in the fall of extension services in Malawi.

The World Bank maintains that a mix of public workers, private firms, civil society organisations and community level structures should provide extension services.

“Eventually, we will be able to reduce the decline that has been there and accelerate productivity of small farms. This approach has been tried in other countries in Africa and it is working,” says Hardwick Tchale, the Bank’s agricultural economist in Malawi.

The Bank’s World Development Report of 2008 calls for the decentralisation of agriculture development services.

The report mentions Senegal and Uganda as countries that have enjoyed success in contracting out extension services and other agriculture-related activities. ActionAid disputes this account of what’s happened in Uganda and elsewhere in its response to the 2008 report, a 25-page publication assessing the Bank’s record on agriculture.

“In practice, the extension service has little private sector involvement, but it also suffers from major under-investment by the state. Thus it is the worst of both worlds, and it is farmers who suffer,” the authors write.

Following its instincts

Malawi enjoys a measure of fame for having ignored the advice of the Bank when it embarked on a major subsidy programme to put seeds and fertiliser in smallholder farmers’ hands; combined with good rains, this has rapidly improved agricultural productivity.

In contrast, a senior official in Malawi’s agriculture department is not optimistic over the success of the extension service policy that government drew up in 2000 with World Bank.

“Even if farmers took the initiative to seek advice as the policy wants [them to], they would not find the workers in the districts because we do not have enough of them. And you can’t force the private sector to get into this business,” he said, requesting anonymity as he is not mandated to speak on behalf of the department.

ActionAid says the ratio of extension workers to farming households is 1 for every 3,000, far in excess of the government’s target of 1:500.

“We will draw up policies and research on technologies aimed at developing our agriculture,” the ministry official told IPS. “But I think we are leaving out a very important aspect that would actualise all such plans and findings. Government is not investing in extension. We don’t have to wait until we put in irrigation schemes for farmers before they get the services.”

He said the available extension workers struggle in the absence of even basic tools such as motorcycles and bicycles that would let them visit farmers in their areas of responsibility.

Maximise existing resources

Speaking to IPS on the sidelines of the Forum for Agricultural Research for Africa (FARA) conference in Burkina Faso at the end of July, FARA executive director Dr Monty Jones said African governments could compensate to some degree for the shortage of staff and lack of mobility by exploiting new communication technologies.

“Africa is now considered the fastest growing market for mobile phones. It makes sense for our agriculture systems to adopt these technologies to exchange extension information,” he said.

Thyolo district extension worker Sakaika has a bicycle and a mobile phone. He is responsible for 57 irrigation schemes which serve close to 4,000 farmers.

“When I visit one scheme today, it takes a long time to return to it. So the mobile phone keeps me in touch with the farmers,” he said.

And his efforts are paying off. Enock Mpeni, 48, is chairperson of the irrigation scheme to which Jusa belongs. He has been a maize farmer all his life but he says he has found farming more profitable since 2007 when he started accessing extension services through the scheme.

Mpeni explained how knowledge of how much space to leave between plants, the number of seeds per hole, when and what fertiliser to apply, and better record keeping have all helped him become a better farmer.

Like Mpeni, Jusa plants one seed of hybrid maize per hole, 30 centimetres apart. The crop matures within three months, so she plants four times yearly.

According to Sakaika, a 50 by 20 metre field should hold 5,000 planting stations which can produce up to 10,000 cobs. Jusa sells the maize while it’s still fresh.

In the last harvest in June, Jusa made 350 dollars from her field. In 2008, the first year she was in the irrigation scheme Sakaika supports, she made a total of 1,600 dollars.

And despite the hot sun, she is excited. “We are going to be rich,” she says, laughing.

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