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Harnessing ecology for sustainable food systems, nutrition and citizen empowerment in central and southern Malawi

Having 50 per cent of the farm units consolidated into larger and more viable units by 2050

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

• Michigan State University (University) • Department of Extension Services, Ministry of Agriculture Malawi (Extension Services) • District Agriculture Extension Coordinating Committee (DAECC) – Extension

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Central Region of Malawi

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Principal Investigator (PI) on this proposal is a political ecologist from LUANAR with interests in developing sustainable and intensified crop and livestock production systems. The PI together with researchers from MSU has been doing research in central Malawi for over 15 years. Research by the two universities has developed some widely used agricultural technologies such as bean varieties, the double legume technology and farmer centered approaches such as the Farmer Research Network (FRN). The results from the past research shows that there is potential for production systems that are sustainable and intensive and possibility for technologies to scale out. The local histories reveal that agro-ecologies used to be viable and people used to produce enough and a variety of food without external inputs. This vision is therefore informed by empirical research by the two universities and seeks a feasible trajectory towards an improved food system.

The central Malawi, just as the rest of the country, the economy is agro-based and dominated by communal farmers. The population density is >200 persons/km2. Farms have become smaller due to parceling of the plots among families over generations, resulting in 80% of the farms being between 0.5-1 ha large. The farm sizes justify for sustainable ecological intensification.

 Within the central Malawi lies Lilongwe, the largest city in Malawi. The population of Lilongwe is rapidly growing due to rural-urban migration as well as migration from the Southern and Northern regions of the country. The rural supply the bulk of food products consumed in city. The whole food system is under stress as imbalances in rural-urban marketing are creating shortages at either end. The increasing strain would create an intractable land degradation, impacting on both food and nutrition security. The region is therefore hanging with a delicate balance.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Malawi is located in southern Africa. The central Malawi has a population of about 7.5 Million people and covers about 36,000 km2. The place is bounded on the north by the Northern Region, on the east by Lake Malawi, on the southeast by Southern Region, on the southwest by Mozambique, and on east by Zambia.

Malawians typically live with their extended families in huts that are grouped together around the female or male lines of the family. A spirit of cooperation prevails as family members share both work and resources. The extended family provides strong social basis for sustainable food system.

The ethnic groups: The Malawi people are of Bantu origin and comprise of different ethnic groups but this vision is mainly for the Chewa, Yao and Ngoni. The Chewa people form the largest population in the country and they are predominantly in the Central Region. The two other important tribes in the central region are the Yao who occupy the southern area of Lake Malawi and the Ngoni, who are found in Ntcheu district. The main culture attributes of these three tribes are as below:

The Chewa tribe is an African culture that has existed since the beginning of the first millennium, A.D. Their local language is called Chichewa, also the Malawi national language. The Chewa believe in secret societies and that living things were created by God. They are known for "Gule Wamkulu", Big Dances associated with masks. The Gule Wamkulu ceremonies consist of formally organised dances to admire the remarkable physical abilities of individuals (called "Nyau" dancers). The diet for the Chewa mostly comprises Nsima from maize flour eaten with vegetables, beans, mice and meat when it is available. They also drink beer although to a lesser extent compared to the Ngonis

The Yao people came to Malawi from Mozambique to escape conflict with other tribes. The Yao people are good traders, and amass wealth much faster than the rest of the Malawi tribes. The Yao tribe traded in Ivory with Arab traders in the 18th century. They were the first tribe to acquire firearms, which they used to attack the Chewa and Ngoni people to capture prisoners who they later sold as slaves to Arabs. In 1870 the Yao ruling class chose to follow Islam like their Arab trading partners rather than the traditional system. As a result, the Yao were provided with sheikhs who promoted literacy and founded mosques. This led to many Yao people believing in Islam. The Arab traders also introduced rice cultivation, which became a major crop in the lake region. By living along the lake, the diet for the Yao is mostly rice, beans, vegetables and fish.

The Ngoni Tribe settled in central Malawi after fleeing from Shaka Zulu who defeated Ngoni Chiefs in South Africa in 1819. Eating meat and drinking beer are considered as the most important Ngoni principles. During their traditional dances, Ngoni people wear animal skins, showing that they are real hunters.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Diets: Food insecurity is endemic in Central Malawi. This is directly linked to poor productivity of the staple maize crop that often yields 1 t /ha, compared to > 5 t/ha which can be readily achieved under rainfed conditions when appropriate nutrient management practices are used. Because of the need to meet household calorie requirements, a maize monoculture system dominates majority of farms. This practice is, however, associated with soil degradation, which in turn further reduce the potential for soils to support maize production in the future. This is the genesis of a ‘maize’ poverty trap that millions of farmers in Central face. Farm designs leave little land for legumes that are rich in protein and other micronutrients. Diets are therefore calorie based with deficiencies in essential nutrients. Hence, widespread malnutrition among children despite breeding programs developing nutrient dense crops that could wipe away malnutrition.

Environment: Currently, farmers do not harness ecological benefits of integrating legumes on farms for improved nitrogen cycling through biological N2-fixation. Farms that have legumes grown on substantial proportion each year develop health soils. Legumes biologically fix N2-gas into a plant usable form. Crop residues of legume crops are rich in nitrogen. When these legume-based crop residues are incorporated in soils, they help in the formation of organic matter than reinforces production of cereal crops grown in sequence. Healthier crops grown on fertile soils cover the soil faster, thereby reducing soil erosion.

Economics:  currently, 90% of the farms are 0.5- 1ha in size due to parceling of the land among families. Investments in modernization do not make economic sense. The small farms are subjected to continuous mono-cropping. Farmers rarely rotate their crops and rarely integrate livestock and crop systems.

Culture: farmers grow traditional foods and maintain current spectrum of food crops. However, there is erosion of skills and knowledge of how to manage the crops and loss of genetic pool due to environmental degradation. Traditional foods suffer from perceptions and lack of focus from research and extension

Technology: technologies that would make small farms efficient and viable are being developed. These include water efficient/drought tolerant crop varieties and irrigation to move farms from largely one crop to 2 to 3 crops per season. Some technologies are for value addition of produce. Approaches for disseminating technologies are tested but adoption the technologies is low.

Policy: at national policy level, the environment has been enabling for agro-ecological intensification although more has to be done to accommodate underutilized crops. Equity issues to resources such as land are being addressed. However, there is a crush between national policies and unwritten policies at local level. More has to be done to make unwritten policies at local level become more accommodative and inclusive.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Diets: the vision will promote agricultural diversification in order to enhance diversity and improve accessibility of quality and nutritive food for smallholder households. The vision will therefore make available technologies for high crop productivity and diversification technologies, promote local food systems, use products from innovative breeding, use nutrient dense crops; promote small scale irrigation technologies for small farms to produce more than one crop per year. The vision will promote a nutritionally sensitive agriculture using a Multi Criteria Analysis (MCA) tool to help farmers make decisions on crops to grow in order to achieve agricultural and nutritional objectives/needs.

Environment: the vision will encourage more legumes, more crop rotations for efficient nutrient recycling and reduced pests and diseases; encourage botanicals for less use of pesticides

Economics: the secular economy will improve as productivity will increase by at least 4 fold because of 2-3 cropping intensity. Encourage value addition for farm products. Transit the farmers from subsistence to better off. Develop viable local markets for farm produce within the region. We also envision that in the future, the proportion of land with small farms will be 50%, as some farms would have aggregated to larger and more viable units. About 30% of the farmland would be under 1 to 10 ha farms and aggregated and 20% of the farmland will have farms >10 ha. These larger farms will have 5 times more productivity, will create raw materials for small to medium scale enterprises at local centers. The jobs created along the value chains would will increase income at least 5 fold.

Culture: traditional food crops preserved through specialized/small farms. Preserve and training smallholder farmers on cultural skills for traditional foods. Encourage culturally appropriate food. The vision will link with breeders to evaluate local or farmer varieties to improve quality and availability of seed for the local crops

Training: conduct demonstrations and other trainings for food and nutrition extension workers including small scale farmers on dietary behavioral change using the trans theoretical and social belief model.

Land: promote sustainable agro-ecological intensification to make small farms more productive. Encourage families and other stakeholders to make sure that farm activities address the elements of sustainable agro-ecological intensification. Monitor farm activities against sustainable agro-ecological intensification.

Family networks: organize farmers around existing networks to enhance family solidarity, trust and cooperation. Encourage farmer centered approaches that are inclusive and enhance relations in the community

Policy: land policy to allow land aggregation for families. Extension policy to encourage technologies for diversification. Social learning to allow different perspectives by different stakeholders on food systems discussed.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our vision is making small farms more productive and more viable by 2050. It is envisioned that agro-ecologies will transform and revert to the times old people remember – that they used to grow crops without inorganic fertilizers but they used to harvest enough food to last for the whole year. The agro-ecologies will move from being degraded, less productive and heavily dependent on external inputs to more health, diverse, efficient soils and rich in nutrients.

Environmental: the soils will be health, the ecosystems will be repaired and functional. The agro-ecologies will be able to provide ecosystems services such as food, soil nutrient recycling, pest and disease control, cultural services.

The people: it is expected that communities will solid with high level of unity among the people working together to achieve their goals. The people will enjoy the ecological services

Gender equity: high level of respect among various gender groups. High level of unity among the gender groups. There will be diverse technologies suitable for diverse gender groups

Climate resilience: communities with capabilities, skills and knowledge to survive climatic changes. The people in the communities socially resilient to work and support each other to survive climatic changes.

Health: people experiencing zero hunger and having improved food intake. They will have healthy and nutritious food free from pollution. Reduced cases of stuntedness and malnutrition.

Climate action: communities able to take action on climatic shocks. For example, participating in climate smart agriculture and climate related initiatives

Life on land: functional landscapes, supporting crop and livestock production

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The rural Central Malawi: by 2050 we envision a health agro-ecology and health communities. The food system has a variety of components such as the biophysical and physical environments which are able to perform their natural processes/functions and providing the ecological services most needed by the communities. In the system, the social, political and economic components such as researchers, smallholder farmers, policy-makers/implementers, development practitioners both from government and non-government empowered to take manage, use and benefit from agro-ecologies. All these social, political, biophysical and technological components of the system interact and affect each other. Health agro-ecologies and health communities is therefore an emergent product of this interaction. The task to harness the agro-ecology for sustainable food systems, nutrition and citizen empowerment in central Malawi rests on balancing and managing these interactions.

Environment: a two-way relationship between the environment and society has been recognized. The increase in human population is resulting into small farms, leading to environmental and soil degradation. The degradation is resulting into poor crop productivity leading to food and nutritional insecurity. This visions will work on the land question in order to address the theme of environment. In here, the focus will be to ensure equitable access to land by men, women, the poor and youth. Poor access to land is making household unable to produce enough food for themselves. The vision will therefore encourage technologies that can improve productivity of small piece of land or encourage livestock that can produce to meet the needs of the families. It will also be important for the vision to focus on population dynamics to control quality of the population and build its capacity to manage the environment. Important about theme on environment is that environmental objectives are usually in conflict with economic objective. This is the case of technologies aimed at improving soil fertility which are rarely followed.    

Diets: diets are an important component in the food system. It interacts with economics, culture, technology, environment and policy. Reduced income has resulted in poor access to food among households. Degraded environments have reduced the diversity and quality of foods, hence the diets. Technologically, there is erosion of skills and knowledge about indigenous food, thereby reducing diversity of foods to be eaten. Furthermore, the local histories have shown that food systems used to be characterized by diversity of food. The vision will address the theme on diet by among other things promoting indigenous crops and foods. People already have skills and knowledge on indigenous and local crops. This capacity will be enhanced. More important about diets is that fact that nutritional objectives usually conflict with economic objectives. Efforts aimed at improving nutrition are usually hijacked as people always focus more on how to improve their income and rarely address nutrition. This is the reason children are found malnourished despite having legumes in homes because legumes are always sold for cash and not reserved for nutrition. This vision will engage with communities to understand the trade-offs. Decision makers at national level will also be engaged to understand the trade-offs of a nutritionally sensitive agriculture.

Economics: poverty as an indicator of economic status reveals that households in Malawi in general and Central Malawi in particular are poor and therefore unable to access food of their interest or choice. The situation is critical in the months on January and February because this is the time maize is not matured in the fields. Poor farmers are also not able to buy inputs such and inorganic fertilizer and hybrid seeds needed for agricultural production. At the same time the agro-ecologies are so degraded such that farmers cannot produce without these external inputs. Government has tried to provide farmers with subsidized farm inputs but they are not usually enough. Working with farmers, the vision will address the theme on economics conducting research to develop and promote technologies and innovations suitable for local agro-ecologies and profitable for farmers. The vision will also design strategies that support the secular economy.

Culture: the three tribes to be involved in this vision are the Chewa, Yao and Ngoni. These have different as well as similar culture related to food systems. But these cultures have and are being affected by environmental degradation such that the Ngoni who used to hunt game now they have to tame livestock. The Yao who used to fish in open waters now have to practice aquaculture. These changes offer an opportunity for the vision to work with organizations and development partners to promote small scale livestock among farmers who do not have enough land and promote fish farming among farmers who have access to water. To enhance culture, the vision will pay attention to local histories of the people to learn from them about ways of farming and ecologies that are culturally relevant. Significant effort will be paid to enhance the secular economy and make it viable and benefit the groups including women, the poor and the youth.

Technology: intergenerational issues are becoming common in Malawi and the Central Malawi is not an exceptional. The new and old generations are not in sync. The new generation is not learning from the old generation. This is resulting in loss in knowledge and skills for agro-ecological management. It is evident in fisheries that the new generation only knows new gears for fishing. These gears are unsustainable and destructive. Rarely do the new generation use the gears the old generation used because they are deemed inefficient, though sustainable and less destructive. This vision will address the technology theme by learning from the old and new generation to develop viable technologies taking into consideration of the weaknesses and strengths of each set of technologies.  

Policy: both written and unwritten policies are relevant for sustainable food systems. It is evident that practices at community level are results of the policies designed at national level and decisions made at household level. There are indications that the tobacco led economy has resulted in loss of trees and forests and ultimately degraded environments. This vision will address the policy theme by initiating a dialogue and social learning processes where policy makers at different levels will meet and discuss and learn from each other about the relevant trade-offs for the various policies and decision being made at international, national and local level.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event


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Welcome Harnessing ecology for sustainable food systems, nutrition and citizen empowerment in central and southern Malawi to the Vision Prize!
How might you evolve your Vision to make it more inclusive and systemic for your local food system and its numerous stakeholders? You can find some guiding principles on Systems Thinking and inspiration in the Vision Prize Toolkit in Chapter 3 under Tools of Transformation.

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