Smallholder farms and the potential for sustainable intensification
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Mungai, L.M., Snapp, S., Messina, J.P., Chikowo, R., Smith, A., Anders, E., Richardson, R.B. and Li, G. 2016. Smallholder farms and the potential for sustainable intensification. Frontiers in Plant Science 7:1720.
Permanent link to cite or share this item: https://hdl.handle.net/10568/107028
The sustainable intensification of African agriculture is gaining momentum with the compelling need to increase food and agricultural production. In Southern Africa, smallholder farming systems are predominately maize-based and subject to erratic climatic conditions. Farmer crop and soil management decisions are influenced by a plethora of complex factors such as market access resource availability, social relations, environment, and various messages on sustainable farming practices. Such factors pose barriers to increasing sustainable intensification in Africa. This paper characterizes smallholder farming practices in Central Malawi, at Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) project sites. We present findings from a survey of 324 farmers, located within four Africa RISING sites selected in a stratified random manner to represent (1) low agricultural potential (high evapotranspiration, variable rainfall), (2) medium agricultural potential (two sites), and (3) high agricultural potential (well-distributed rainfall). Soil fertility was low overall, and certain farming practices appeared to limit the sustainability of agricultural production. Nearly half of farmers did not value legume residues as a high nutrient value resource for soil amelioration, as legume residues were removed (17.9%) or burned (21.4%). Conversely, maize residues were rarely removed (4.5%) or burned (10.4%). We found that farmers do not allocate soil amendment resources to legume fields (zero instances of mineral fertilizer or manure application to legumes compared to 88 and 22% of maize systems, respectively). Policy makers in Malawi have led initiatives to intensify agricultural systems through subsidizing farmer access to mineral fertilizer as well as maize hybrid seed, and only rarely to improved legume seed. In this survey, farmers allocate mineral fertilizer to maize systems and not legume systems. There is urgent need to invest in education on sustainable reinvestment in natural resources through complementary practices, such as maximization of biological nitrogen fixation through improved legume agronomy and better organic resource and crop residue management. Recent efforts by Malawi agricultural services to promote doubled-up legumes as a sustainable intensification technology are encouraging, but benefits will not accrue unless equal attention is given to an extension campaign on management of organic resources such as crop residues.