March 17, 2019 Climate Change, Sustainable Farming Written by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima
Check dams used by farmers to retain water
For the past four years,

Whitehead Amos has experienced it all. A subsistence farmer growing maize which is staple food for most Malawians, the Blantyre rural based 44 year old, has struggled to harvest enough maize for his household of seven people.

In a country where livelihoods and economy heavily rely on rainfed agriculture, rainfall patterns have become unpredictable. If it is not heavy rains resulting in flash floods, then it is drought or infestations of fall armyworms causing little or no harvest at all for farmers like Amos.

This has rendered his and many other households in the area food insecure and relying on monthly relief food assistance from government and its partners.

“It has been tough for farmers like me here. We have barely had any significant harvest from our hard work in the past three farming seasons because the weather has been inconsistent. In 2016, we had severe drought. Then in 2017, we had fall armyworms that have been destroying our crops until today, as no effective remedy to them has yet been found.”

Whitehead Amos


Malawi is vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change, owing to its significant exposure to climate variability and environmental degradation as a result of human activities over the years.

Agriculture and rural livelihoods are highly affected by a wide range of climate-induced problems, occurring in the last five years. These include flooding, belated rains and droughts, which result in crops being washed away by floods, crops drying up before maturity, and land degradation through soil erosion, soil fertility loss and siltation.

Amos collecting rainfall data from a rain gauge installed at his home.

In a bid to fight climate change and enhance resilience among rural subsistence farmers, who make up 70 percent of total population of about 17 million people, Malawi government with a cooperation of its partners has been teaching rural farmers different adaptation strategies and methods aimed at improving agricultural production and rural livelihoods.

Foundation for Irrigation and Sustainable Development (FISD) is one of the organizations working with the Malawian government to teach farmers in Blantyre modern adaptation methods.

With funding from the World Food Programme (WFP), FISD has been implementing interventions which are aimed at enhancing climate resilience among farmers through the Food for Assets project.

The aim of the project is to teach modern climate resilience farming methods, land conservation and crop diversification.

Through the expertise provided by FISD, Amos and other farmers in the area have learnt skills which have proved effective.Examples include:

  • making of compost manure
  • indigenous tree seedling nurseries
  • planting of trees and vetiver grass in bare hills
  • implementing erosion control measures
  • growing of drought resistant food crops.


“Most of the area around here is hilly, therefore, prone to soil erosion as a result of running water, so in order to combat this problem, we have learnt to make deep trenches and swales that controls the flow of water after heavy rains. Deep trenches are dug out on hills and they are one metre deep, one metre wide and five metres long , while swales are six metres long, 40 centimetres wide and 60 centimetres deep,” Amos says while showing me one of the swales in his maize garden.

While deep trenches are meant for controlling water flow in hilly areas, water still manages to get to flat areas where most crops are grown. This is where swales are used to trap water which overflowed from hilly areas.

“By the time water from the deep trenches reaches crop fields, it is trapped by the swales. In the end, it means water retention for the field is improved, thereby enabling planted crops to do well even in the case of a dry spell,” explains the father of five.

Another farmer in the area who has been benefiting from modern farming practices is Esther Kasiya. Through FISD, she has learnt how to build check dams, which are made by using soil ridges on sloped surfaces that are very common in her area.

With the check dams, she has been able to control soil erosion that has been troubling her and was threatening her backyard.

Check dams that help controlling erosion.

“Check dams are really effective in controlling soil erosion. The ridges stop water runoff and form water basins from where it evaporates slowly without destroying the land, thereby preventing degradation,” she says.

Kasiya says that the Food for Assets project has turned around most people’s livelihoods, as people are paid now for their involvement in various land conservation activities.

Having worked on land conservation activities for seventeen days, people are paid a monthly sum of MK14,400 (US$20) per individual. The sum is not much but it is a lifeline to many households in a country where majority live below the poverty line.

From the money received, many households benefit as a result, since the village savings and loans groups, where people in a group of between ten and twelve people meet once every week to make monetary contributions that are loaned amongst members with a small interest rate of twenty five percent, can operate.

According to Kasiya, this offers an easy access of members to financing for their small scale business ventures at an affordable interest rate. Rather than paying “loan sharks” whose interest rates are exorbitant.

“With the Village Savings and Loans Groups (VSLGs) access to financing of our small scale business activities has been made easy, and in turn it has improved our livelihoods,” said the mother of four.

Vetiver grass planted on a ridge above swale to control soil erosion.

Another interesting component of Food For Assets programme is the crop insurance offered to beneficiary farmers. This is a lump sum paid to each farmer should crops fail due to drought.

Knowing that not many can afford to pay for the crop insurance, a part of the money paid in wages for the land conservation work is deducted monthly towards the crop insurance premiums.

Should crops fail due to drought, as in 2016, farmers are entitled to a crop insurance payment sum of MK71,105 (US$100) as a compensation to help them to buy food available on the market for their families in such a dire situation.

Grace Msefula Galimoto is a field worker with FISD and she says crop insurance was a deliberate measure put in place to cover losses in case of drought, which is becoming a frequent occurrence nowadays due to climate change.

“With the crop insurance, households are at peace knowing that they will be able to get something even the face of drought which means continued access to food through the money they would get from the crop insurance.”

Grace Msefula Galimoto


In a bid to make farmers weather wise, FISD in collaboration with the Department of Meteorological Services and Climate Change supplies farmers with rain gauges to monitor rainfall and make informed decisions in their farming activities.

Ephraim Nkhondo Banda is a meteorologist with the Department of Meteorological Services and Climate Change and he says that when farmers have rainfall measurement tool, it helps them to determine whether the soil is moist enough to germinate and sustain planted seeds.

This helps prevent the loss of seeds to low or no germination rate due to the insufficient moisture when planted during a drier spell.

Through the Food for Assets programme, FISD is also teaching people to make energy saving cookstoves.

One of the reasons for significant depletion of forest cover in Malawi is the fact that 95 percent of the country’s 17 million people heavily depend on fuel wood for cooking. Even some of households which have access to the main electricity grid still use charcoal and wood for cooking and heating.

Energy saving cook stove that is commonly found in the area.

This puts enormous pressure on the forest cover, as more trees are being cut down to satisfy energy needs for the ever growing population, leading to heavy deforestation.

According to Phydis Kasamale, who is a Land Resource Officer for FISD, conserving and restoring the environment is one of the most important components of the programme, as all livelihoods heavily depend on the environment, hence the need to take care and use it sustainably.

To this end, he says, introducing energy saving cook stoves to beneficiaries of the programme is aimed at reducing the number of trees felled to provide fuel wood, since the cook stoves consume lesser firewood or charcoal than the commonly used ones which are made of metal plates.

“The energy saving cook stoves we introduced are part of a solution to the environmental degradation, as they can use dry sticks for heating and cooking,”  he said.

Albert Baluwa, is singing praises for the energy saving cook stove he has been using since the last July. His cook stove is 60 percent more efficient in saving firewood or charcoal than the traditional burners. He believes the clay its made of absorbs and keeps heat for longer, which translates into cooking and heating at a lower cost.

Baluwa preparing food on a locally made cook stove.

“What I like the most about this cook stove is its ability to keep heat for long time. One can heat up water for a bath without additional charcoal or firewood. Furthermore, one can just rely on smaller pieces of wood if they don’t have bigger one, yet being able to cook whatever they want,” he said.

Perhaps with all these efforts, the livelihoods of people like Whitehead will improve despite the challenges brought by climate change in this part the world.