Malawi project looks to build a new future

Changing times and changing climates mean necessary adaptations in farming practices, ones that will ensure sustainability in African countries like Malawi. And a new partnership between Western and the federal government will work toward just that.

The Western-led project will ensure smallholder farmers in the southeast African country learn adaptable farming practices that will improve food availability and foster good health and nutrition in the region. It builds on more than a decade of work done by university researchers across Canada and Malawi.

The project was announced Monday, as London’s Member of Parliament Susan Truppe announced the government would fund the project with $2.5 million from the Canadian International Development Agency’s Partners for Development program.

“As a country that leads the G7 in terms of higher education and research and development, Canada is well positioned to share its knowledge and expertise with countries of the developing world,” Truppe said.

“Western will work with local partners to strengthen the framing practices of more than 30,000 smallholder farmers. By using farmer-to-farmer education, 6,000 households will learn new agro-ecological methods and get technical support for food preparation.”

She added funding would also help researchers provide training to locals for operating small businesses, learning marketing practices and improving food processing and preparation. Researchers will also establish a centre in Malawi to focus on health and local agriculture that would continue farmer-to-farmer training once the project was completed.

Former Western Geography professor Rachel Bezner Kerr, who applied for the funding, has worked in Malawi since graduate school, conducting research on locally available organic alternatives to commercial fertilizer in family gardens. She has collaborated with Ekwendeni Hospital, University of Malawi and Mzuzu University to build a sustainable future through agriculture in response to numerous social ills. Although now an adjunct professor, having taken a position at Cornell University, she will still be involved in the Western-led process.

Western’s project team is comprised of 10 researchers. They join more than 100 others from the University of Manitoba, Chancellor College, Ekwendeni Hospital, Farmer Research Team, Presbyterian World Service and Development and Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Bezner Kerr will serve as project director; Western Geography professor Isaac Luginaah will serve as faculty advisor for the team.

Established in 1891, the British protectorate of Nyasaland became the independent nation of Malawi in 1964. A democracy only since 1994, following three decades of dictatorship, this nation of 15 million people remain vulnerable. The government has been decimated by structural readjustments, specifically international economic policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund. Health care, education and agricultural supports have been stripped over the last two decades.

John Capone, Western’s vice-president (research), praised the new project, calling it a groundbreaking approach to research that will have practical applications across the globe.

“This project gives much-needed support for a nation attempting to improve child growth, food availability and land quality,” he said.

Jerry White, associate dean of Social Science at Western and a member of the project’s advisory committee, agreed. “We aim through the farmer-to-farmer project to improve food security in Malawi. In the world today, one of the greatest problems we face is food insecurity,” he said.

“This (initiative) is key to decreasing the Vitamin A deficiencies and building stronger populations freer form disease. It’s a process in which we can see dominoes falling for the next half century, or even longer. Thousands are going to learn from this project and hundreds of thousands are going to benefit.”

What’s more, the project will provide researchers and locals alike with valuable lessons on the types of foods and crops farmers can grow, Luginaah said.

“The aim is food security. With changing climates, improved food security is an important issue and the more you learn how to produce in these weather patterns, the better,” he said.

“One of the challenges in Africa is people stick to what they know. You have to learn what crops will do well based on current conditions. We aren’t training scientists, but we think they (the farmers) will have the applicable knowledge to know in time, what they have to do next.”

Luginaah explained the hope is, after the project is complete, farmers will be able to assess land and weather conditions, and based on that, adapt their farming practices and what types of crops they choose to grow.

“We are teaching them to start, try something else, which is what people never did before. We think this group of farmers will be able to think progressively. In my view, that’s the most important thing that can come of this long term.”