By Gildas Assogba, Wageningen University
March 12, 2024

At a FoSTA-Health consultation organized in October 2023 in Lilongwe, Malawi, a Ministry of Agriculture official shared an anecdote: “A relative from my native village once visited me here in Lilongwe. I served up a feast—fish, meat, beans, kachumbari, and kilombero rice pilau. A few days later, my mother called me. I couldn’t believe my ears when she told me that the relative had left dissatisfied with the food—only because I hadn’t served any nsima (maize porridge)!”

This anecdote is an apt illustration of how central maize is to Malawian cuisine. And yet, it was only around 500 years ago that maize made its way to Africa. Since then, the food system—diets, institutions, policies, cultural practices—have come to organize themselves around maize.

The Malabo Declaration (2014), reaffirmed the key principles of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). It places the transformation of agriculture and food systems at the centre of a range of national policy priorities and international development and research agendas across the continent. A key transformation agenda is developing innovative methods for improving soil health and agricultural practices in maize production systems, as well as efforts to diversify away from maize to improve climate resilience and human and animal nutrition.

FoSTA-Health is contributing to this agenda through field research and policy analysis in Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia. This includes ongoing work in Zomba and Mangochi districts in southern Malawi, where field trials are being carried out to ascertain the best modalities of integrating legumes within maize production systems.

field trial plots

In the trials, intercropping of maize with pigeon pea, groundnut, and soybean will be compared with maize-only cropping under different fertilization regimes; in terms of yields (grain and biomass), inputs (seeds and nutrients), nutrient uptake by crops,labour requirement and profitability. The results of the trials will help evaluate the farm-level impact of crop diversification with legumes on soil health, crop productivity, livestock production, human nutrition and profitability for households. This will include an appraisal of the residual effects of legumes in maize-legume systems; i.e. whether intercropping and rotation with legumes has a significant effect on soil health, human nutrition outcomes, and quality of feed for livestock.

Setup of the field trials was completed in December 2023. 55 farmers in Zomba and Mangochi are participating, with each one hosting 6  plots of 10m x 10m under various combinations of cropping and fertilization as shown in the diagram above.

Direct participation of farmers in the field trials is a key element of this research. With actual farmers involved in monitoring and data collection, the dissemination of learnings and results will be greater, and the process itself will benefit from their feedback throughout.

field trials images zomba mangochi
Maize and groundnut, strip intercropping at one of the trial plots. Images courtesy Rohit Pawar, Wageningen University

Data from the field trials will be collected over two growing seasons. Parallelly, farmers, government officials, extension workers, agribusinesses, and other stakeholders will be engaged in a process of mental mapping of the farming system in Zomba and Mangochi districts. This will include plotting biophysical elements (e.g. soil and forests), farmers,  institutions and stakeholders that constitute the food system at the district level; as well as establishing interlinkages, and ascertaining the current state of the system. As part of the process, a number of future scenarios will be created, taking into account current trends, future threats, opportunities, and ambitions from the perspectives of individual stakeholders.

mmental mapping with farmers in malawi
A mental map produced by farmers. Images courtesy Rohit Pawar and Kaya Buurma

Finally, evidence from the field trials and scenarios proposed in mental mapping will be used in participatory modelling sessions using a spatial model and a ‘serious game’. The serious game is an interactive tool including options such as crop selection, cropping pattern, soil fertilization, livestock production, market opportunities, policy decisions, and exchange of resources and information among various stakeholders at the district level. It is a qualitative version of the spatial model. The serious game is a powerful tool that allow researchers, farmers and stakeholders to think, learn together and co-design improved farming system.

Participants in the modelling sessions will represent the diversity of farmers and stakeholders at district level. Scenarios developed with the mental model will be explored and reshaped with the serious game. New scenarios can also emerge from the game sessions. The reshaped/new scenarios will be used in the spatial model to quantify their impacts on environmental, livestock and human health. The overall objective of the participatory modelling sessions is to co-design pathways to desirable transformations in the farming system.

Our methodological approach will improve our understanding of farmers and stakeholders' perceptions of the farming system, their aspirations and motivations. Our research will also lead to practical steps towards a desirable farming system, as well as implications for actors and the biophysical environment.

The serious game will be developed in physical (board game) and digital formats. The digital version will be made available online so that teachers, researchers and stakeholders can use it (with some adaptation) in other contexts for the purpose of co-learning and co-design of farming systems. Another advantage of the digital version will be the possibility to numerically look for desired outcomes and strategies to achieve them, and discuss these outcomes and strategies in game sessions with farmers and stakeholders.

serious game malawi
Farmers in Burkina Faso playing a serious game. Image courtesy: Gildas Assogba, 3F project

Like other research activities within the FoSTA-Health project, outcomes of this one will feed an overarching process wherein Representative Transformation Pathways (RTPs) will be developed for each of the four countries. The RTPs will describe four plausible futures for each country, in which transformation of food systems takes place between the present and 2050.

This part of FoSTA-Health research in Malawi is being carried out by Wageningen University with support from CARE Malawi.

Funding EU

Funding UK

Relevant Links

About Us

Copyright and disclaimer


Search this site