by Willem Colenbrander, Kulima Integrated Development Solutions
June 26, 2023


The Food Systems Transformation in Southern Africa for One Health (FoSTA-Health) project is evaluating the One Health implications of food systems transformation in Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia from 2023 until mid-2026.

Scoping visits of farmers’ groups were conducted in Malawi and Zambia during April and May 2023 by project team members to assess the food systems baseline for FoSTA Health as regards food production, marketing and consumption.

Willem Colenbrander (Kulima Integrated Development Solutions) participated in the visits in both countries and compares his impressions.


In Malawi, one of the farmers groups of about 20 women and a few men represented the Titukalane project of CARE International, while in Zambia one of the groups of about 100 men and women farmers represented an agricultural camp.  

(Left) A meeting with farmer groups in Malawi. (Centre, right) A meeting with farmer groups in Zambia

Food production

Farmers in Zambia and Malawi mentioned that their crop yields would be very low if not for the application of fertilizer. They need increasing amounts of fertilizer to get sufficient yields (and therefore sales) from their cash crops to be able to pay for their inputs.

Farmers are aware that the organic matter and structure of their soils has deteriorated over time due to the sole application of inorganic fertilizer. They are also aware that application of organic fertilizer (manure, compost) would be an alternative - but governments only supply inorganic fertilizer.

Conservation farming

Awareness of conservation farming seemed to be low – despite both countries having had significant investments in its promotion. It was not raised spontaneously by farmers in either country, and was only discussed when brought up by the visiting teams. In practice, most farmers have participated in projects promoting conservation farming but only about half of them would continue conservation farming practices beyond the lifespan of a project. This is most likely because projects are usually too short to show the long term benefits of conservation farming.

Farmers in Malawi mentioned that they would only have crop residues for composting or mulching which would not be enough to cover the whole field. Their fields are cropped every year so there are not enough fallow areas from which the necessary organic material can be harvested. Organic farming is therefore even more important for Malawian farmers because one field can be productive when used year after year if the soil has a good structure and inherent fertility.

Population density in Malawi is much higher than in Zambia – 174 people per squared kilometre compared with 26 people per squared kilometre respectively. This creates additional pressure on the land, which decreases the likelihood of fields being left fallow.

Malawi (Left) and Zambia (Right)


In both countries it is common for farmers to be exploited by middlemen who take advantage of the immediate cash needs of farmers at the end of the growing season by offering low prices for their crops. Collective marketing was seen as a solution whereby crops can be stored until later in the year when prices increase. Village savings groups can also allow farmers to survive periods of low income.

Food consumption

In both countries farmers are aware of the negative impact of mono-cultures and artificial fertilizer on food quality and taste. In addition to crops for sale, some still grow their traditional crops for their own consumption. There is emphasis on crop diversification in both countries which will lead to diet diversification.

Policies influence farming systems

National policies and incentives do play a role in influencing what farmers grow. In addition to the input subsidy programmes supporting inorganic fertilizers, in Zambia there are attractive prices offered by the Food Reserve Agency for soya beans, so farmers increasingly grow it for sale. Farmers don’t process soyabeans. Instead they, and other consumers, buy processed soya in the form of soya chunks which is a relatively cheap source of protein.


The scoping visits in Zambia and Malawi have shown that a transition of food systems, to something that is healthier for the environment, plants, animals and humans, will depend on what the farmers know as healthy food production, what the consumers know as healthy food consumption and how the government will support the One Health principle through progressive policies. Over the coming years, the FoSTA team will be further investigating what this looks like in both Malawi and Zambia, as well as in South Africa and Tanzania.

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