Just coping: Farmers’ responses to climate variability in Malawi

Selling firewood in Malawi: This is one way farmers cope with crop failure. Photo: ICRAF

Selling firewood in Malawi: This is one way farmers cope with crop failure. Photo: ICRAF

The recent devastating floods in southern Malawi and surrounding areas brought into sharp focus the reality of climate change and its effects on ordinary people in this landlocked southern African country.

Besides floods, delayed rains and droughts have become increasingly common in the Shire River Basin of Southern Malawi. Off-season and insufficient rainfall means that more and more smallholder farmers in the region are facing crop failure.

The poorest of these farmers are merely trying to cope with, rather than taking steps to adapt to the impacts of climate change on their lives, says a new report published in the journal Sustainability. The report is based on a study done by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) researchers, with the input of the University of Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. The work was supported by a UNDP grant under the Land Capability Analysis for the Lower Shire Basin in Malawi project.


The study, involving 150 households in five districts of Malawi’s Shire River Basin (Chikwawa, Machinga, Zomba, Mwanza and Blantyre), found that farmers would react after their crop failed, rather than anticipating and taking pre-emptive action to prevent or prepare for it. Faced with a failed crop, 28% of the small farmers took up work as Ganyu, or paid labour; this was the most common response. Another 14% sold charcoal or firewood to raise money for necessities. Yet another 14% reported “doing nothing” after their crop failed.

These type of responses to climate change do little to reduce farmers’ vulnerability to future impacts of a changing climate, says Jeanne Coulibaly, economist and climate adaptation specialist with ICRAF’s Climate Change program, and the article’s lead author. They may, in fact, make things worse for the farmer and their environment in the long term.

It is notable that the farmers hardly ever responded to the threat of climate variability, says Coulibaly. “Instead, it was their personal experience with the actual effects of climate variability on their lives—like crop failure—that triggered action.”

Coulibaly makes the distinction between coping and adaptation:

“Coping strategies are short-term measures used by households when confronted with unexpected events such as a failed crop. Adaptation strategies are pre-emptive, of a more long-term nature, and often need planning and investment,” she says.

The most common coping mechanisms of the Shire Valley smallholders —working as a paid labourer and selling firewood or charcoal—needed low investments in human, physical and financial capital. And not surprisingly, the households most dependent on these coping options were among the poorest and most vulnerable in their communities, farming on infertile soils.

In contrast, climate-smart CSA practices such as harvesting water, preventing land degradation and integrating useful trees and shrubs into the farming landscape (agroforestry) require forward planning, knowledge and investment on the part of the farmer. Direct costs might involve paying for labour, purchase of seedlings and transportation.

A volunteer farmer trainer in Wakiso district, Uganda, training farmers on establishing a tree nursery. Photo by Josephine Kirui/ICRAF

A volunteer farmer trainer in Wakiso district, Uganda, training farmers on establishing a tree nursery. Photo by Josephine Kirui/ICRAF

In their article, Coulibaly and co-researchers recommend various policies and practical measures to support smallholder farmers caught in the ‘climate-coping’ trap to move towards climate adaptation practices. These measures include:

  • Communicating climate change risks to farmers with specific reference to crop failure, rather than in more general, abstract terms;
  • Investing in institutions that support farm households to take up sustainable farming systems, including strengthening rural advisory services;
  • Educating farm households on adaptation preparedness including for drought and flood.

Beyond climate variability, Coulibaly and colleagues investigated the myriad other factors contributing to poor crop yields in the region. They found poor soil fertility, lack of agricultural inputs and technology, and poor agricultural practices to be among the most common ones. To meet this challenge, they advocate for developing and disseminating appropriate sustainable farming systems. “tThese involve the use of climate-resilient crop varieties, practices that improve soil fertility and conservation, and agroforestry.”

Importantly, the authors urge climate-smart agriculture practitioners to “consider the local socio-economic and political context of farmers’ decision-making, which is shaped by multiple stressors.”

Download article:

Coulibaly, J.Y.; Gbetibouo, G.A.; Kundhlande, G.; Sileshi, G.W.; Beedy, T.L. Responding to Crop Failure: Understanding Farmers’ Coping Strategies in Southern Malawi. Sustainability 2015, 7, 1620-1636.


Related stories:

More blogs on Climate Change



Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

You may also like...