Smallholder farmers in Malawi are growing fertilizer trees on their farms to improve food production

Malawi farmer in his maize field intercropped with fertilizer trees. Photo: Mark Ndipita/ICRAF

Malawi farmer in his maize field intercropped with fertilizer trees. Photo: Mark Ndipita/ICRAF

The adoption of fertilizer trees on farms is a simple and effective way to improve soil fertility, food productivity and therefore contribute to food security. Yet, there is still little empirical research that documents the impact of fertilizer trees on food security among smallholder farmer households. Researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre carried out a study in Malawi to analyze the impact of the adoption of fertilizer trees on food security among smallholder farmers.

Results from the study showed that fertilizer trees improve food security for adopters in maize-based mixed farming systems through increased value of production and productivity.

Farm household survey - Malawi“The benefits of nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs such as Faidherbia albida (Msangu), Cajanus cajan (pigeon peas) and other leguminous crops are well known among farmers and government extension officers in Malawi,” said Jeanne Coulibaly, the lead researcher on the study. “However, their use by farmers for soil fertility management and in improving food production has been limited.”

The researchers used data from a field survey on 338 rural farm households across selected agro-ecological zones of the country for the study. These households all grow maize alongside groundnuts, beans, vegetables and rice in some instances. Six districts in the north, central and south of Malawi were selected for the study. The districts are inhabited by different ethnic groups of different socio-cultural backgrounds, which may have an influence on adoption decisions of agroforestry practices.

40% of the sampled households had one or more fertilizer tree species on their farms. The mostly widely adopted species are Faidherbia albida, Tephrosia ssp and Glicirdia serpium.

“As head of my household and a single mother of seven, I could not afford to buy fertilizer. I used to produce 300 kilogrammes of maize per acre and this did not give us enough food until the next harvest,” said Ms. Killness Banda, a farmer from Kagombe village in Lilongwe district.  “After I started growing Tephrosia with the maize crop the yield increased to 800 kilogrammes per acre. Now we have adequate food.”

Fertilizer tree species in Malawi.

Fertilizer tree species in Malawi.

Findings from the study point out some important issues:

  • Adoption of fertilizer trees is dictated by the perceived effectiveness of this technology in restoring fertility on degraded land
  • Fertilizer trees like any other agroforestry technology is knowledge intensive since adopters of this technology were found to be those who had been trained on agroforestry management
  • Having a farm asset base is fundamental to facilitate adoption.

“These conclusions have important implications for the design of policy actions to address impediments to adoption of fertilizer trees. Hence public policies to enhance adoption of fertilizer trees should emphasize on building knowledge base of farmers through training and facilitating access to credit or farm capital,” added Coulibaly.

The outcomes presented in this study are average effects of the impact of fertilizer tree technologies. However, farmers are not homogeneous groups of individuals with similar biophysical and socio-economic characteristics. Further research is proposed to look at the differentiated impact of the fertilizer tree technologies across different biophysical and socio-economic endowments. This could focus on interactions of aspects such as changing weather and climate patterns, soil fertility, altitude, farm size, and land tenure, social differentiation and assets. This analysis would be conducted with large differentiated sample size acquiring comprehensive data on biophysical and socio-economic characteristics.

This study was carried out with financial support from the Agroforestry for Food Security Project, Phase II in Malawi. Funding for data collection was provided by Irish Aid.'

Susan Onyango

Susan Onyango is the Global Communications Coordinator at the World Agroforestry Centre and is based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. With over 15 year’s experience in communication, she ensures efficient and effective coordination of communication support to units and regions at ICRAF. She joined ICRAF in 2014 as communications specialist for the Climate Change Unit. Susan holds a MA communication studies and a BA in English. Twitter: @susanonyango

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