Agroforestry and land health in Malawi

To feed a growing population, agricultural production in Malawi needs to be stepped up. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Charlie Pye-Smith

In the last five years ICRAF has helped establish comprehensive soil information systems in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria. Malawi is determined to be next.

Africa has over 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land but remains a major food importer. Even though agricultural production has grown by 130% over the past 30 years, with 18 Sub-Saharan countries halving the proportion of hungry people, more needs to be done. Soil is Africa’s most important natural resource: healthy and fertile soils are the cornerstones of food security. The health status of Malawi’s soils has been a subject of debate among scientists and land managers due to high rates of degradation. Land health affects agricultural productivity, expenditure on fertilizers, and profitability of crop production. Furthermore, soil testing and monitoring of soil health at national scale (+4.5 million smallholder farms) requires low-cost and fast analytical methods, including accurate and up-to-date spatial assessments of soil and land health. Such assessments are needed to inform the design of interventions to avoid further land degradation and to restore already degraded areas.

One key approach for land restoration is agroforestry, which has the potential to improve (i.e. restore) and sustain land health by increasing the diversity of farming systems, improving soil organic carbon (SOC) status and hence soil fertility while providing people with alternative sources of income.

To improve the management and monitoring of soil health in Malawi, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) has partnered with the national departments of Land Resources Conservation (LRCD) and Agricultural Research Services (DARS) in the Agroforestry and Land Health in Malawi project, funded by the Flanders Government.

The main objectives of the project are to 1) assess functional aspects of ecosystem health in Malawi, including to design, deploy and apply a system to establish baselines and monitor trends of land health; 2) obtain accurate statistics on  soil organic carbon, pH, texture, soil erosion, root-depth restrictions and woody cover densities, distribution and diversity under agroforestry and assessment of the contribution of agroforestry to land health in the country; and 3) develop tools and interfaces to explore land health indicators, as well as land use, allowing agroforestry to be formally added to national planning.

Beatrice Mwangi, a lab technician at ICRAF, demonstrates the use of an Alpha spectrometer. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Ann Wavinya

A key component of the project is strengthening the capacity of local institutions, including the soil laboratory at Malawi’s Chitedze Agricultural Research Station, training in field methods for assessing land health using theLand Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF), and developing data analytical capacity. The project has also arranged three stakeholder engagement workshops using ICRAF’s SHARED approach in Malawi where key stakeholders from government departments and NGO partners have been engaged in the co-design of interactive Decision Dashboards with the ICRAF GeoScience Lab SHARED team.

From 15–19 October 2018, a team of six researchers from Malawi attended a follow-up intensive training course in ICRAF’s Soil-Plant Spectral Diagnostics Laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Trainees were equipped with skills to execute standard operating systems for consistency in spectral analysis methods, and data flows to improve their data processing skills”, said Elvis Weullow, ICRAF’s Soil Lab Manager. “Three other courses have been conducted both in Nairobi and Chitedze.”

This course covered sample preparation, which entails sample shipping, processing and spectral analysis methodologies using both near infrared and mid-infrared analytical instruments. The highlight of the training was spectral data processing and analyses using ICRAF’s own dedicated web-based software platform. Infrared spectroscopy is a new tool for assessing soil quality rapidly and cheaply and is opening up new possibilities for monitoring soil quality in landscapes and for digital soil mapping.

Valentine Karari of the World Agroforestry Centre during a data analysis session. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Ann Wavinya

“This training is timely. We have collected large sets of soil and plant samples from most of the districts and the analysis will produce a lot of data in a short span of time,” said Austin Phiri, Chief Agricultural Research Scientist, Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Irrigation, Malawi. “The high-throughput spectral and data analysis knowledge is going to be highly useful, especially in developing national area-specific-fertilizer recommendations.”

“Following the training, I will be able to do spectral analysis, interpret data and write reports,” said Lester Botoman, an agricultural research scientist. “Also, the knowledge will be key in conducting a training of trainers for the technical staff as well as in creation of standard operating standards for the Chitedze Soil Laboratory. The knowledge will go a long way, not only at an individual level but for the whole nation.”

Read more about the World Agroforestry Centre’s Soil-Plant Spectral Diagnostics Laboratory here.


The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is a centre of scientific excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Knowledge produced by ICRAF enables governments, development agencies and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at multiple scales. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.'

Anne Wavinya

Ann Wavinya is a communication assistant for the World Agroforestry Centre, based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. She manages communication activities for the Soils research unit. She joined ICRAF in 2012.

You may also like...