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Wetland farming and small-scale informal irrigation in Malawi: the case of Shire Valley

By Joseph Fred Chidanti-Malunga


Historically, Malawi has depended on rain-fed agricultural systems. It is reported that the frequent droughts and unreliable rainfall since early 1990s have caused many small-scale farmers to turn to the wetlands as alternative sites for crop production. There they use low-cost farming methods and various forms of ‘informal’ irrigation. This study, to better understand the water management practices and the socioeconomic characteristics of the wetland farmers, was carried out in the Shire Valley, at the southern tip of Malawi. This covers about 600,000ha and supports around 250,000 farming families. More than half is wetland, characterized by a network of small streams, rivers, and swamps, and a mosaic of many very small farms separated by bush. Phase I mainly documented the agriculture technologies and socioeconomic characteristics of wetland farming and small-scale informal irrigation systems. 200 farmers and other key informants were interviewed. Phase II aimed to define and measure the benefits of the current systems. The major farming systems groups were identified using cluster analysis and focus group discussions were carried out with 7 to 10 members of each. The results were assessed using gross margin analysis. The results show that flood recession agriculture, river diversion and treadle pumps were the commonest water management technologies among the farmers interviewed. Most preferred flood recession and river diversion to treadle pump, citing capital requirements and running costs as major obstacles. However, the government and NGOs were promoting treadle pump technology (mostly) and river diversion, but not recession agriculture. Motorized pumps, introduced under various schemes, were no longer in use due to farmers’ inability to meet fuel costs and repairs. Farmer access to land was largely under the control of individual farmers who pass on ownership to their children under traditional custom. This finding is contrary to the documented land policy which describes chiefs as custodians of the land. Many farmers viewed group farming as a surrender of their land ownership rights. However, team work was seen to be common in river diversion technologies where a committee was usually chosen to manage a main canal traversing several farms. Even under these circumstances, farmers still preferred to manage their plots individually. The economic analysis showed low farmer-benefits, except where flood recession agriculture was used to grow sweet potatoes, although this receives no attention from government or NGOs. Among the problems were the farmers’ inability to afford inputs, promotion of unsuitable technologies, and government controlled market prices. The study found that the increased wetland use was partly a livelihood diversification strategy linked to droughts and the worsening of the economic situations caused by structural adjustments in the early 1990s. This study encourages government or NGOs to promote the technologies that are acceptable to the farmers and seen to benefit them under the local socioeconomic conditions. Locally, these include flood recession agriculture and small river diversions. Reducing production costs and increasing yields through more efficient water use and improved extension services should be encouraged, and subsidizing input costs and freeing market prices would also help

Publisher: Cranfield University
Year: 2009
OAI identifier:
Provided by: Cranfield CERES

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