Assessing Utilization of Low-input Agriculture Technologies (liats) in Malawi: Adoption and Challenges for the Malawian Subsistence Farmer

There is growing concern about agricultural activities leading to environmental degradation and health risks associated with intensively produced foodstuffs. As a result interest in organic agriculture is increasing. This growing interest in sustainable and organic natural resource management and healthy eating, coupled with the increasing number of resource-poor farmers who cannot afford agrichemicals, has led to the potential for organic farming in addressing the issue of sustainable food production and livelihoods of resource-poor people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Low in-put agriculture applies to systems that rely less on external, purchased inputs and more on internal resources. However, low-inout agriculture technolgy (LIAT) has conveyed a negative impression in various agriculture circles and this is cited as a major barrier to wider adoption of low-input agriculture technologies (LIATs) in Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

Increasingly, it has been recognized that environmental deterioration in Africa is a central factor holding back agriculture. The disappearance of forest areas accelerates land degradation. Even on gently sloping cropland, topsoil losses have been reported to range from 25 tonnes to 250 tonnes per hectare, across the region. One study has estimated that soil degradation and erosion in Africa reduces the productivity of land about 1 per cent a year (Daberkow and Reichederfer, 1988).
According to World Bank figures (1982), some 2.9 million hectares of forest were lost each year in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s, mainly due to clearing by farmers and loggers. The Soil Reference and Information Centre (2007) in the Netherlands estimates that 321 million hectares of African land are moderately to extremely degraded. Since 1950, the amount of water available per person in Africa has fallen by more than half, and may plummet further to half its current level within the next 25 years.
While African governments have become more aware of the relationship between the environment and agricultural productivity, much of the impetus for concrete and more integrated action has come from the grassroots. Confronted with deteriorating environmental conditions, villagers across the continent, often with support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have taken the initiative to set up woodlots, terrace hillsides, conserve threatened water sources and adopt more environmentally sustainable farming methods.
Malawi Profile
Malawi is a landlocked country about 117,068 km2, with a population of about 12 million people. It is situated in southeastern Africa, where the Great Rift Valley traverses the country from north to south. In this deep trough lies Lake Malawi, the third-largest lake in Africa, comprising about 20% of Malawi’s land area. The Shire River flows from the south end of the lake and joins the Zambezi River 400 kilometers farther south in Mozambique. East and west of the Rift Valley, the land forms high plateaus, generally between 900 and 1,200 meters above sea level.

Malawi is a densely populated country with an economy heavily dependent on agriculture. The country has few exploitable mineral resources. Its two most important export crops are tobacco and tea. Traditionally Malawi has been self-sufficient in its staple food, maize, and during the 1980s exported substantial quantities to its drought-stricken neighbors. Agriculture represents 38.6% of the GDP, accounts for over 80% of the labour force, and represents about 80% of all exports. Nearly 90% of the population engages in subsistence farming. Smallholder farmers produce a variety of crops, including maize, beans, rice, cassava, tobacco, and groundnuts (peanuts). The agricultural sector contributes about 63.7% of total income for the rural population, 65% of manufacturing sector’s raw materials, and approximately 87% of total employment. Financial wealth is generally concentrated in the hands of a small elite.
Many Malawian subsistence farmers have unconsciously practiced LIATs since time immemorial until the advent of advanced technology and conventional farming systems aimed at producing more to food the ever-increasing population. Conventional farming system has by and by overtaken traditional low-input agriculture. However, LIATs system of farming is not receiving much attention for various reasons. There is thus need to revisit the system and identify the needs and gaps that impede adoption of LIAT system of farming. The primary objective of the research was to identify the challenges of adoption of organic agriculture that exist in the development of LIATs in Malawi and to recommend the formulation of policies that will improve sustainability in agriculture.

Organic farming
There are varied definitions of organic farming but the basic principles of this type of farming apply to all. The principles of organic farming as expressed in the standards document of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) are:
• To produce food of high nutritional quality in sufficient quantity
• To work with natural systems rather seeking to dominate them
• To encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system, involving microorganisms, soil flora and fauna, plants and animals
• To maintain and increase the long-term fertility of soils
• To use as far as possible renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems
• To avoid all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural activities
• To maintain the genetic diversity of the agricultural system and its surroundings
• To allow agricultural producers an adequate return and satisfaction from their work including a safe working environment

These principles provide the basis for day-to-day farming practice. They directly give rise to the techniques of organic farming, such as composting, the use of rotations, the avoidance of soluble fertilizers, the prohibition of intensive livestock operations, the avoidance of antibiotics and hormone stimulants, the use of mechanical methods of weed control, etc.

Organic farming has also been defined as “a farming system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives”. To the maximum extent possible, organic farming systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients and to control insects, weeds and other pests.

The definitions and principles of organic farming underlie the notion of low input agriculture, which emphasizes use of internal inputs and not external inputs. Internal inputs are generally much cheaper and affordable compared to external inputs.

Low In-put Agriculture Technology (LIAT)
This is a production activity that uses synthetic fertilizers or pesticides below rates commonly recommended. It does not mean elimination of these materials or inputs. Yields are maintained through greater emphasis on cultural practices, integrated pest management (IPM), and utilization of on-farm resources and management. LIAT has also been termed “low input and sustainable agriculture, LISA)” by other schools of agriculture. The term in both cases applies to those systems that rely less on external, purchased inputs and more on internal resources, while sustaining the natural resources.

Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture is an important element of the overall effort to make human activities compatible with the demands of the earth’s eco-system. Thus, an understanding of the different approaches to ecological agriculture is necessary if we want to utilise the planet’s resources wisely.
While sustainable agriculture is based on long-term goals and not a specific set of farming practices, it is usually accompanied by a reduction of purchased inputs in favor of managing on-farm resources. A good example is reliance on biologically-fixed nitrogen from legumes as versus manufactured nitrogen fertilizers. Low-input agriculture is one of several alternative farming systems whose methods are adaptable to sustainable agriculture.
The research on organic farming and LIAT was done using interviews of key-informants from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and those who practice organic farming as a strategy of LIAT. Four visits to fifteen different key-informants were made. The farmers (key-informants) were purposefully selected on the merit of known cases of LIA and organic farming in Malawi. An interview questionnaire was administered at each visit to solicit information related to the research questions “what are the challenges of adoption of organic farming faced by farmers in Malawi?” and “what LIATs are currently practiced in Malawi?” Internet search was also used to get more literature on organic farming and LIAT in sub-Sahara Africa and Malawi. The search words used were low-input agricultute, organic farming, Malawi, sub-Sahara Africa, subsistence agriculture.

Views of Malawi Organic Growers Association (MOGA)
Africa is the only continent in which food production has failed to keep up with the growth in population. In Malawi, where there is a shortage of the staple food, maize, hunger and malnutrition result in high infant mortality. Here, some farmers are experimenting with organic farming systems – which do not rely on man-made chemicals – and their techniques are being observed by farmer groups from other countries. The methods being used involve a combination of irrigation, companion planting, composting and soil conservation. Currently there are 2,400 smallholder farmers in fourteen farmer clubs that practice organic farming in Malawi. These are closely supervised by the Malawi Organic Growers Association (MOGA), whose objective is to promote organic farming on a national level so that it contributes to poverty reduction, food security and natural resources management through training of its members. The objective of MOGA will be achieved through the following activities;
• Promoting and protecting the interests of organic producers
• Selecting suitable crops and coordinating and monitoring production among members
• Setting rules for standardization and certification of organic products which are accepted nationally and internationally
• Assisting farmer members increase their production levels, crop diversification and food security
• Establishing contacts for marketing at national, regional and international levels
• Informing and training members in post-harvest processing to add value to products
MOGA has also established a demonstration and training centre for organic farming in Dzalanyama, Lilongwe. It is also promoting a project (permaculture) to protect ecosysytems where farmers used to cut down trees for shifting cultivation. Permaculture is largely promoted at one of the farmers who practice organic farming. His farm is called “Freedom Gardens” and it acts as a demonstration garden for other potential farmers who go to learn permaculture and other strategies of organic farming

Interview with Agriculture Expert (key-informant)
Experts from the MOGA gave their views on LIA and organic agriculture. The discussion with the researcher (RS) and Agriculture Expert (AE) went as follows;
RS. What are the advantages of turning to organic agriculture?
AE: It’s difficult to generalize, because examples of successful organic farming systems can be found in many different conditions. A major advantage of course is that it stops environmental degradation. Organic techniques are used to regenerate degraded areas. A second advantage is that, because of diversification, it offers farmers a much more secure income than when they rely on only one or two outputs. The consumption of byproducts improves the health of the farm family.
Thirdly, farmers maintain nutrient balances in the soil through locally available organic materials or recycled farm wastes. Soil nutritional status is thus better maintained in areas where access to synthetic inputs is limited or where they are too expensive.
Finally, health hazards posed by pesticides and herbicides fall are significantly reduced through organic farming.
RS: Exactly what is low-external-input agriculture; what are its principles?
AE: Low-external-input farming reduces as much as possible the use of external inputs like pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers and replaces them with internal inputs. The basic principle is that farming is seen as both agro- and ecosystem management. The farmer is managing a farm with coherent diversity. The important concepts are diversification of crops and animals, crop rotation, and organic matter cycles. Low-external-input agriculture does not prohibit synthetic inputs. It’s just that when the principles are applied, the need for synthetics disappears. Mixed cropping, green manuring, composting, use of local organic materials, reduced tillage and biodynamic preparations are also included. These things are little more than common sense. Developing these skills with the farmer is the biggest problem.
RS: How accepted is organic agriculture today?
AE: Organic farming isn’t exactly new. Many so-called traditional systems have worked for a long time without external inputs and chemicals – and are still working. The best proof that organic farming can work is that it has worked for a long time. This doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. It certainly has to be. But to improve it, it’s not necessary to use external inputs. There are other ways. Here I feel FAO is weak. The Organization feels that agricultural improvement means putting in chemicals. That’s a one-sided view. In some cases, that approach is viable, but in others it’s not. And I feel we have a role to play in developing traditional systems that are still low-external-input without chemicals. The means to do this involves the concept of nutrient balances including organic matter. Science today has a lot more information about what is happening with soil resources, and with these data many traditional systems can be improved without chemicals.
RS: Most districts in Malawi have very high population densities, how can low-external-input agriculture work in places like these?
AE: The fact is that very often systems are being degraded because the external inputs are not properly used. In organic farming, the need for external inputs is reduced through nutrient cycling and an input like labour. When other external inputs are necessary, they are organic materials. You can make biologically intensive production systems with above average yields, employing more people, using renewable, organic resources.
Admittedly, you have to balance population pressures to some degree as well. If you have degraded soils, you need to build up soil fertility, and when the fertility is there you have to try to maintain it. The problem at the moment is that people have tried for too long to use the soil as something to extract from, without trying to recycle things back into it.
The intensification of an agricultural system need not mean automatically putting in more chemicals. There are different ways – intercropping, green manuring, recycling of manure, and planting crops at different times, so as to maximize the potential of a piece of land. You can use cropping systems so that you have a diversity of crop species that complement each other. You can plant crop combinations that are less susceptible to pest attacks, so that you don’t have to keep relying on the pesticides used with monocultures.
RS. Can you give an overview of organic farming in Malawi?
AE. Compared to the population of Malawi (about 12 million people), those practicing organic farming in Malawi are few although there is an untapped demand for organic produce within and outside Malawi. The question is therefore how to go into this market by encouraging farmers to grow organic produce and forming links between potential farmers and the market. This is because marketing is the major impediment in the adoption of organic farming.
There are currently no standards for organic farming in the country which control the production of organic goods and there is also little awareness by the potential farmers of the benefits of organic farming.
RS. What are the low-input technologies that are currently used in Malawi?
AE. Many subsistence farmers in Malawi practice LIA albeit unconsciously. Due to unaffordability of external agriculture inputs farmers have always produced crops using on-farm inputs. Some of the strategies which are currently practiced by subsistence farmers are;
There are many different irrigation systems available to suit particular conditions. The one commonly used in Malawi is that which is traditionally used in many parts of the world – the irrigation water is carried to the fields along channels at the highest edge of the land and then along smaller channels made between the rows of plants. The water then soaks into the ground around the plants.
Companion Planting
A technique used by the farmers interviewed to help to control pests is to plant together different kinds of crop which help each other to survive and grow successfully. One of the reasons “companion plants” help each other is because one may deter the pest of its neighbour. For example, many pests avoid garlic so this can be used very effectively for companion planting with many crops.
In some cases, it is possible to use a plant which is more attractive to the pest than the crop plant itself. This idea is used in parts of Africa where farmers have found that milkweed planted among vegetables reduces the number of aphids on their crops – simply because the aphids prefer the milkweed to the vegetables.
In a similar way to companion planting, plants can be used to attract predators which will then eat the pests. Bushes and trees left around crop fields provide cover for many useful insects and birds. There are many plants whose flowers will attract predators and encourage them to lay more eggs, so increasing the number of insects which will attack the pests.
If the soil is to continue to provide the nourishment needed by crop plants, it must be kept in good condition and its natural nutrients replaced. Artificial, chemical fertizers can not do this because they only supply the short-term needs of the plant but do not feed the soil itself – so feeding of the next crop with more, expensive chemicals becomes necessary. By returning natural wastes and animal manure to the soil, as well as feeding the plants, the farmer can also improve the structure of the soil so that it retains water more effectively.
A very effective way of using vegetable wastes in this way is by making it into compost. This is made up of plant and animal residues which have been broken down by bacteria. Since this is a natural process, compost is very easy and inexpensive to make and is an effective and long-lasting way of improving soil and crop quality. If the process is well managed, the heat produced as the materials rot will often be enough to kill weed seeds and plant diseases.
Freedom Gardens uses the trench composting system but there are many different ways of making compost, all of which have been devised to suit various waste materials and the climates in which they are used. It is essential in all methods, however, to have a mixture of different kinds of materials – some young, living material and some older, dead material – so that the final product has a good balance of natural carbon and nitrogen which the crop plants will need.
Soil conservation
In order to retain the soil and avoid its loss through erosion by the wind or rain, it helps to grow plants which bind it together. Banana plants and vetiver grass are used for this at farmers’ gardens. Both of these have the additional benefit of providing either a food crop (banana) or a useful farm material in the form of mulch or animal feed (vetiver). Vetiver grass has been used very successfully in more than 50 countries for soil and water conservation. When fully established, a vetiver hedge will hold back surface water and trap any soil which is already being carried in the water.
Other methods of retaining soil include building terraces on steep slopes or using the gentler contours of the land to make flat areas in which rain water will rest until it has soaked naturally into the ground instead of running swiftly down the slope, carrying away the surface soil.
Due to land pressure farmers maximize production by planting two or more crops in a single field. This has the added advantage of reducing pests’ attack through reduced apparency of crops in a mixed stand. Intercropping with legumes is also beneficial in soil nitrogen enrichment by the nitrogen fixing bacteria in the root nodules of legume crops.
This technology has great potential for soil fertility improvement, fruit tree domestication, sustainable tree seed systems and fodder for livestock production. Various leguminous tree species are used in agroforestry in Malawi. An example is Gliricidia sepium which is a preferred species of tree used in this technology. Its leaves are rich in nitrogen (N), sometimes up to 4% of the leaf biomass. A second quality is that the leaves provide organic matter, which help to improve the soil’s fertility and structure. Research at Makoka and application of the technology at nearby farms has shown that Gliricidia intercropping helps to rejuvenate the soil and to improve soil fertility, without the use of fertiliser.
Results indicate a definite increase in the maize crop yield using the simultaneous intercropping with Gliricidia. The farmer can obtain yields of up to 3-4 tonnes.

Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. It is a land use and community building movement which strives for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, climate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive communities.
A central theme in permaculture is the design of ecological landscapes that produce food. Emphasis is placed on multi-use plants, cultural practices such as sheet mulching and trellising, and the integration of animals to recycle nutrients and graze weeds.
Permaculture can be applied to create productive ecosystems from the human- use standpoint or to help degraded ecosystems recover health and wildness. Permaculture can be applied in any ecosystem, no matter how degraded it may be.
Permaculture demonstration sites in Malawi have short-term objectives all of which are aimed at demonstrating to local subsistence farmers the achievements of organic agriculture. Some of the activities which are aimed at food production and income generating are;
• Vegetable growing for: money, food, chicken food, compost manure, fish ponds;
• Poultry farming for: money, food, manure for vegetables, manure for fish ponds;
• Fish farming for: money, food, fish pond manure for vegetable growing;
• Woodlot for: money, timber, fuel;
• Cattle farming for: food, money (to fatten and sell), manure for vegetables and fish ponds;
• Crops (intercropping), one ridge having maize, beans and potatoes which are companion plants. This method is used for a number of reasons:
o It increases long lasting fertility;
o It is a cheaper way of farming;
o It avoids soil and water chemical contamination.

Water infiltration depends on there being sufficient porosity in the surface soil for rainfall to infiltrate, and in the subsoil and parent material (if shallow) for rainwater to percolate. The overriding approach should be to instill in society, and in farmers, extensionists and researchers in particular, the will to create and sustain soil conditions that encourage the infiltration of rainfall where it falls, and to counteract the causes of runoff. This implies that the porosity of the soil must be at least maintained, or increased.
Low-input agriculture has emerged as an important issue as its popularity is motivated and supported by growing evidence of environmental and health risks from agrichemicals. The drop in commodity prices and farm equity value which occurred in 1981-87 has rekindled interest in developing cost-reducing technologies.
Sub-Saharan Africa agricultural production is currently challenged by many constraints faced by farmers across Africa. While some areas offer high productivity and have been intensively cultivated, others are plagued by low soil fertility, poor access to resources such as water, infrastructure and markets. Organic farming offers potential for smallholder farmers to improve their livelihood both through increased yield and access to markets. However, it is not as easy to embark on organic farming and new levels of organization and investment are required from government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and households.

In Malawi over 90% of the population is engaged in Agricultural production which contributes 38.6% of the national gross domestic product, 80% of the export earnings and employs 80% of the labour force (A Guide to Agricultural Production and Natural Resources Management, 2005). According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, the main Agriculture sub-sectors include crops contributing about 80%, livestock contributing 13% and fisheries contributing about 6%. Over 95% of the farmers are smallholders with landholdings ranging from 0.5 to 1.0 acres. The majority of these smallholder farmers have rich indigenous knowledge that has sustained their livelihoods, food security as well as land productivity for hundreds of years with very little or no use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and veterinary drugs. However they have limited capital.

Malawi is among the least users of artificial fertilizers and other agrichemicals in Africa with less than 14% or 1 kg of fertilizer per hectare compared to sub-Sahara average of 9kg/ha . Malawi therefore has a high comparative advantage for organic agriculture production in Africa.

Developments in the organic agriculture sub-sector have been driven by developments in international markets and trade. The world market for organic products is now estimated to be above 30 billion US dollars. Average global growth in demand and market of organic products is currently estimated to be 25% per year (Grolink 2004). The growing consumer interest triggered off rapid growth in international trade in organic products. The trading environment is witnessing changes due to;

• Increased consumer concerns for the health and safety.
• Increased consumer consciousness regarding the environment and social issues
of production and marketing.

The demand for Malawi Organic products in the international markets is growing, unfortunately is not yet marched by the supply. This is demonstrated by the number of business contracts being received by MOGA and the government.

The Agriculture sector in general faces some challenges broadly categorized as lack of capital, low production and productivity, poor marketing system, human resource constraints and reliance on unpredictable weather conditions. The African farmer is further constrained by increase in migration to urban settlements and HIV and AIDs. However, the specific challenges in the Organic Sub-sector are:-
• Low investment in organic agriculture production leading to failure in fulfilling existing market opportunities/orders
• Limited research in organic agriculture.
• Limited extension services delivery in organic agriculture.
• High costs of international inspection and certification.
• Lack of internationally recognized local organic certification body.
• Inadequate documentation on organic agriculture.
• Demand outpaces supply
• Lack of organized smallholders groups to consistently raise volumes to meet market orders.
• Absence of an explicit policy on Organic Agriculture.


Several factors have come together in recent years which highlight the necessity for a fundamental review of agricultural activities. The traditional goal of maximizing output is being countered by widespread concern of the environment, and by the growing realization that finite natural resources need to be more carefully managed. Organic farming has a positive contribution to make as it is dependent upon maintaining ecological balance and developing biological processes to their maximum. The preservation of soil structure, earthworms, microorganisms and insects is essential to the working of an organic system. Therefore the protection of the soil and environment is fundamental for the organic farmer.

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Altieri, M. 1987. Agro ecology-the scientific basis for alternative agriculture. Intermediate Technology Publications, London.

Balfour, E. 1975. The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment. Universe Books, New York.

Daberkow, S.G. and K.H. Reichelderfer. 1988. Low-Input Agriculture: Trends, Goals, and Prospects for Input Use. American Journal of Agriculture Economics. 70 (5). Pp 1159-1166.
Grolink . 2004

Howard, A. 1948. An Agriculture Testament. Oxford University Press, London.

Knorr, D. 1982. Sustainable Food Systems. AVI Publishing, Westport. Conn.

Lampkin, N. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, UK.

Lindenbach-Gibson, R and Gray, R. Low-Input Agriculture Gap Analysis. Centre for Agriculture Studies, University of Saskatchewan.

Promotion of Organic Products from Africa 2006.

The Soil Reference and Information Centre. 2007. Netherlands

World Bank. 1982. Ninth Annual Review of Project Performance Audit Results. World Bank Group.

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