SAGE project: Scaling out Agroecological Pest Management & Gender Equity

Proudly funded by the McKnight Foundation
Partners: Cornell University, Western University, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Today, over 40% of Malawi’s agricultural land is considered degraded. Forest landscapes are under constant threat. How can we manage agricultural land without damaging soils or nearby watersheds? How can this be done in a careful, socially conscious manner, to ensure that women who often do not have access to synthetic pesticides, due to their lower relative incomes are able to benefit and implement new pest control strategies? How can SFHC strengthen our farmer agroecological research platform, such that members are better able to exchange ideas and knowledge for improving pest management, forest conservation/restoration and gender relations?

This project addresses the intersections between insect pest management, land degradation and gender inequality in Malawi, a state that has largely pursued input-intensive agriculture. The rising use of synthetic pesticides has negative ecosystem impacts and tends to widen social inequalities, as low-income families and women seldom have equal access to resources. Agroecology is an alternative to input-intensive pest management, but research suggests this paradigm should account for social and ecological processes that operate beyond the farm-scale. For example, women may have less access to the education, land, credit, labor-time, seeds and other agricultural resources that would allow them to implement or benefit from agroecology.

Agroecological methods of pest control such as extracts are a low-cost option compared to synthetic pesticides. Our prior research has shown that participatory trainings on agroecology and gender equity can increase crop yields, farmer incomes, food security, nutrition and soil health. Thus, as we undertook participatory action research on agroecological pest management, we identified gender and generational inequalities (in terms of labor, access to and control over income and agricultural resources, gender-based violence and violation of rights) as key underlying issues to center as we began the project. 

As part of our FARMS for Biodiversity project, 36 SFHC farmers conducted experiments with pesticidal plant extracts. These have been used to complement other forms of agroecological pest management, with negligible effects on beneficial insects such as pollinators and pest predators. Our pilot study analysis indicated the extracts reduced pest damage on the intervention plots when compared to control plots. It also suggested that the type of landscape surrounding a farm (such as forested vs. not forested land) influences pest pressure and extract effectiveness.

Therefore, we launched the Scaling out Agroecological Pest Management & Gender Equity (SAGE) project with three interrelated objectives:

1) To broaden smallholder farmers knowledge and use of agroecological methods for pest management, with a focus on pesticidal plant extracts, but including other methods such as intercropping and hedgerows

2) To enable smallholder farmers to map and quantify forests in their communities, and identify land management strategies to conserve remaining forests and restore degraded landscapes.

3) To test gender-transformative training as an effective mechanism to change persistent gender inequities in agriculture, including those related to uneven access to resources, unequal labour sharing and decision-making arrangements, and gender-based violence.

Activities include:

  • 500 farmers to be trained in agroecological pest management (note: techniques of agroecological pest management are diverse and tailored to their local context. We focus here on the use of hedgerows, intercropping, crop rotation, and pesticidal plant extracts (manufacture and use)).
  • Inclusive Forest Inventories: Public participatory geographic information systems (PPGIS) and photo voice will be used to develop a forest inventory that identifies and maps landscape attributes. Inventories will be used in combination with in-depth interviews to identify gendered constraints and opportunities for integrating agroecological practices and forest conservation strategies. 
  • Gender-Transformative Trainings: In 10 communities with 500 farmers, SFHC will introduce an intensive, 9-month gender-transformative curriculum. Farmers and SFHC staff will facilitate dialogue and community theater scenarios on gender issues, including the division of labor, land and resource control, decision-making processes, gender-based violence, and early marriage. Single-sex discussions aim to foster peer solidarity and honest reflection, while mixed-group and couples sessions will encourage men and women to hear other perspectives and identify entry points for social change. Community theater scenarios are used for farmer-to-farmer dissemination. At the end of the training, community members will develop gender action plans, outlining local objectives and action steps for women’s empowerment and gender equity.
  • Sharing innovation: Field days and other community events, including with the CCRP CoP, will be held each year. Participating farmers will showcase their experience with agroecological pest management practices and discussed linkages to gender equity and forest conservation.  Field days will be attended by neighboring villages, partners from different organizations, Ministry of Agriculture staff and traditional leaders.

We launched this project in September 2021, and will be documenting our results, which we hope to publish in future papers. Stay tuned! 

As a component of the SAGE project, we also launched the Participatory Forest Inventory Project in January 2022 in order to produce a comprehensive, complete assessment of forested landscapes in the region based on local knowledge. This project, funded by the Atkinson Centre for Sustainability at Cornell University, will provide data to further assess how landscape composition affects farm-scale pest dynamics and management.