COVID-19: Updates on SFHC activities

Out of a desire to protect our region from this virus, all of SFHC’s field work activities have been closed as of April 7. Although the Malawi government has not yet confirmed any cases of COVID-19 in the country, SFHC recognizes the severity of this situation. Malawi is one of the poorest countries on the continent, with current data estimating a total of seventeen ventilators for a population of nineteen million people. The public health system is inadequately prepared for the magnitude of the crisis to come. SFHC staff and farmer volunteers are key figures in their communities, and have a crucial role to play as coordinators of information for isolated rural regions. Our staff have been preparing by raising awareness around COVID-19, spreading medical advice on how farming families can protect themselves using hand washing, social distancing and and protective measures. For the month of March we used our field survey activities as a tool for spreading news into the most distant, isolated villages.

After putting all nonessential in-person work on hiatus from April 7, we will continue to maintain virtual contact with farmer volunteers and staff to assess the food security status of our communities. We are relieved to have witnessed that the rains have been very good this year, making immediate food shortages unlikely.

However, we are very concerned about the long-term food security and nutrition of Malawian farmers in the aftermath of COVID-19. Public health infrastructure in the country is dangerously limited, and long-distance commutes, lack of connectivity and education make our communities especially vulnerable to this crisis. A weakened economy exacerbates current poverty and inequality. If you have the resources, please consider donating to organizations working to support East African health systems in fighting the Coronavirus, such as the internationally recognized Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

In addition to immediate medical support, the need for building long-term food security, nutrition, gender equality, sustainable lands and resilient communities has never been greater. We do not know the timeline of this virus. We hope to be able to continue our work as soon as social interactions are safe, but in the mean time we are working on innovative ways to continue supporting farmers for the long haul. Please consider supporting our work.

Stay well, friends!

May Update

SFHC has been busy during May. In order to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission, SFHC has divided the staff into several teams who work on various SFHC projects independently at the SFHC office. Teams only come in once or twice a week to prevent the possible spread of infection. 

Three groups have been doing work in the permaculture garden. The first group has been working on the vegetable gardens and also making compost to apply to the different fields.  The second group has been weeding in the orchard which contains a variety of fruits such as bananas, mangoes, avocados, and tangerines. The third group has been working on the center by incorporating crop residue from legumes and cereals grown last rainy season in the fields to improve soil quality for the next growing season. 

In the groups that are not based in the permaculture there has also been a lot of progress. One group has been doing yield assessments for the InnovAfrica project. Yield assessments focus on harvesting, shelling,weighing and taking the moisture content of maize, bambara nuts, groundnut, millet, beans and sorghum. Another group is focused on making concrete bricks as part of the Biovision project. These bricks are for the construction of the dormitories where people who will be coming for training at the center will be accommodated.

The final group has been working on the FARMS4Biodiversity project doing yield assessment for the students research projects and been doing COVID-19 outreach with farmers. The COVID-19 training taught a total of 240 people in 24 areas about COVID-19 and how to prevent the spread of infection. The rest of the SFHC team trained 2973 people from 216 villages with the help of promoters who go on to train people in their own villages. During these training sessions about 10-20 people were trained at a time and outside while observing social distance. At the end of the presentation SFHC gave farmers masks, gloves, soap and sanitizer to farmers to protect them from spreading the disease. 

Twenty Years of Agroecology: Mapping SFHC’s Impact

For twenty years, we have been working here in Northern and Central Malawi. We are very proud of the work we’ve done: a participatory approach to agroecological farming to improve nutrition, livelihoods and equity. And since 2000, we have reached over 10, 000 farmers!

Our staff and volunteers hear by word of mouth about the change we’re making, and we’ve published our results in leading scientific journals. We hear that farmers are still sharing what they’ve learned through SFHC — they’re farming differently, sharing new seed and spreading knowledge. Yet we lacked a critical way of understanding change: maps!

A snapshot from our project report: percentage of participating farmers using seven different agroecological practices. As you can see, they’re heavily in use!

That’s why in 2018, we were delighted to receive funding from the McKnight Foundation for the Mapping Agroeocology Project. In addition to a survey and qualitative interviews, we partnered with Dr. Isaac Luginaah and PhD student Daniel Kpienbaareh of Western University to create a spatial analysis of farmers’ experiences with SFHC programs. They trained farmers and SFHC staff to use GPS and GIS technologies in order to map out where seeds were being spread, when and how information was shared, using a sample of 600 farmers who participated in the MAFFA project. Most of this data was collected in 2019, and it’s still being analyzed, but here’s a snippet of what’s to come:

A cross-section of seed sharing networks in Mzimba district.

We are thrilled to see the final results of the spatial analysis. We’re already very encouraged by the results of our survey: for example, we’ve learned that a whopping 99% of participating farmers are still using agroecological practices. We also asked about the gaps in our program — what farmers wished they’d known and learned about. We are planning to use this information with the mapping component in order to better understand how we are having an impact, and ultimately to develop new training programs. Stay tuned for more maps!

FARMS4Biodiversity’s second Annual Meeting yields exciting results!

After a productive first year of data collection, FARMS4Biodiversity held its annual meeting in February. We are really proud of this year’s work: SFHC has taken the lead in a complex network of interdisciplinary collaboration between five universities, the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (see their press release on our project here!), social and natural scientists, 24 family farms and 70 individual farmers. See below for more details on all we’ve accomplished in the first year of this new project!

SFHC Farmer Promoter Mwapi Mkandawire demonstrates method for catching and identifying pollinator taxa. Over 1300 bees and wasps and over 1000 butterflies have been collected thus far!

The Scenarios of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services team had an excellent year of research, exploring the role of different organisms — ground dwelling anthropoids, flying insects, birds and bats — in combatting pests such as the fall armyworm and stemborer. The whole team took a field trip to see demonstrations of their methods and to understand the challenges they faced in data collection. We also heard updates on their assessment of pollinators and pollination services: in examining how agroecological practices protect biodiversity, they have collected more than 1300 bees and wasps, and recorded over 1000 butterflies to date! That’s over 53 species of pollinator.

The Community Social Dynamics team continued their research on the relationship between community-level social relationships and land use. They focused particularly on farmers’ experiences with the effects of climate change and seed saving.

Demonstration of malaise insect traps by the Scenarios of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services team at Annual Meeting field trip.

The Participatory Scenario Planning team worked with farmers to train community members in remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information Services) technologies. Farmers hope to map landscape and crop diversity analysis and eventually build a model to predict yield. Thus far they have mapped a total of 52 villages!

We are so excited by all the work that the FARMS4Biodiversity project has completed in its first year. We are honoured to be working with such skilled collaborators, and excited to see the results of this research!

Biofertilizer training!

SFHC hosted a 4 day training for 65 participants on how to make organic ‘biofertilizer.’ Participants included farmers, Ministry of Agriculture extension staff, NGO staff and SFHC members. The training was supported by the Seeds and Knowledge Initiative, a network of agroecology and permaculture organizations in southern Africa.

SFHC holds first General Assembly

In December, SFHC hosted a meeting with the SFHC Trustees and General Assembly. The SFHC Trustees are farmers who have experience using agroecological methods and serve for 3 years. They oversee the work of SFHC staff, while the 100+ General Assembly gives input into the overall direction of the work of SFHC. At the end of the meeting the group had a tour of the SFHC Farmer Research & Training Centre and demonstration farm and were encouraged to use it as a community resource.

SFHC presents at conference in Ethiopia, hosted by the African Food Sovereignty Alliance

Mr. Laifolo Dakishoni, Deputy Director and Finance and Administrative Manager of SFHC, represented our team at the Conference on Agroecology for Climate Resilience in November. The conference, hosted by the African Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), brought together “officials, leading experts and practitioners drawn from the African Union, regional economic commissions, NGOs, CSOs, small scale food producers, small businesses, academia, and UN bodies including FAO”. This diverse range of attendees traveled to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, in order to inform policy and reinforce connections between related initiatives dedicated to championing food sovereignty in Africa.

Our Deputy Director Laifolo Dakishoni was invited as a speaker. He presented on our work in relation to climate change and resilience, and the importance of an African food policy being informed by the knowledge of small farmers. Dak, we’re proud to have you representing us, and delighted to be connecting with excellent allies at AFSA!

Graduate students from Germany’s University of Würzburg collaborating with FARMS4Biodiversity

Three graduate students from the University of Würzburg, each focusing on a different aspect of ecology, are our newest collaborators in the FARMS4Biodiversity project’s first working package, Scenarios for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
PhD student Georg Kuestern will examine natural enemies of pests (including birds, parastioids and ground predators) in order to quantify their importance in specific landscapes and intercropping systems for agroecological farming.
PhD student Cassandra Vogel is in her second year of research, focused on the presence of bees on agroecological farms, among other topics.
MSc student Vera Mayer will investigate the relationship between Malawian butterflies and the landscape, especially in the gradient between project areas and adjacent land.

These students are living in Northern Malawi from October to June, collecting data for their research, which will collectively explore the effects of agroecological farming practices on local biodiversity and vice versa. They spent late October getting an orientation to the sites, discussing experimental design with our team members and learning about manure from farmers. This aspect of the FARMS4Biodiversity project is supervised by the University of Würtsburg’s Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter and Cornell’s Katja Poveda. We look forward to working with them and reading their findings!

SFHC featured in Beacons of Hope’s Transforming Food Systems project

The nonprofit Beacons of Hope, in collaboration with The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, has launched a new project entitled “Transforming Food Systems”. The project seeks out and highlights creative, resourceful food systems initiatives across the globe currently engaging in transformative work to address food insecurity, inequality and climate change. At SFHC, we recognize that the first step to change is envisioning it. As we continue to work toward a future built on a just food system, we learn and draw hope from our resilient colleagues across the planet pioneering alternatives to our current reality. We’re inspired by a diverse range of allies doing great work around the world, and honoured to be part of this initiative!

See Beacons of Hope’s feature on us; check out their interactive toolkit for amplifying the potential of food systems transformation; and read more about their related projects map!

Listen In: Interview with Jahi Chappell & Rachel Bezner Kerr on Food Sovereignty and Agroecology

Stephanie Enloe sits down to interview Dr. Jahi Chappel, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience at the University of Coventry, and Professor Rachel Bezner Kerr, a long-standing SFHC research collaborator. The interview includes a discussion of Professor Bezner Kerr’s work with SFHC in Malawi, and Dr. Chappell’s recent book, “Beginning to End Hunger.”

Listen to the podcast here!

(Check out the original blog post by Christian Elliot and explore more content from Cornell University CALS’s department of Development Sociology.)