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Seed Sovereignty and Climate Adaptation in Malawi

Originally published by Food Tank on 07/16/2016

You wouldn’t have known from the farmers gathered in Lobi, in the Dedza area of central Malawi, that drought had seriously depressed harvests. To be sure, they hadn’t suffered the worst of the country’s devastating heat and dry spell. Farmers to the south saw crops wither in their baked fields; some never even bothered to plant. An estimated 8 million people – fully half the country’s people – are now at risk of hunger, according to the World Food Program.

The farmers in Lobi were surprisingly upbeat, enthusiastically calling out the crops they were growing to a project manager leading a community meeting. One reason they were happy is that the list of crops didn’t begin and end with maize, the staple for which Malawi is known because of the country’s government-subsidized program to boost local production through the provision of hybrid maize seeds and fertilizers.

Under the Malawi Farmer-to-Farmer Agroecology Project (MAFFA), the farmers in Lobi grow a diversity of food crops, for sale and home consumption. Maize is still their staple, but the list of other crops seemed endless: rice, millet, common beans, soybeans, groundnuts (peanuts), Bambara nuts, potatoes (of many varieties), sweet potatoes (white and orange), cassava, pigeon peas, and even two types of tobacco, a local cash crop.

Maize yields were down, as a blackboard chart of local production from the just-concluded harvest showed. That’s not surprising. Maize is a relatively water-intensive crop. Still, all the farmers in Lobi wanted to talk about was their orange maize, which had performed well.

Rich in Vitamin A, the native local variety was taking off faster than the project could promote it. Farmers seemed particularly to like its drought resilience, taste, high conversion to edible grain for the local staple, nsima, and how well it grows even without the doses of expensive – or subsidized – inorganic fertilizer required by government-supported hybrid maize varieties. They mostly use compost to fertiliz