Why is adoption of conservation agriculture still a hard sell in Malawi?

A farmer's field under conservation agriculture in Malawi. (Photo credit: T. Samson/CIMMYT)

This blog post is based on an interview with Dr. Patrick Ward, research fellow in the Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI and Dr. Klaus Droppelman, process facilitator at the Institute for People, Innovation and Change in Organisations (PICOTEAM), following an end-of-project workshop held in Lilongwe on January 16-17, 2018.

Smallholder farmers—in Malawi and beyond—are often inundated with inconsistent, and sometimes conflicting messaging about how best to manage their land and crops. These messages can come from government extension workers, well intentioned international organizations, or neighbors. It is no surprise that many prefer to stick to their status quo farming practices as opposed to trying something new. This presents a missed opportunity to try novel approaches and technologies which may potentially help them achieve better yields, strengthen their crop’s resilience, and protect the overall health of their soil and surrounding environment.

One such approach that can increase soil fertility, health, and yields in many different contexts is conservation agriculture (CA), a broad concept designed to be interpreted, adapted, and applied in individual agricultural contexts. CA consists of three main principles: 1) minimal tillage (soil disturbance), 2) permanent organic soil cover, to provide a protective canopy, and 3) crop diversification (i.e. intercropping or rotation) to improve soil health.

Unfortunately, despite evidence that CA can work, it has not been an easy sell to individual famers and farming communities across the region. In fact, the CA adoption rate for total cropped area in Africa south of the Sahara remains stubbornly low, at approximately 5 percent.


A three-year study funded by USAID’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access, and led by researchers from New York University and IFPRI, examined the adoption of CA in Malawi. The study explored using a dual incentive structure to encourage CA adoption, which consisted of flat payment to farmers adopting CA, plus a ‘bonus payment’ which farmers earned if their neighbors also adopted CA.


The researchers began by examining the real and perceived barriers that keep farmers from adopting CA in Malawi. First, what does CA cost to implement? Technically, it saves farmers time and money by reducing or eliminating the need for ridging, the traditional land preparation practice in Malawi. However, the potential short-term costs of changing from one farming approach to another often deter farmers (temporary yield reductions or the use of inorganic fertilizer in the interim). Many farmers don’t have the luxury of waiting for yields to recover or soil to revitalize. Thus, some subsidies or incentives may be needed to overcome the initial barrier to adoption.

Convincing farmers to change their behaviors from the status quo requires clear and also consistent messaging (from extension workers and others)—something that has been lacking despite years of CA promotion in the region. Furthermore, the best way to sell CA—as the study confirmed—is for farmers to see their neighbors successfully doing it.

The challenge of getting CA to stick in a context like Malawi where it can do so much good—at the landscape as well as the plot level—is breaking the cycle of knowledge, where farmers don’t fully understand how to apply the CA principles and don’t see the immediate benefits, combined with the general hesitation of going against status quo farming practices.


Besides improved soil health and yields at the plot-level, CA benefits can also extend to society at large. For example, by reducing siltation, CA could help to increase hydroelectric power generation in Malawi. CA can reduce the siltation caused by conventional tillage practices that overturn soil, exposing particles and sediment to heavy rains that carry the runoff south into the Shire River. Hydropower generators cannot run with so much sediment, resulting in load-shedding and debilitating, frequent power cuts nationwide. Reducing soil erosion through CA adoption upstream can provide direct benefits downstream, as ESCOM, Malawi’s national power provider, can conserve resources currently spent dredging sediment and repairing equipment in order to provide power.

There is potential for ESCOM’s saved costs to be invested into r a Payment-for-ecosystem services (PES) system in which a portion of funds is channeled to farmers upstream to adopt better practices to reduce erosion, which ultimately enables ESCOM to provide more consistent power.


In conclusion, this study confirmed that peer effects (i.e. whether a farmer’s neighbors were also adopting CA practices) was a strong influencer of CA adoption, beyond financial incentives. Forthcoming analyses will help clarify whether CA adoption rates differed between those farmers who received a conventional voucher versus those who also received dual payment. Lastly, the research shows that in Malawi, CA has the potential to improve hydroelectric power generation by reducing sedimentation in waterways.


The proof of concept for CA is strong; we now need to prove that it can work at scale in Malawi. This requires engaging with communities, district governments, and players outside of agriculture. Demonstrating the costs and benefits of reducing soil erosion from the wider adoption of CA will also be important to get private sector and end-users ‘buy-in’, which will contribute to promoting CA upstream. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, shifting CA adoption from an individual to a landscape level requires clear messaging so farmers can see it working in practice, thus breaking the agricultural status quo. Consistent CA messaging requires strong coordination—between government ministries, departments, and other CA promoters—as well as inclusion of CA principles in key policies such as the National Agricultural Extension Strategy and the National Agriculture Investment Plan.


Further resources

Below are links to project data and other relevant publications on this topic.