What does it take to scale agricultural technologies in Malawi?

Fertilizer trees in Malawi. (Credit: ICRAF)

A wide variety of different agricultural innovations and technologies—from seed varieties and fertilizer trees, to inoculants and aquaculture systems—have been proposed by agricultural development programs in Malawi. But how many of these technologies have, or can, be scaled up beyond a project lifecycle? What prevents them from being scaled? How can we learn from the different approaches being used?

Closing a gap

To date, there has been relatively little assessment and almost no formal testing of the scaling up approaches for new agricultural technologies. IFPRI Malawi is taking part in a study aiming to fill that gap by aims to understand which specific scaling methods and approaches have been implemented for different technologies, how successful have they been, how could they be improved, and what challenges remain for scaling up of agricultural technology.

The study is being coordinated by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), one of 15 specialized global research programs worldwide. This study is part of PIM’s interest to support CGIAR country-level collaboration.

Initially targeted at CGIAR centers doing scaling up activities in Malawi, it soon expanded to include other, non-CGIAR partners doing, or interested in, scaling up agricultural activities as well. Altogether, the study will include case studies from approximately 40-50 different private sector, donor, research, and implementing organizations in Malawi which have some kind of agricultural technology ready for or already being scaled.

Assessing current technologies

The first stage of the study involved conducting an inventory of approaches and methods used in scaling up of technologies—particularly technologies which have already been piloted or tested to some degree.

Now in the second stage, the study’s researchers are conducting follow up interviews to fill-in more detailed information and to elicit self-reported assessments of the effectiveness of methods and approaches used.  This will include aspects of uptake by farmers, cost effectiveness, as well as complementarities or synergies among different approaches.

Following interviews and analysis, a synthesis of findings will be shared via a workshop among those providing scaling up information in Malawi as a way of fact checking and better understanding of good practices.

Finally, the team will refine lessons learned and will disseminate the findings more widely to agricultural development decision-makers in Malawi.

The study results can help pinpoint which scaling approaches work better than others. This information can be used by implementers to be better informed on effective scaling methodologies and to adapt their approaches accordingly. It is also hoped that the study may lead to increased attention to scaling up methods in upcoming projects. The findings can also aid funders and government partners in addressing the most pressing constraints to scaling up at a national level.

Early findings

Though still in the data collection phase, some initial findings have come in through self-assessments from about 30 organizations in Malawi.

So far, the results cover a range of different technologies, such as various seed varieties (groundnuts, soya beans, Irish potato, sweet potato) as well as fertilizer trees, aquaculture systems, conservation agriculture, and inoculants.  It also covers different extension approaches, such as demonstration plots, lead farmers and Farmer Field Schools.

According to Frank Place, lead researcher on the study and Senior Research Fellow with PIM, “Nobody is doing just one thing. Implementers are combining different methods and approaches, so we are looking to see how they fit together and whether we can find some good practices for individual methods.”

For example, ICRISAT is implementing projects on groundnuts, CIP on potatoes, ICRAF on fertilizer trees, yet they are often using the same approaches and working with the same partners, so there is an opportunity for more and better collaboration and learning to take place.

While the study is the one of the few to examine methods for scaling up agricultural approaches in Malawi, it has some limitations. For example, the study cannot address every factor that can affect adoption of technologies, such as access to capital or literacy. It also does not analyze marketing issues, such as the potential impacts of adopting new agricultural technology on prices. This study is a step in closing a research gap and focuses solely on the scaling dimensions.


The early results also show there is an opportunity to improve collaboration, by shifting from narrow sector interests that are project and supply-driven (i.e. demonstration plots for each separate commodity) to an intersectoral, holistic approach that brings partners and sectors together based on what works.

Analysis is expected to be completed by the end of April. Results will be shared first internally to those who participated, and then externally to other interested parties.  Watch this space for more details to come.


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