by National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM)
Climate change has in recent years, among other problems, led to unpredictable weather patterns – making it difficult for farmers to plan on an ideal crop to plant with regard to the amount of rain and duration it requires to mature; prolonged dry spells – affecting the development of crops which leads to losses; and floods – affecting both crop fields and displacing households. This made the work of most farmers difficult, including rice farmers who were used to practicing traditional farming methods in the Karonga district. With reduced rainfall amounts and periods, it proved a challenge for most farmers to realize meaningful harvest from their fields using traditional methods. This led to food insecurity and loss of income. Business-minded farmers needed a solution to the problems.
In around 2014, NASFAM introduced the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in the area to help farmers mitigate the effects. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method requires that a farmer use younger seedlings, singly spaced, and typically hand weeding to avoid injuring the crop if other tools are used. The method demands less water, less seed, but results in increased yield if all procedures are followed. With SRI, farmers plant in lines following specified spacing, and the yield is quite high because the crop does not scramble for sunlight, air, and soil nutrients. The seedlings are transplanted while they are mature enough to withstand the heat/water stress.
To ensure maximum benefits from the SRI method, farmers are encouraged to first ensure they use certified seed. Certified seed has more vigour than recycled seed. In addition, they are encouraged to apply animal manure and other composite manure to boost soil fertility and moisture retention. Soil with high moisture retention benefits the crop more in prolonged droughts.
Crop rotation is another promoted practice to ensure farmers avoid common pests and dieses that would negatively affect their crop. In places where land rotation is a problem, they are urged to keep the land idle for a considerable period (enough to destroy the cycle of common pests and diseases). This helps minimise chances of recurring pests and diseases from one crop to another.
The notable advantage of this method is that the crop demands less water, allowing it to produce more even in seasons when the rainfall amount drops below what the rice planted in the broadcast field would require. Since 2017, Mkandawire and others have more than doubled their rice yield.
In June 2021, Mkandawire reported having harvested 1.5 tonnes of rice from the same land he had been using before. He attributed the increase to the use of SRI. The increased harvest meant increased food security, increased income, providing him additional disposable income. It also offered him an opportunity to invest more into his farming business as he reported to have bought two ox and two calves and an oxcart.
The introduction of SRI brings different benefits that allow the farming system to be more resilient to the climate risks while promoting sustainable yield increase by 20–50% and better quality. As mentioned previously SRI methods are less resource intensive (especially reduction in water requirements by 30–50%) (Styger and Uphoff, 2016) hence minimizing the production costs and reliance on synthetic and external inputs and scares resources. In the case of certified seeds —a key input— worth mentioning that is a process that can be achieved or complemented through local/national farmers seeds banks or participatory improvement projects, in a joint effort between farmer cooperatives and public-private partnerships. SRI also focuses on soil health, proper planting spacing, intermittent water application and organic fertilization improve soil fertility and water retention capacity, that are linked to a lower exposure to biotic and abiotic stresses. Emissions of greenhouse gasses such as methane (CH4) and Nitrous oxide (N2O) can be minimized and overall carbon footprint reduced according to reductions in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides compared to conventional paddy rice production (Vermeulen et al. 2012; Gathorne-Hardy, 2013).
*This is done in the framework of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) approach. Climate-smartness in agriculture means understanding impacts of climate change and variability along with the agricultural activity, which includes the planning of what crop to plant, when to plant, what variety to plant and what type of management practices are needed to reduce the impact on the environment (e.g. emissions reduction), maintain or increase productivity (e.g. yields) while increasing resilience and improving livelihoods.