Africa RISING in the Field: Malawi and Zambia

If there is one consensus in agriculture development it is the idea that crops will need to produce more from existing agricultural land in the coming decades. In other words, agriculture will need to be intensified.

Agricultural intensification can be defined in three ways: increasing yields per hectare, increasing cropping intensity (i.e., multiple cropping cycles) per unit of resource such as land or water, and increasing the value of agriculture land by replacing low-value crops with those of higher market value.

Sustainable Intensification

Pretty et al (2011) defined sustainable agricultural intensification as “producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts and at the same time increasing contributions to natural capital and the flow of environmental services”.

Excerpt from Pretty et al (2011):

Africa RISING 

The Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) program is part of the US government’s Feed the Future initiative, supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Africa RISING comprises three multi-stake holder agricultural research projects to “sustainably intensify key African farming systems”.

“The overall aim is to transform agricultural systems through sustainable intensification projects in three regions of Africa” – Africa Rising

The three projects are led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in West Africa and East and Southern Africa and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in the Ethiopian Highlands. The West Africa mega-site covers Northern Ghana and Southern Mali while the East and South mega-site covers Tanzania, Malawi and potentially Zambia (see below). These regions were chosen based on analysis of cropping systems, poverty, population, country development priorities, and the potential for successfully improving agricultural productivity. Michigan State University (MSU) and Wageningen University are also collaborating in research activities.

Members of HarvestChoice at The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) were tagged by USAID to lead an associated project on monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment of Africa RISING.

The 3 focus-regions of Africa Rising:

The 3 farming systems of Africa RISING

  • Sustainable Intensification of Cereal-based Farming Systems in the Guinea-Savannah Zone of West Africa (IITA)
  • Sustainable intensification of crop-livestock systems to improve food security and farm income diversification in the Ethiopian highlands (ILRI)
  • Sustainable intensification of maize-legume-livestock integrated farming systems in Eastern and Southern Africa (IITA)

Africa RISING Workshop (4-11 March 2013)

Beliyou Haile from HarvestChoice / IFPRI recently joined her team to visit Africa RISING field sites in Malawi and other USAID-funded projects in Zambia.

Key research questions of Africa RISING in Malawi:

  • What are the current biophysical and socio-economic constraints to increasing quality, quantity and diversity of crop and livestock products?
  • What are the agricultural technology options that are amenable to sustainable intensification and concurrently alleviate poverty, improved nutrition and ecosystem stability?
  • How effective are the different technological options under different biophysical and socioeconomic conditions in achieving poverty alleviation and improved nutrition and ecosystem stability?
  • What are the major factors that determine farmers’ participation in field-based learning platforms and subsequent influence on their use of soil fertility and livestock production intensification technologies?
  • What are the key ingredients for effective co-learning, technology adaptation, scaling and delivery to farmers in heterogeneous farming systems? 

Site visits in Malawi

The Malawi research team demonstrated how they study small holder farmer preferences for farm and technology practices suggested by agronomists and how they further adapt them for use on their farms. The team uses a “mother-baby” trial approach in which as many as a dozen options of crops, cultivars and management practices are demonstrated (mother trials) and then farmers select 2-3 for trialing on their own farms (baby trials). Scientist then track over time how the technologies and practices are used and adapted by the farmers. This will help scientists identify more adaptable practices that more closely meet the priorities of farmers.

For example, a mother trial in the Dedza district of Malawi comprised a dozen different trials of maize (with and without fertilizer), pigeon pea, cowpea, soya bean, groundnuts, intercropping (maize with cowpea), and double legume (pigeon pea with groundnuts and pigeon pea with soya bean). The team also visited farmers participating in baby trials, including a female famer who was experimenting with groundnuts, pigeon pea, and intercropping (soya bean with groundnut).

Did you know? Pigeon pea is semi-perennial, heat-drought-low nutrient tolerant, a good source of protein and adds nitrogen to the soil.










In addition to the site visits, the team also convened a co-learning workshop for Africa RISING scientists in Malawi to ensure program-wide awareness of research efforts in other Africa RISING countries. Project scientists from Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Malawi discussed specific research designs, agronomic treatments and modeling strategies.

Malawian farmers show their enthusiasm

Most of the participatory farmers managing the baby trials were women. The men, they explained, commonly migrate to urban areas or abroad looking for work, leaving women behind to take care of farming and other agricultural activities. As the team entered villages and farms, groups made up of mostly women farmers often welcomed them with songs. One particular highlight was when a group of thirteen school kids acted out the research trials in a skit and each child delivered a speech about the benefit(s) of the agricultural technology he/she represented. 

Site visits in Zambia

The Africa RISING team then travelled to the Eastern Province of Zambia to visit various USAID-funded project and demonstration sites as part of the Zambia Feed the Future Research and Development Program:

  • orange maize / HarvestPlus
  • groundnut / I-FINITE
  • cassava / ZARI
  • Sustainable Intensification of Maize- Legume Systems Eastern Province of Zambia (SIMLEZA) 

The SIMLEZA team (CIMMYT- Zambia and IITA-Zambia) met to discuss the potential synergies between SIMLEZA and Africa RISING in Zambia.

The two teams plan to share data and meet again in May to further explore complementarities between the two projects. At the end, the teams loaded up on vitamin A by sharing boiled orange maize developed by HarvestPlus.

Reference: Pretty, J., Toulmin, C., Williams, S. (2011) Sustainable Intensification in African Agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1):5-24.

All photos courtesy of Beliyou Haile, IFPRI


HarvestChoice, 2013. "Africa RISING in the Field: Malawi and Zambia." International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC., and University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. Available online at

Apr 24, 2013