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In mountainous Ntchisi, farmers have defied the terrain to turn the district into a food basket despite being characterized by poor road access, limited extension advisories and lack of communication to reach out to more accessible markets, especially in Traditional Authority (T/A) Vuso Jere.

Seventy-five-year-old Chief Vuso Jere tells a story of how lack of mobile communication is crippling potential for farmers to link to competitive markets of farm produce such as legumes, cereals and Irish potatoes.

“We have to move to higher ground, where we are able to catch mobile phone signal in order for us to link to the outside world.

“This is not only affecting social services such as health and education but also agriculture as our ability to reach out to markets and potential customers is restricted due to poor communication. We are very concerned about this,” Vuso Jere says.

Ntchisi, originally called Visanza, is not only reeling from poor communication hitches, hindering access to and accountability on agriculture resources. Poor roads access from Ntchisi Boma to Malomo, the newly declared rural growth centre along the Nkhotakota-Kasungu Road, makes travelling a nightmare for local people.

As such, residents have to pay exorbitantly to connect a small stretch of a dusty road which is less than 20 kilometres. Alternatively, they have to board vehicles to Kasungu Boma from Malaomo and then use the M1 Road to proceed to Lilongwe, which is equally expensive for the average Malawian who survives on less than one dollar per day, according to the 2010 United Nations Human Development, limited agriculture extension advisory services coupled with stretched extension planning areas (EPAs) often not patronized by staff is another problem.  The district has four EPAs, namely Chikwatula, Malomo, Chupukwa and Kalira, which are far apart and stretched.

This has forced agriculture officials to create two more ad hoc EPAs at Kajiwa and Kasakula to cater for the growing farming community. Farming sections require 77 field extension officers but only 33 are available representing less than 50 percent of the required personnel, Assistant District Agriculture Development Officer Siliro Nkhukuzalira Magomero says.

Agriculture importance

Agriculture is and will continue to be the backbone of Malawi’s economy. The sector accounts for about 93 percent of the export earnings, provides more than 80 percent of total employment and contributes about 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Agriculture occupies about 56 percent of the total land area covering 5.3 million hectares of the country’s 9.4 million hectares. The sector is divided in two sub-sectors: smallholder sub-sector, that 1s small-scale farmers cultivating under customary law, and estate sub-sector, that is large-scale farmers on leasehold.

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Due to high population growth, pressure is mounting on land as a finite resource, a development that has led to 2.6 million smallholder farmers to cultivate less than a hectare. Due to low uptake of climate smart technologies, inadequate irrigation and recently the effects of climate change, the need to build resilience among farmers has become paramount to survive the brunt of climate effects.

Access to agriculture resources

To ensure there is transparency and accountability on agriculture resources in the district, CCAP Nkhoma Synod Church and Society in conjunction with Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) with support from Danish Church Aid conducted district entry meeting with the District Executive Committee (DEC) where a concept was presented to DEC members for their approval and acceptance. The presentation was conducted in 2016 with an attendance of over 57 DEC members.

Concerns over agriculture resources raised by the members included the exclusion of other vulnerable members of society such as orphans and the chronically sick. They also cited as critical vacant positions in the district: It was observed that sometimes the challenges faced by women are a result of unfilled relevant positions at the district level which puts systems in disfavour of women causes. The aspect of budget tracking components was greatly welcomed.

The entry meetings were followed by the establishment of Political Party Forums (PPFs) at the district level. PPFs are composed of all political parties represented in Parliament: Democratic Progressive Party, Malawi Congress Party, Alliance for Democracy, United Democratic Front and People’s Party and an independent Member of Parliament representative. Each PPF is composed of five males and one female. After the establishment, PPFs were sensitised to their roles.

The initiative also conducted capacity building meetings in two areas that targeted T/As Chilooko and Kalumo where two Women Action Groups (WAGs) were established. The area development committees as overall body responsible for development at traditional authority level was briefed on the project and how it will be implemented in their areas. Today, PPFs and WAGs have brought an element of accountability to ensure transparency and active gender mainstreaming in development projects.

More awareness needed

During a recent WAG and PPF meeting in Mponela, Dowa concerns were raised over lack of effective extension advisory services from agriculture officers.

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Farmers are worried over minimal agricultural services that they are receiving, said farmer Faida Chaima during a capacity building training hosted by CMD and its partner Church and Society of Nkhoma Synod.

Ntchisi District Commissioner Malango Botomani, who attended the meeting where councilors, chiefs and political party forums were present, says there is need for more civic education and awareness on accessibility and accountability on agriculture resources. She said it is only when the communities have been empowered with right information and knowledge that they will be able to hold duty bearers accountable.

Botomani says there 1s need for coordinated efforts at community level to ensure that such things are taken into consideration in the agriculture sector.

“Political Party Forums comprise different types of parties, that shows that each and every person is concerned about what is going on in the country regardless of party affiliation. So issues of agriculture and provision of food to ensure the country 1s food secure are everybody’s responsibility. That is why there is this synergy with CMD that looks into issues of multiparty democracy with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development. This will ensure resources that the community needs for them to enhance food security are readily available and accounted for,” Botomani says.

She admits that there is a challenge in Ntchisi as there are few extension workers on the ground. No wonder, they are using group-extension approach to ensure the right interventions are shared using competent lead farmers who can propagate the message far and wide.

Demand-driven extension

A policy document developed by Department of Agricultural Extension Services titled “Agricultural Extension in the New Millennium: Towards Pluralistic and Demand-driven Services in Malawi” emphasises the need for extension services to be demand-driven not supply-driven. The policy says depending on their needs, farmers can demand advice to which service providers respond.

Farmers are clients or customers of extension services, implying a reorientation in the relationship between farmers and extension services.

“As the processes of democratization and decentralisation become more institutionalised, with the liberalised market economy, farmers are facing new challenges. The need to get more involved in the market economy creates a diversity of demand such as the type of products required on the market, type of inputs required, hence the type of production systems they need to go into. Farm planning and management with an understanding of the market will be of increasing importance for many farmers. Extension services will, therefore, need to respond to the new demands farmers will make with special consideration to the resource endowment of the famers,” reads in part the policy.

It is hoped that structures such as WAG and PPF in Ntchisi and Rumphi where the initiative is being implemented will assist enhance accessibility and accountability on agricultural resources in Malawi. At WAG and PPF, Issues around elements of constructive citizen participation, obstacles to citizen participation and types of citizen participation are discussed and solutions identified.

This in a democracy promotes good governance, power relations and social relations, right to food, voice and accountability, gender inclusive rights, how council work, why agriculture matters in rural communities and finally budget cycle and citizen participation.

 

The Daily Times, December 5, 2017