Increasing agricultural productivity and achieving caloric food security is a first-year goal in most of the Millennium Villages (MV) sites. Soon after the first harvest, communities in MVP areas should diversify crops both for nutritional diversity, with vegetables, fruits and livestock, and for income generation, with high-value products.
In the short term, a package of technologies, including superior germplasm, agronomic practices, and postharvest handling, must be determined in consultation with the communities and agricultural expertise in each site. In the medium and longer term, a package of services is crucial to the economic viability of agriculture. These services include: timely supply to improved seeds of staple and cash crops as well as improved livestock and vegetables; fertilizers, water, and credit; training; and the establishment and strengthening of village farmer organizations. Initially some of these services must be provided through the project, but a transition to private sector agricultural input dealers and public sector extension agents is essential. This vision will also require putting into place a package of public policies, which include input and output markets, building up grain reserves, and strengthening rural infrastructure.
Broadly, agriculture interventions aim at more robust and diversified agriculture, including nitrogen-fixing trees and cover crops, organic manures, crop rotations, soil conservation practices, livestock, aquaculture, small-scale water management, improved crop storage, and crop insurance. More specifically, soil rehabilitation techniques, which comprise a significant aspect of agriculture interventions, include:
- Fertilizers and hybrid maize subsidies by the government
- Joint use of mineral and organic fertilizers, the latter of which include green manures and leguminous tree fallows
- Financial incentives for N-fixing legumes
The MVP has already seen successes with these interventions, specifically in Mwandama, Malawi, which is in the southern region of Malawi’s Zomba district. Nearly 90% of people in the Mwandama Millennium Village cluster live in extreme poverty, a much higher proportion than the 65% national level. Prior to the MVP interventions, the average maize yield without fertilizer was 0.5 tons per hectare. Most households produced enough food to last through August, meaning that families experience a six-month period of food shortage.
Mwandama suffered a drought in the year preceding the start of MVP operations. But even in good rainy seasons, the shortage of nitrogen in the soil resulted in low maize yields. After MVP initiated agriculture interventions, including those described above, maize yields increased from .8 to 6.5 t-ha-1 in 2005/06. In addition, the area planted almost doubled, and the total maize production increased nearly 15-fold. Maize yields from farms not using improved seeds and fertilizers averaged 2.2 t-ha-1, illustrating that improved rains were only responsible for half of the yield increases.
Malawi is also seeing improvements in agricultural productivity on a national scale. Decades of intensive cultivation in the absence of significant fertilizer use has resulted in a depletion of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, from smallholder fields. National yields of smallholder maize have averaged 1.2 MT/ ha during the last 20 years, and more than half of the farming households operate below subsistence. A dry spell in 2004 had devastating impacts on maize yields. Total maize production in 2004/5 declined nearly a quarter from the previous year, providing just 57% of the national maize requirement. In response, in June 2005, the Government of Malawi began to import fertilizer and procure improved maize seed for distribution to farmers through a national subsidy scheme.
For the 2005/6 season, the Government allocated 2 million coupons sufficient fertilizer to grow maize in 1 acre (0.4 ha), at the recommended rates (86 kg N ha-1 and 11.5 kg P ha-1). An additional 740,000 coupons were allocated for growing tobacco. For maize, the recommended nutrients were provided by one 50-kg bag of 23-21-0 fertilizer and one 50-kg bag of urea. Coupons enabled farmers to purchase fertilizer at MK 950 per bag ($7.60) compared to the market prices ranging from MK 2,500 ($20) – MK 3,500 ($28).
The 2005/6 season was characterized by good rains. The total maize production more than doubled from the previous year, producing a surplus of 510,000 MT above the national maize requirement. Maize yields averaged 1.59 MT/ha, almost doubling the 0.81 MT/ha of the drought-affected 2004/5 season. Estimates for the 2006/7 harvest illustrate a 32% increase over the 2005/6, an all-time national record for Malawi, generating a surplus of about 1.34 million MT of maize grain above national requirements.
Director, Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment
Director, Millennium Villages Project
The Earth Institute at Columbia University