Being climate smart: When coping is all you can do

October 16, 2019
Written by Kieran McConville

For the subsistence farmers of southern Malawi, the causes of climate change are largely irrelevant. They are consumed with the business of coping. Almost everyone here relies on the land for survival, and traditionally almost everyone grows maize. But, as the weather has become more erratic over the years, that reliance has become a problem.


Maize is a crop which needs lots of water — and it needs it at the right times. Erratic rainfall makes figuring out when to plant a real lottery, with the stakes being extremely high. Sowing seeds just as the rains begin is the norm, lots of moisture being essential for early germination and growth. But, increasingly, in southern African countries like Malawi, rains may start and then stop again, leaving the fledgling plants to wither in the ground. They may come late, they may end early, there may be an extended dry spell in the middle — any combination has the potential for ruin.

Maize crops growing in Mangochi, Malawi.

Maize crops growing in Mangochi, Malawi. Photo: Kieran McConville

“It means less food on the table for longer periods.”

“The effect of climate change is clear here,” according to Concern Worldwide’s Chris Njima. “It means less food on the table for longer periods, with families either skipping meals or eating smaller portions.” This scenario brings with it the specter of chronic malnutrition and child stunting. As many as 1 million under-5s in Malawi are stunted, while over 60 per cent are anemic. It also means more migration, as men leave and travel to find work in neighboring Mozambique or farther afield in Zambia and South Africa. Sometimes they don’t come back. Many of the households here have just one parent, and more often than not it’s the mother.


A woman farmer in Malawi with her maize crop

Esime Jenaia sorting maize at her home in Chituke village. Photo: Kieran McConville

“I used to go to school without eating.”

Esime Jenaia grew up poor. “My mother used to struggle a lot, waiting for my father to give her  money,” she says. “I used to go to school without eating and my education stopped at standard 4 because of the problems that we had.” Almost inevitably, that poverty would follow her into adult life, compounded by the stubborn refusal of the rains to do what they were traditionally supposed to.

Climate smart

In 2017, Esime was introduced to a different way of growing crops — one that would literally transform her life. “Climate Smart” agriculture is a new name for something that has actually been around for quite a long time. Farmers in the American Midwest have been using conservation or no-till farming methods since the 1960s, and it’s something that has proven particularly effective more recently in sub-Saharan Africa.

A conservation agriculture plot ready for planting

A conservation agriculture plot ready for planting. Photo: Kieran McConville

“There are three main components,” explains Chris Njima. “Minimal soil disturbance, organic soil cover, and crop rotation all combine to ensure effective conservation of moisture and regular renewal of the nitrogen necessary for good growth.” Basically, it involves planting seeds in small holes (instead of furrows), using the stalks from last year’s crop to cover the ground, and alternately setting plants like legumes to replenish the nutrients stripped out by maize. For busy moms like Esime it means less labor during the planting season and a new supply of alternative crops which just happen to be a good source of nutrition for young children.

The transformation

The benefits are very visible and quite striking. Esime says the amount of maize she harvested this year has increased dramatically. “There’s a big difference for my family because with the same field I used to harvest one bag of maize but now I harvest 8 bags.”

This means that her children go to school with a full belly and a full bag of books, paid for by  the income generated from selling extra maize. “I want my children to be independent… and to realize the importance of getting an education.’

A woman farmer in Malawi with her maize crop

Esime at her maize plot near Chituke. Photo: Kieran McConville

Beyond that, the experience has had a deep personal impact on the self-respect and dignity of a woman who for so long felt powerless and invisible. Today, Esime is respected within the community as a successful businesswoman — neighbors and people from surrounding villages come to her plot to learn about the methods that  led to that success.

“There’s a difference in the way women lived then and now. We used to depend on men to do everything. But now women are independent we are able to support our own needs… and now we are even able to buy trousers for the husband!”

Esime Jenaia with her children at their home in Mangochi district, Malawi.

Esime with her children at their home in Mangochi district, Malawi. Photo: Kieran McConville

A coping strategy

Climate smart agriculture is not a solution to climate change. It is simply a way for people to adapt to what has become the new normal. Used in combination with hybrid seeds, it means that crops are more resistant to the variations in rainfall which have caused so much misery in recent years. And it is not a magical cure — the other side of climate change is more regular weather “events”, like the massive cyclone Idai, which wiped out so many farms in the region in early 2019.

But it has made life better for many of the poorest families, giving them a simple and effective way of coping. Those who have learned the techniques are passing it on to their neighbors — and there’s no shortage of people who have seen the impact for themselves and want to replicate it.

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Maize field from the air.

Esime works on her maize plot, as seen from above. Photo: Kieran McConville

Farming couple in Malawi with maize harvest

Esime Jenaia at home with her husband in Chituke.