University of Worcester Worcester Research and Publications

The social-ecological sustainability of the Tiyeni deep-bed conservation agriculture system in Malawi

Mvula, Albert (2021) The social-ecological sustainability of the Tiyeni deep-bed conservation agriculture system in Malawi. PhD thesis, University of Worcester.

Text (PhD Thesis)
The social-ecological sustainability of Tiyeni deep-bed farming system - Albert Mvula - final.pdf - Submitted Version

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Food insecurity and rising poverty levels remain Malawi’s major development challenges given the country’s reliance on rainfed agriculture, leaving millions of families vulnerable to pangs of the ever-present social and ecological perturbations. Coupled with extreme poverty levels, unsustainable agricultural practices and high population growth, climate change projections point to a bleak agricultural future that threatens the already struggling food production systems among resource-poor smallholder farmers. The past two decades have seen rising advocacy for Conservation Agriculture (CA) practices as pathways to attaining food security, poverty amelioration, and environmental sustainability. Evidence of poor CA adoption across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) points to the technology’s ineffectiveness and unsuitability among smallholder farmers of varying socio-economic statuses and environmental conditions in the region.

Encapsulating the complexities of CA in SSA is the novel Deep-Bed Farming system (DBF) as championed by Tiyeni Malawi Ltd in northern Malawi. While anecdotal evidence suggests that the DBF significantly contributes to soil and water conservation and increases crop productivity, there remained significant knowledge gaps to understand what works, where, why and how. Paramount to these questions are the different scenarios that explain how site-specific environmental and social factors influence which DBF components, key interactions and feedback mechanisms among these and outcomes of such interactions. The study aimed to analyse impacts of the DBF on soil physical and chemical characteristics and how these influence maize productivity; examine the farming system’s contributions to farmers’ livelihoods; examine DBF’s contributions to farmers’ social capital, institutional sustainability; and explore on-farm DBF adaptations as strategies for site-specific adaption and learning for building resilient smallholder farmers’ agricultural systems.

Achieving this complex task required holistic and interdisciplinary research approaches that would help bridge the long-term disciplinary divides in agricultural and rural development research. One essential approach is the Social-Ecological Systems Framework (SESs). Applying SESs thinking, the study was divided into two main categories: on-farm soil and water participatory monitoring and assessment of DBF’s livelihoods and institutional sustainability. In both cases, holistic and interdisciplinary Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) methods were used for data collection and analysis. The study was conducted in six communities of farmers within 45km radius of Mzuzu city where the DBF was first developed and promoted since 2005.

Results showed that the DBF resulted in immediate improvements in soil’s physical parameters like de-compaction, rainwater infiltration and significant reduction in soil erosion. Conversely, marginal increases in nitrogen, organic matter and organic carbon levels were recorded. Consistently high maize yields in all DBF plots were recorded with further analysis showing strong correlation to changes in soil’ physical conditions.

The extent to which improved maize productivity translates to improved livelihoods is limited by small plot sizes under the DBF and a farmer’s assets endowments. The former is embedded in complex social-ecological situations of labour dynamics, handouts, and imperfect extension system. Regardless of plot sizes, the poorest of society, widows, and the elderly under acute food shortages benefit the most from high maize yields and income savings than wealthier farmers. Conversely, wealthier farmers stand to benefit the most should they be willing to independently invest in the DBF.

Whereas farmers’ connections and interactions among themselves increases as they engage in group DBF activities, connections to influential sources of information and resources remain insignificant. Due to lack of emphasis on knowledge exchange and diversification in Tiyeni’s extension system, social capital declines as farmers’ groups become inactive and Tiyeni reduces its contact frequency with farmers. Sharing of information is gradually limited and farmers adaptive capacity weakened. Similarly, farmers actively experiment with components of the DBF besides the farming system being an experiment in its own right. Because of top-down extension approaches, adaptive learning, and generation of site-specific DBF knowledge and experiences remains limited. Overall, adaptive capacity as a critical aspect of resilient and sustainable social-ecological systems is limited.

The study makes original contributions to knowledge by (1) applying the SESs thinking and associated theories and concepts to studying DBF, and by being the first study to apply SES thinking in CA it provides important lessons for future CA studies seeking to better understand such complex issues. Second (2), it provides a synthesis of the results to model social-ecological scenarios and outcomes that explain environmental and social dynamics of the DBF among smallholder farmers in Malawi. By doing this, the study illustrates what social-ecological conditions support the DBF, what components of the package are suitable, where and for who. Finally (3), the study also provides rationale for considering site-specific uniqueness in delivering CA sustainability across SSA. In particular, it makes significant contributions to CA debates and literature surrounding its appropriateness and suitability in SSA, top-down CA technology transfer, dis-adoption and its sustainability. More generally, lessons learnt through this study will reshape future DBF and other CA practices, helping various agricultural stakeholders to significantly contribute to the improvement and sustainability of millions of resource poor farmers’ social-ecological systems beyond Malawi.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information:

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the University’s requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. University of Worcester, June 2021.

A pdf file of this PhD thesis is available to download from this WRaP record.

Uncontrolled Discrete Keywords: deep-bed farming, Tiveni, conservation agriculture
Divisions: College of Health, Life and Environmental Sciences > School of Science and the Environment
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Albert Mvula
Date Deposited: 22 Sep 2021 08:17
Last Modified: 27 Oct 2021 09:39

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