Drive 35km south from Salima town, in the central region of Malawi you will see a signpost on the side of the road that reads “China Aid Malawi Agriculture Technology Development Centre”.
And then you drive another 500 meters from the main road passed the bushy areas to the site where the Agricultural Technological Development Center (ATDC) is located. It’s here where part of the $3 million of Chinese government investment funds is being spent to train local farmers to develop skills in how to use new agricultural technology.
The program started in October 2019 as part of an initiative to introduce modern farming techniques and the use of agricultural technologies to help improve crop production among smallholder farmers, according to ATDC Director Mou Shengang.
“The Center is here to help Malawian farmers improve on crop production through technology transfer,” said Mou. “We want to see farmers better equipped with the right knowledge and skills and with the right tools to better grow their own crops.”
The Center has demonstration plots, each around 15 by 25 meters, for rice, cotton, maize, and vegetables where experts lead the various training programs on how to use new tech tools and farming techniques.
“Seeds that have been planted on the demonstration plots come from China. And a one-hectare piece of land can produce 6,000kg of harvested rice,” said Mou, noting that “this is much better than the local varieties [here in Malawi].”
The Center also has a demonstration pond where, according to the director, instruction is taught on how to use new technologies for fish breeding and also how farmers can improve their skills in developing markets for their products.
Salima is a small town located close to the southern tip of Lake Malawi. Fishing is a mainstay for this community of 36,000 people, but fish production in recent years has gone down due to overfishing, endangering both a key source of food and the livelihoods for thousands of families in the area. Chinese technical experts, with the support of the ATDC, have been brought in to work with the community to develop new, more sustainable fishing methods that will ease the pressure on Lake Malawi’s fish stocks while at the same still be able to support the communities who depend on this resource to feed their families and make a living.
More Chinese Experts on The Way
China’s Ambassador to Lilongwe, Liu Hongyang, said last year that the Chinese government plans to expand its agricultural engagement in Malawi by sending an additional eight experts to Malawi to provide additional training to smallholder farmers on how to use new technologies and techniques that are specifically tailored for their needs in rural Malawi.
Liu said this group of Chinese experts coming to Malawi are part of a much larger commitment that China made at the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Beijing to send up to 500 agricultural experts to Africa.
However, China’s investment in the ATDC in Malawi and its efforts to help improve food production may not be as successful as officials had hoped.
So far, an estimated 600 farmers, majority of whom are poor, have already undergone training at the Center on how to use some of the new technologies introduced by the Chinese and how to integrate new farming techniques to boost crop yields.
“Although the farmers have positively received the project and were eager to learn how to use the new technologies, they have very limited resources and don’t get much support from the [Malawian] government,” said Augustus Chimwala, the Agriculture Extension Development Officer based at Chipoka Extension Planning Area (EPA) in Salima district.
Even though the classes at the ATDC are all free, it’s still challenging for the farmers to attend. “These farmers are poor and most of them cannot even have transport from their homes to the Center,” explained Chimwala.
“When you learn new agricultural technologies, as a farmer, your target is to increase farm productivity. To do that you need to invest. But if you don’t have a start-up capital for investment then the training is of no use,” he added.
He went on to add that these farmers struggle just to buy simple agricultural tools and equipment and he urged the private sector to help the government provide funds for farmers “so that they can have money to buy the tools and equipment they need.”
Good Solutions Don’t Have to be Expensive
One of the key takeaways from the training programs at the ATDC, said Chimwala, is that farmers in this community don’t need the latest, most expensive technology to really make an impact. Simple farrow and bucket irrigations, for example, are both extremely affordable and highly-effective at improving crop yields.
One other piece of feedback that he received from the farmers about the lessons learned from trainers at the ATDC was the benefits, both in terms of cost and the impact on the environment, of using organic manure instead of artificial fertilizers that had become increasingly commonplace.
“But also we need to learn from this project that training is not enough on its own. Farmers need to invest,” he said.
One of the farmers who attended trainings at the Center, John Snopa, commented that the ATDC program was especially beneficial for those farmers who can supplement what they’ve learned with a few small-scale investments. Farmers, he said, “especially those who have some money to buy some tools to boost their crop yields” stand to gain the most from the program.
“The new agricultural technologies that we learn from the Center are of benefits to farmers. But the only problem is that farmers need financial support. Most of us use our own transport to come to the Center and this discourages many farmers considering that Malawians are poor,” explained Snopa.
Training is Helpful, But Not Enough
Malawi ranks among the poorest countries in the world, with the overwhelming majority of its population dependent on subsistence farming. But now, facing drought and other climate change-induced environmental challenges, not to mention the burgeoning COVID-19 outbreak in Africa, farming communities like Salima are under even more pressure.
While there is no doubt that a lot of the farmers stand to benefit from the new skills taught by the Chinese experts at the ATDC, it is also going to require a lot of follow up work to ensure that the skills and techniques learned by the farmers there are properly applied and not discarded or otherwise wasted.
But ultimately training alone is not enough for farmers in this community. In addition to the knowledge gained at the ATDC, funds are also required to help these farmers get the most out of their new skills. Only with new investment will projects like the ATDC in Salima be regarded as truly meaningful for Malawi and its farmers.
Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist with over 15 years of journalism experience. He holds a Diploma in Printing Engineering Technology from The Malawi Polytechnic, a postgraduate Certificate in Media Studies from the University of Oslo, and an MA in Diplomacy and International Relations from Africa University of Diplomacy, Counseling and International Relations.