HOW FARMERS IN MALAWI FORECAST DROUGHT

MASTER’S THESIS: “LINKING SMALLHOLDER FARMER’S AGRICULTURAL STRATEGIES AND KNOWLEDGE TO DROUGHT FORECASTS IN SOUTHERN MALAWI

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

Ileen worked on 510’s Impact-Based Forecasting project, which falls under our Predictive Impact Analysis work. The aim of her research was to reduce the impact of droughts on smallholder farmers in Southern Malawi by understanding and improving climate information for them. Smallholder farmers are a vulnerable group because they rely on their harvest for survival. 

WHO IS THE AUTHOR

Ileen Streefkerk completed this research as part of her MSc in Water Management at TU Delft.  In previous research experience in Zimbabwe and South Africa, Ileen saw that projects implemented by (international) organisations were sometimes not well-suited for the end user’s needs and wants. This gave her a desire to conduct research in Africa from the end-user’s perspective. 510 gave her the opportunity to do this in Malawi. 

WHY IS IT NEEDED

There is a great potential to use seasonal climate information as one of the measures to reduce the impact of drought since it can inform agricultural decisions, which in turn influence the harvest. However, climate information is often not well suited for small-scale farmers due to challenges with trust, understandability, procedures, or the mismatch between the forecast and agricultural decision-making. For example, a forecast is more effective if it is timed to align with an important decision point, such as buying seeds for planting.  

WHO WE WORKED WITH

This thesis is in collaboration with the National Environmental Research Council Science for Humanitarian Emergencies & Resilience (NERC SHEAR) IPACE project led by the University of Leeds. 510 is one of the project partners, along with the UK MET Office and Malawi Red Cross Society. Ileen travelled to Malawi for three months and worked alongside the Malawi Red Cross data team on early warning initiatives. She collected data from farmers via focus group discussions and held interviews with relevant stakeholders to understand the current forecast information system. Via the IPACE project, she obtained hydro-meteorological observations from the National Meteorological Office (DCCMS).  

WHAT ARE THE MAIN FINDINGS

The results show three key decisions faced by farmers when a drought is expected: making box ridges, planting alternative seeds/crops, and the timing of (re)planting. The forecast information that could inform those decisions are the overall state of the upcoming season (drought or not?), dry spell information, and the effective onset of the rain. In addition, there is local knowledge on the meteorological indicators of wind and temperature. The historical analysis of the meteorological data shows that farmers have a rich memory of weather conditions.  

Based on this information, Ileen built a predictive model that could produce the forecast information for agricultural decisionmaking and is based on the meteorological indicators derived from local knowledge. The results show that the model has predictive value. Using such a model could improve the way forecast information is produced as well as dissemination to the farmers. It has great potential to improve understandability, trust, and applicability to the farmers’ practises.  

WHAT’S NEXT

Ileen will defend her thesis in January 2020 and graduate as a civil engineer. She hopes to work internationally in the water sector.   

Focus group discussions with smallholder farmers in Malawi. 

Timeline of relevant decision points for smallholder farmers 

Written by Ileen Streefkerk and Elise Garton 

Comments are closed