Isaac Masingati | Palladium - Apr 30 2019
Unlocking the Potential of Soy in Malawi

Soy is one of Malawi’s leading alternative cash crops to tobacco—the country’s major export commodity and hard currency earner, accounting for more than 50 percent of all foreign currency receipts. The value of the Malawi soy market is estimated at $30 million with the opportunity to double in the next couple of years.

Despite its huge potential, the soy value chain has remained inert, with little done to stimulate output in terms of yield and quality. While soy yield globally is 4,000 kg per hectare, in Malawi an average farmer harvests a mere 800 kg for the same land size. Lack of quality seed and limited varieties are major challenges facing the value chain.

Malawi has only three soy varieties: Nasoko, Tikolole, and Makwacha. These varieties do not best suit farmers’ needs and agricultural ecological zones. The African Seed Access Index observes that Malawi has been using the same three varieties for nearly 20 years—a sign of a stagnant sector.

“I have been growing Tikolole and Makwacha varieties for over 15 years, and every year the yield has been going down,” says Linde Dampiyoni, a soy and maize farmer from Mchinji district. “There are no alternative varieties on the market.”

Another farmer, Phillip Chasowa, from Traditional Authority Kaomba in Kasungu, says lack of diverse varieties over the years has limited farmers’ choice and that seed recycling has lowered the quality of the available varieties.

But Malawi’s soy producers will soon have more commercially viable seed varieties to choose from thanks to the Feed the Future Malawi Ag Diversification Activity (AgDiv). To address this prolonged bottleneck of quality seed in the legumes sector, AgDiv teamed up with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research (Soybean Innovation Lab, SIL) to extend SIL’s ongoing Pan-African Variety Trial program into Malawi in the 2017-2020 growing seasons.

Partnering for a Solution

AgDiv has adopted an approach of cultivating strategic relationships with a variety of stakeholders to sustainably reduce poverty and hunger in Malawi. From the start of AgDiv in the fall of 2016, the project has focused on improving productivity of key, nutrient-rich value chains (soy, groundnuts, and orange-fleshed sweet potato) by connecting organizations and individuals and encouraging them to rally around a set of productivity- and quality-enhancing technologies. It was clear at the beginning of the project, however, that efforts to improve smallholder productivity in legumes would not be effective without some attention to the lack of quality seed.

AgDiv co-hosted a seed symposium in 2017 that brought together representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, independent seed scientists, seed producers, and personnel from other USAID projects to brainstorm and propose solutions to the quality seed challenge. For soy, the result was a partnership with SIL, the government of Malawi, and the private sector to test the viability of new soy seed varieties in Malawi.

Under the Pan-African Seed Trials, AgDiv and SIL are collaborating with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, African Agricultural Technology Foundation, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Malawian Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS), and private sector partners to fast-track the introduction of new, improved, tropically adapted soybean varieties in the country; and the breakthrough is imminent.

“We have worked hard since last year [the 2017 growing season] and we can now smile at the progress we have made,” says Florence Kamwana-Ngwira, a legumes agronomist with DARS at Chitedze Research Station in Lilongwe. “We plan to propose for the release of some five varieties from the trial by next year.”

In the research application, 36 soy varieties from five African countries (Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) underwent trials at various government sites: Chitedze in Lilongwe, Chitala in Salima, Bvumbwe in Thyolo, and Baka in Karonga. Some trials also took place on farms of private agribusinesses that are keen on diversifying into soy.

Already, some best performing varieties (in terms of yield, protein, oil, disease resistance, and other characteristics) have been selected and are undergoing on-farm evaluations to see how they can perform both as summer (rainfed) and winter (irrigated) crops.

Linde Dampiyoni (right) in his soy trial field with research technicians from Chitedze Research Station. Credit: Theodora Kachingwe
Linde Dampiyoni (right) in his soy trial field with research technicians from Chitedze Research Station. Credit: Theodora Kachingwe

Improving the Legumes Sector

SIL’s principal investigator, Dr. Peter Goldsmith, explains: “The operative phrase for the Soybean Innovation Lab–AgDiv partnership is, ‘research for development.’ For SIL that means a research team that listened first and then was guided by the needs of our development partner, AgDiv. In 2017, project leads Carl Larkins and Jeremy Venable shared with us the immediate need to expand the varietal choice and seed supply for Malawi’s soybean farmers.”

“The winner is the farmer who will now have access to high performing varieties in terms of yield, while the manufacturing industry will benefit through quality raw material for processing into high value products,” says AgDiv Chief of Party Carl Larkins of Palladium.

Goldsmith notes that soybean field research has proven that soy is a good crop, but the question has always been how to bring in new varieties. He says the trials will be a step forward in achieving this.

Soy farmers are the most excited. Linde Dampiyoni, whose field is being used for on-farm trials, says the wait for new varieties has been long and agonizing.

Eight varieties are being tried on Dampiyoni’s farm with the old varieties (Tikolole and Makwacha) as controls. Other on-farm trials are also under way in different ecological zones to check performance in terms of yield and drought and disease resistance.

The 60-year-old farmer hopes the new varieties, once released, will work to turn around his fortunes and put more money in his pockets.

“All farmers will be happy because we will harvest more and sell more for higher profit; most of our seed does not germinate,” he says.

Phillip Chasowa, who is also the group village headman of Suza, says, “We will now be able to choose the soy seed that will suit well in our different environments, especially now that agriculture is hugely being affected by climate change.”

The Feed the Future Malawi Ag Diversification Activity (AgDiv) is funded by USAID and implemented by Palladium. 

This article originally appeared on Agrilinks and was republished with permission.