SU agriculture team to help Malawian farming find a new focus

Professor Danie Brink.

The Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University (SU) will play a part in helping the Malawian economy move away from its dependency on tobacco farming towards other viable alternatives.

The faculty, and its Department of Agricultural Economics in particular, is a partner in the Centre for Agricultural Transformation in Malawi (M-CAT). Other partners include the University of Minnesota in America, the Malawi University of Science and Technology and Land O’Lakes International Development, the non-profit arm of the Forbes 200 commercial agricultural company, Land O’Lakes.

Funding for the multi-million dollar five-year project was secured from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) in December.

The first planning session between the partners takes place at Stellenbosch University in May.

Malawi is the most tobacco-dependent country in the world, despite being only the thirteenth global producer of tobacco by weight. In 2016, tobacco exports account for 59% of the country’s total export value. Around 32% of the population works in the tobacco industry.

There are many changes worldwide in the consumption of tobacco products, which could in the long run significantly influence the Malawian economy which is so specifically tied to tobacco.

According to the M-CAT partners, the current global trends in tobacco markets, health issues, and environmental concerns have exerted significant pressure on the Malawian industry. This has prompted the government to diversify the economy and to try to reduce the country’s over-reliance on tobacco as the largest foreign exchange earner. New agricultural avenues and markets must therefore be identified.

“Growing tobacco has never lifted smallholder farmers out of poverty. High-quality data and rigorous analysis can shape and inform effective, evidence-based policy creation and resource deployment to diversify economies and lessen country dependence on tobacco – better preparing farmers for the future while strengthening their countries’ economies,” say the partner institutions.

The M-CAT project is a pre-emptive effort between a strong network of partners to help Malawian farmers identify lucrative alternatives that can still be exported and earn the country much-needed foreign earnings,” says Professor Danie Brink, dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences.

Malawi is not new to the partners. The University of Minnesota has, for instance, conducted tobacco-related research in recent years in the country, while a number of Malawian postgraduate students have graduated from SU in recent years.

Land O’Lakes International development has worked in Malawi for the past 20 years.

It recently partnered with a Malawian tobacco company through the MSIKA project to provide extension services to support 3 000 small holder farmers in their move towards other high-value horticulture produce.

As part of the new initiative, Stellenbosch University will provide support to the scientific and technology legs of the endeavour.

A technology hub to analyse relevant agricultural, meteorological and geological data from Malawi will be set up within the Department of Agricultural Economics. In this, SU will receive support from the University of Minnesota.

The Innovation Launch Lab of the Faculty of AgriSciences will help with the know-how around technology transfer in the Malawian agricultural sector, and the stimulating and supporting of new ideas through various development initiatives.

According to Professor Brink, the initiative will also see more Malawian postgraduate students come to Stellenbosch, initially to do research on Malawian agriculture economics and related fields. The programme will be extended once specific crops and produce have been identified as being suitable to support Malawi’s economy.

“Students will also have the opportunity to experience a few months of study at our partner institution, the University of Minnesota,” says Professor Brink.