Malawi Partnerships Encourage Innovation
Published: Monday, 23 Apr 2012
Sieglinde Snapp, an associate professor of Crop and Soil Sciences with MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is putting the university’s strong agricultural heritage to work in Malawi in southern Africa.
A Fulbright scholar in Diversity Dimensions of Healthy Agroecosystems, Snapp sees the ongoing communication and cooperation between biological and social scientists, as well as local farmers, as key in developing new innovations in sustainable farming techniques. Snapp has experienced this firsthand during her time in Malawi, where social scientists, geographers and farmers work alongside each other daily, learning techniques and even new languages from each other.
Snapp’s research is lived out in research methods which ensure the realistic and applicable success of the new techniques, for example in the area of maize-legume diversification to increase the resiliency of farmland. Legumes provide nitrogen fertilizer as they grow, something that can greatly improve the soil quality and sustainability throughout Africa.
Where once farmers had to wait for the results of these long-term trials, with Snapp’s new design the scientists and farmers’ concerns are linked. Termed “mother and baby trials,” these trials allow researchers to test new technologies at a large site while local farmers can choose which methods they’re interested in and put them to use — and to the test — directly in real life agriculture.
These projects, which were initially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, are now expanding in short-term and long-term strategies. Because most of this work is done with very low-income farmers, Snapp is currently working with policy makers in agriculture within Malawi to make subsidies more attainable, allowing their research to spread its affects across the African continent and across the globe.
In the long term, Snapp hopes to work with the University of Malawi to develop a prominent and more readily available curriculum on this kind of experimentalbased learning. Her vision for the project is “changing curriculum to change a generation.”
Currently working on surveying farmers’ perceptions of climate change, Snapp says that wider awareness of the affects of climate change is essential to developing sustainable farming suited to a rapidly changing world. Farmers in Malawi — and other parts of the globe — require better understanding of how cropping system diversity and integrated soil fertility management can build soils that help ‘build in’ resilience to erratic weather.
“Now agriculture is becoming part of the continuum of ecosystem services in managing working lands, soil quality and product yield together,” Snapp said. “It’s seeing a bigger picture, something people here have grabbed onto.”