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Gender Analysis of a Nationwide Cropping System Trial Survey in Malawi

by Robert A. Gilbert, Webster D. Sakala, and Todd D. Benson


The majority of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are female, yet women often have limited access to extension information and agricultural inputs. Designing improved agricultural research and extension services for women in Africa is a challenging task since female farmers defy simple characterizations, and the effect of gender versus income levels relative to quality of extension services received is difficult to disentangle. The accurate characterization of farmers targeted by extension on a large scale supports efforts to quantify potential impacts of extension programs in Africa. A nationwide trial comparing legume cropping systems to fertilized and unfertilized maize controls was implemented at approximately 1400 on-farm sites by the Malawian extension service and cooperator farmers in the 1998-99 cropping season. In addition to agronomic yield data collection, extension agents conducted a socioeconomic survey of the farmers involved in the trial. The objective of the survey was twofold: to determine socioeconomic characteristics of the farmers collaborating with the extension service, and to assess farmer opinions regarding the cropping systems being promoted.  Of the 1385 sites, only 270 (19 percent) involved female farmer cooperators, although women constitute 69 percent of the full-time farmer population in Malawi. The 1115 male farmers had significantly greater experience as head of household, used more fertilizer, and devoted a greater area to cash crops. There were no significant gender differences across crop yields when inputs were supplied, indicating that female farmers were as productive as their male counterparts. Farmer ranking and rating of the cropping systems were remarkably similar between the genders. Mucuna pruriens was perceived as having the lowest overall labor requirements, while fertilized maize had the highest food production rating. Unfertilized maize and local control plots fared poorly in both farmer rating and ranking of treatments.  Overall, these results suggest that the extension service skewed the trials toward “well-to-do” male farmers.   However, the extension service was able to implement a complex trial that included field days attended by over 106,000 farmers. Thus the national extension service in Malawi may well be suited to collaborate with and “scale-up” locally significant NGO efforts which may target more representative farmers.

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Robert A. Gilbert is an Assistant Professor with the Agronomy Department at the University of Florida. From 1996-2000 he was a research fellow in Malawi, conducting work on improving soil fertility in the smallholder sector using legumes in maize-based cropping systems with the Department of Agricultural Research and Technical Services. His current research focus is sugarcane agronomy and breeding.

Webster D. Sakala is the theme leader of integrated soil water and nutrient management for the soil fertility network for maize-based cropping systems which includes Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique. He is also the team leader for maize research in Malawi. Currently his research is aimed at improving utilization and maximization of organic fertilizers for improving soil fertility for the resource poor farmers in Malawi. Part of this work is done in collaboration with Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility and The Royal Danish College of Agriculture.

Todd D. Benson is a research fellow with the Food Consumption & Nutrition Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., USA. A geographer, he lived in Malawi between 1994 and 2001, conducting socio-economic research with the Poverty Monitoring System and the Department of Agricultural Research and Technical Services.

The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support of The Rockefeller Foundation and the World Bank in the implementation and analysis of this trial, as well as the diligent efforts of the MPTF members and MoAI technicians and extension agents in Malawi. This research was supported by the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, and approved for publication as Journal Series No. R-08956.