By switching to dark mode you can reduce the energy consumption of our digital service.

Planning and costing agriculture’s adaptation in Malawi: Subsistence rain-fed food production (maize)

Summary of country findings: Malawi

This study is one of 5 country studies (Bangladesh, Malawi, Nepal, Rwanda and Tanzania) exploring planning and costing agriculture’s adaptation to climate change. The agricultural system described was subsistence rain-fed food production with associated cultivation tobacco (for cash), cassava, sweet potato, beans and some livestock.


In Malawi the agricultural sector contributes about 39% of GDP and more than 90% of the foreign exchange earnings, supplies more than 65% of the manufacturing sector’s raw materials and makes up 87% of the total employment (DAES, 2000). The smallholder sub-sector, which is based on customary land tenure and is primarily subsistence, contributes more than 70% to agricultural GDP, with the remaining 30% ascribed to large estates growing tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee and tree-nuts.

Subsistence Rain-fed Food Production

The main crop of subsistence is maize and it is cultivated twice per year by households along the Shire River and once by those in upland areas. Maize is the main staple in Malawi and grown on two-thirds of the country’s arable land, largely on smallholdings of 0.5 – 0.8 ha. It is grown during the rainy season (November to April), but communities along the river grow it also after this season taking advantage of the residual moisture. Due to increasing flood incidences, farmers now rely more on the residual moisture as floods also bring in nutrients from the upland regions. This increases soil fertility, reducing the need for additional fertilizers to maintain soil nutrients (see Box).

Depending on their geographical location, farmers grow either one or two maize crops over a year alongside a range of other subsistence crops including cassava, sweet potato and beans. Moreover, small amounts of cash crops such as tobacco are cultivated as well as a small number of livestock are kept. Additionally, poor rural households obtain around a third of their income from ‘off own farm’ activities (Kydd, Dorward, Morrison & Cadisch, 2004), including as seasonal labour to the estate sector. The Malawian farming system is also characterized by poor backward linkages, like uncoordinated input supply as well as limited access to technologies, extension services and credit.

High temperatures of up to a maximum of 37.2 degrees in November and unreliable rainfall ranging from 170 – 968mm per year mean water availability is often a limiting factor to agriculture in Chikwawa District, in the south of the country, where this study focused. Although the diversified crop base and the use of drought-resistant and early-maturing varieties help farmers withstand climate variability in the form of droughts and floods, the system’s dependence on rain-fed crops means it remains vulnerable to variations in weather, as well as commodity price shocks.

As well as general trends of increasing temperatures and delays in the rains, the magnitude and frequency of both droughts and floods have increased over the past two decades, with farmers noting that droughts and serious floods now occur every two to three years. While floods have devastating immediate impacts including the loss of lives, livestock and crops, the residual moisture allows them to grow more crops over subsequent months. The farmers therefore highlighted that drought poses the greatest threat to food security, particularly as they affect both crops and livestock over a broader area, which means that it is often even not possible even to buy food in neighbouring villages. These types of impacts are likely to increase in number and severity as a result of climate change.

Existing coping strategies for spreading the risks of climate change effects depend on the duration of the hazardous climate change event and range from eating wild tubers (Nyika) from the Shire River to temporary migrating out of the area to seek food and water. However, the most common strategy was casual labour (ganyu) that involves short-term rural employment relationships and thus provide additional income, which could be used to buy food. This strategy was commonly independent of the length of the hazards. However, during short drought incidences, households resorted to replant their maize crops. In longer drought cases they focused on different strategies such as irrigation and migration. Irrigation is especially common for communities along the Shire River (see Box).

The Future of Subsistence Rain-fed Food Production

Over the past decade a number of policies have been introduced that indicate that the farming system benefits from broad government support. In order to address food security issues, particular large scale input subsidies were re-introduced at the start of the 2005/06 agricultural season. The 2010 Greenbelt Initiative also seeks to support agriculture by introducing irrigation along Lake Malawi and the Shire Valley. However, subsistence rain-fed food production and Chikwawa District in particular face a number of challenges if they are to meet food security demands over the coming decades.

Adaptation Options

The range of strategies farmers currently use to withstand droughts, for instance relying on food aid, eating wild tubers, engaging in casual labour and temporary migration shows how the system is struggling to cope with the adverse effects of climate change and indicates that new and additional measures will need to be employed to generate effective adaptation. One interesting emerging trend is the growth in land rental markets along the Shire River, which allows families who are based 20km away to grow maize crops in the dry season by using the residual moisture following the flooding of the river.

Other measures that can support local communities to adapt to climate change include assessing land tenure laws, crucial to development of the land rental market, and increasing the market linkages farmers have, which would allow them to increase their income and therewith reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

Technologies such as drought tolerant crops and animals, irrigation and rainwater harvesting each play potentially significant roles in reducing the vulnerability of subsistence agriculture in Malawi to droughts. This requires further research and investments in extension services to allow the technologies to be disseminated more widely as well as investment in the inputs, in particular the materials, required for their implementation. Furthermore, greater coordination between government and NGO activities is crucial for this process as well. Regarding this aspect, a suggestion of this study is to establish an institution responsible for coordinating climate change adaptation actions (see Box).

Farming System

Subsistence rain-fed maize production in Malawi is characterized by small land holding size (0.5 – 0.8 ha), continuous cultivation of maize on the same land without adding organic or inorganic fertilizers, low productivity (which will get worse with the effects of climate change), high dependence on rainfall. However, farmers use two sources of water: Rainfall and the residual moisture following the regular flooding of the Shire River, which allows a second maize crop to be grown in strips of land along the river banks.

Coping with Climate Variability

Coping action

Form of diversification or risk spreading

Food aid is already provided during very short drought incidences.

Resorting to government / NGO / international support

Buying food becomes more relevant the longer drought periods last.

Moving away from subsistence farming system

Eating wild tubers (Nyika) from the Shire River.

Resorting to ecosystem services / Dietary change

Selling assets becomes more relevant the longer drought periods last.

Drawing down value from capital assets

Temporary migration to seek employment, food and water and is conducted in cases of longer drought periods.

Spatial diversification

Engaging in casual labour (ganyu), which incentivizes people to migrate and thus provides them with an additional income. This strategy occurs for all durations of climate change hazards.

Income diversification

Replanting maize crops is commonly applied during short drought incidences.

Seasonal diversification

Implementing irrigation systems is performed for longer drought periods and common especially for communities along the Shire River.

Technological diversification from ecosystem service

Suggested future adaptation actions

Assessing land tenure laws to further facilitate growing of crops during the dry season.

Increasing market linkages for farmers.

Increasing capacity building through extension services.

Developing technologies such as drought tolerant crops and animals.

Increasing livestock production.

Improving irrigation and rainwater harvesting technologies.

Promoting further research as well as investments in inputs and extension services.

Facilitating a wider dissemination and effective implementation of climate resilient technologies.

Enhancing cooperation among governments and NGOs for instance through the establishment of a responsible institution to coordinate climate change adaptation activities.

Promoting village saving banks.

Summary of adaptation costs

The total adaptation costs for the Malawi system were estimated for the different functions to be played by different actors, including the private sector. These are shown in the table below.


Private sector









Linkage to markets (promoting market access) (10,000 households)






Development multiplication and promotion of improved drought resistant varieties



Drip kit for 0.2 ha of land for one household US$1000/household (10,000 households)



Labor contribution to construction of tanks US$2000/tank (1000 tanks)



Cost of one underground tank materials US$2000/tank (1000 tanks)



Cost of one earth dam US$10000/dam(assuming 200 earth dams the whole country)



Institution established that coordinates activities in climate change adaptation



Research in advanced irrigation technologies e.g. solar as a source of energy for pumping water and underground pipes



Increase livestock production



Promote conservation farming/ agriculture (all technologies that maintain soil fertility and water management )(US$500/household) (10,000 households)









National Institutional Arrangements

Malawi has a wide range of programmes and plans at national level that deal with climate-related constraints in some capacity. At the local level, the country also has various government and NGO projects addressing climate-related issues, mostly droughts and floods, even though these are not necessarily coined as adaptation projects. What is interesting is that most of the proposed adaptation actions do not differ from current activities, many of which are not categorised as adaptation projects.

While there is an evident separation between climate change institutions and agricultural institutions, there is a significant recognition of the vulnerability of agriculture. Consequently, the country’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA), contains several agriculture-related strategies such as:

  1. Improving community resilience to climate change through the development of sustainable rural livelihoods
  2. Restoring forests in Upper and Lower Shire River to reduce siltation and associated water flow problems that affect hydro-power generation.
  3. Improving agricultural production under erratic rains and changing climatic conditions
  4. Improving Malawi’s preparedness to cope with droughts and floods
  5. Improving climate monitoring to enhance Malawi’s early warning capability and decision making

This is mostly explained by the fact that Malawi has in the past followed highly consultative planning processes that involve different stakeholders. Significantly, Malawi has also developed an agricultural development programme under the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). These and other programmes have a strong focus on addressing the constraints facing Malawi’s agriculture, which is a natural starting point for building adaptive capacity.

Malawi receives significant external support, and has developed mechanisms for channeling funds to different sectors through the Ministry of Finance. The complexity for agricultural adaptation brought about by the separation between the Climate Change line ministry (Ministry of Environment), the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Transport (in which the Meteorological Department is housed), requires that a mechanism for sourcing climate finance and deploying it to the identified adaptation activities at all levels be well coordinated. This is especially important if the most important and most immediate adaptation actions required for the country fall within the agricultural sector.

The development of Malawi’s maize sector has been significantly attributed to the country’s subsidy programme, which has channeled resources to smallholder maize farmers. With or without external resources, it is important that these programmes incorporate climate adaptation to avoid maladaptation and locking smallholder farmers in single crop systems.

The role of the private sector is quite significant in Malawi, especially in market linkages, which suggests that that adaptation and food security responses required in the country go beyond just production to include access and utilization. Market linkages could also be a way of building a strong, community-wide and community-district-national adaptive base that does not solely depend on the level of production on individual households. The role of the private sector was also evident in the case study research when the sugar company in the case study community provided the time-series weather data that was used for downscaling climate models.

National Study Team

Content produced by: Matiya G., Lunduka, R., and Sikwese, M. 2011. “Costing climate change adaptation in agriculture: A case study of small-scale maize production in Malawi.”

IIED Project Press Release

Main project page

Add your project

Exchange your climate change adaptation projects and lessons learned with the global community.