The Productivity Improvement Program for Smallholders


The agriculture sector in Malawi is dominated by smallholder farmers, who cultivate 96% of the total cropland. Small, resource-poor farmers cultivate more than three million hectares, with an average land holding of 0.5 to 0.8 hectares, typically located in harsh climates. This situation makes farming difficult, with stagnantly low productivity. An IFDC report in 2013 stated that the use of inorganic fertilizer, estimated at an average 43 kg per hectare, is among the major factors contributing to declining agricultural productivity, along with erratic rainfall and the over-cultivation of a single crop – maize. Considering the small size of the country and the limited availability of arable cropland, there is a need to raise productivity through agricultural intensification.

Malawian farmers use a narrow range of fertilizer products that have been selected based on traditional practices. For example, over 50% of the fertilizer market is NPK 23:21:0+4S, a formulation developed in the 1980s when the overriding priority was to get high-nutrient fertilizer into Malawi at the lowest cost possible. However, throughout the past 30 years, the country’s soils have undergone mineral depletion, which includes potassium and trace elements such as sulfur, zinc, and magnesium. It is therefore increasingly recognized that innovation is required to develop a new set of blended products for farmers who face a variety of agro-ecological conditions that demand different production technologies.

Meridian’s ownership of fertilizer production facilities and a country-wide network of agro­dealer­ships presented an opportunity to develop the new blends required to restore and enhance deple­ted soils as wells as to train farmers in the benefits of customized fertilizer and optimal application practices.

Project goal

The goal of the TAF-funded of the Productivity Improvement Program for Smallholders (PIPS) was to sustainably increase the income of the smallholder farmers linked to Meridian and ensure better physical and economic access to food and thus contribute to improved food security in Malawi.

The project was to directly support 6,000 smallholders by providing them with access to customized fertilizers and advice, increasing the volume of their agricultural production by at least 25% on average leading to an average increase in income of at least 20% per farmer over the lifetime of the project.

Project description

The objective of the project’s phase was for farmers to have continual access to tailor-made fertilizer and advice, thus increasing their productivity. The Productivity Improvement Program for Smallholders (PIPS) was implemented through Meridian’s network of agro­dealer­ships throughout the country.  Meridian has a network of 107 agrodealerships, which represents an extensive route to market for new fertilizer products. It also offered an opportunity to train smallholders in best practices for fertilizer use and other productivity-enhancing goods and services. The project worked with 30 of these Farmers World stores to pilot innovative marketing and training activities to demonstrate the impact of improved fertilization. Smallholders were advised on best agricultural products and practices to increase productivity and income from food crops, particularly maize and legumes.

The project was implemented from 1 October 2015 until 31 March 2017.

The project team comprises members of the following organizations:

  • AFAP Head Office and Malawi Country Office.
  • AgCentre, Colombia University.
  • Farmers World.

Project Key-Outputs

There were six key-outputs comprising:

  1. Soil and PH tests performed and soil maps produced around 30 Farmers World Stores and provide recommendations to of site-specific formulas and lime.
  2. Marketing Strategy for improved inputs developed with Farmers World.
  3. 30 Farmers World stores’ staff trained in the interpretation of soil-testing results, and corresponding advice.
  4. 90 demonstration plots established, three around each store in the life of the project comparing different treatments, including combinations of mineral and organic fertilization.
  5. 6000 smallholder farmers trained by project team.
  6. Project lessons shared to influence fertilizer policy and programs.

Outcomes: Farmer yields and income increase

Theory of change: Smallholder farmers use improved inputs and adopt best-practice advice on their farms that result in an increase in productivity and incomes.

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Project Results

  • Baseline survey of Meridian retail stores, last mile distribution and customer survey conducted and completed
  • Recruited and trained 32 extension officers and Meridian retail staff in agronomic practices, the chemistry of soil test kit, and the android software
  • Established 30 demonstration plots
  • Soil sample 50 farms around each of the 30 Meridian stores —1500 samples in total collected, analyzed and results shared with Farmers World with blends recommendations
  • Baseline fertility and soil maps for 30 Meridian retail stores  completed
  • 3000 farmers trained at demonstration sites
  • Exit strategy developed and completed
  • 7705 cumulative farmers trained at demonstration sites