Ownership of the research process influences its use in advocacy

Helena Posthumus

The National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM), founded in 1997, is the largest independent, smallholder-owned membership organisation in Malawi. NASFAM is organised into a unique extension network to support its membership of over 100,000 smallholder farmers. The smallest operational unit of NASFAM is the Club, made up of 10 to 15 individual farmers. Clubs combine to form Action Groups, which are the key points in the extension network for dissemination of information to members, and for the bulking of members’ crops. Action Groups combine to form NASFAM Associations, of which there were 40 in 2007-2008. NASFAM Associations are legally-registered entities, member-owned and managed by farmer Boards. The Associations are grouped by geographical location into 14 Association Management Centres (AMCs). These provide management and operational support to the Associations in terms of production, marketing and community development. The AMCs are in turn supported by the NASFAM Regional and Head Office structures. NASFAM functions are split into Commercial and Development activities. NASFAM commercial activities include the marketing of inputs to farmers and produce from farmers. NASFAM development activities deliver community development and capacity-building services to members. NASFAM Commercial and Development operations are governed by a Farmer Board, which is elected democratically by the membership each year.

NASFAM’s policy and advocacy is guided by its Policy Platform. The Policy Platform is developed in a participatory manner with NASFAM members. Issues that hinder smallholder farmer development are discussed and root causes determined. The issues are then grouped into four pillars (access to markets; agricultural commercialisation; access to financial services; and infrastructure development). The process of generating evidence based on secondary data or even commissioning research studies then begins. The findings thereof are used to develop policy position papers/ briefs that are used for various advocacy and lobbying initiatives.

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Development challenge

Agriculture contributes 34 per cent to the GDP of Malawi and the sector accounts for over 80 per cent of Malawi’s export revenue. The total labour force in Malawi is about 4.5 million and almost 84 per cent of this is engaged in agriculture. Malawi’s economic short-term growth is closely linked to strong agriculture performance, particularly tobacco, which accounts for 60 per cent of the country’s exports and half the Government’s tax base. Agriculture will therefore remain the mainstay of the Malawi economy for the foreseeable future. Past policy biases towards maize and tobacco have pushed other potential high-value crops and staple-food crops to the periphery and have thereby limited the export potential and food production capacity of the country. Unstable marketing policies and regulations restrict private investments, and the lack of agro-processing and value-addition activities hamper a steady growth in the agricultural sector. Other constraints in the agricultural sector include poor market infrastructure, lack of reliable market information systems, lack of storage and assembling points, low capacity and poor coordination by Farmer Organisations (FOs) to effectively engage the Government in policy formulation (Nakhumwa and Peiris, 2009).

Collaborative research process

Following the diagnostic country review, a stakeholder workshop was organised by the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP) and NASFAM in Lilongwe on 13 and 14 January 2009 to discuss and prioritise key issues that negatively affect farmers’ access to markets in Malawi. Participants included the Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM), NASFAM, Grain Traders and Processors Association (GTPA), the Agricultural Commodity Exchange (ACE), the Centre for Agriculture Research and Development (CARD), the Coffee Association of Malawi, and the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS). The following issues were prioritised: policy and regulation; capacity building; and marketing infrastructure tied to quality standards. Participants identified the following activities to address the key issues:

  • Participatory policy development, formulation and implementation (policy and regulation).
  • Developing and managing tools for marketing, e.g., grain banks, warehouse receipt systems, storage and bulking (market infrastructure).
  • Access to finance and business services (market infrastructure).
  • Access to Market Information Systems and intelligence (market infrastructure).
  • Improving capacity of farmer organisations for sustainability (capacity building).

In a post-workshop meeting, the ESFIM team (local consultants, AGRINATURA researchers, and representatives from FUM, NASFAM, and IFAP) determined the following research topics for the ESFIM country proposal: market information, quality and standards, and access to finance.

Lessons learnt

  • The self-evaluation exercise showed that the NASFAM board members had little knowledge of what the organisation’s management is actually doing on various aspects. For example, the board members were unaware of the ESFIM programme and they reported they had only been invited for the final workshop. This may be a reflection of limited dialogue, involvement and sharing of information between the board and management. Anyway, the board members were not engaged in the ESFIM process until the presentation of the findings.
  • Compared to NASFAM’s other operations and income streams, the ESFIM budget was relatively small. The limited availability of financial resources seems to have determined the selection of research topics rather than the urgency or priority of the issue. The fact that the board members were not aware of the ESFIM activities suggests that the programme was not a priority for NASFAM. This may explain why there was no immediate follow-up in terms of policy messages or the development of an advocacy agenda.
  • The continuity of the ESFIM programme was compromised by delays and staff changes that affected the sense of ownership of the process by NASFAM and NRI.
  • NASFAM contracted the same independent consultant to organise the workshops, develop the research proposal and lead the case studies. This consultant thus had substantial influence on the research proposal and implementation of the case studies. Because the consultants were contracted as independent individuals, there was no institute that carried the responsibility for the quality of the final outputs. Contracting research institutes or larger teams of consultants may have been more appropriate to help to assure quality outputs and generate advocacy plans for NASFAM. This would have had the additional advantage of strengthening NASFAM’s relationships with the research community in Malawi.