Operational Research on Integrating Nutrition in Farmer Field Schools (FFS)

By Dalitso Baloyi, Virginia Mzunzu Kwizombe, Ulemu Chiyenda and Mary Corbett


Self Help Africa (SHA) Malawi is implementing the ‘Better Extension Training Transforming Economic Returns (BETTER) program which is part of the KULIMA (Kutukula Ulimi Malawi) program, financed by the European Union. The BETTER project is a five-year (2018-2022) project being implemented in ten (10) districts by a consortium of four partner organisations: Self-Help Africa (Lead Agency), Plan International, Action Aid, and Evangelical Association of Malawi. The overall objective of the project is to increase resilience, food, nutrition, and income security of 402,000 smallholder farmers through 13, 400 Farmer Field Schools (FFS) approach. FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) is the responsible for the training/capacity building of master trainers and community-based facilitators as part of the FFS approach.

The program promotes nutrition-sensitive agriculture, to ensure the project yields maximum benefits on nutrition outcomes. This is done by integrating nutrition education in all the value chain activities in the FFS’s to ensure that participants receive adequate knowledge to link their food production with improved nutrition practices, while also promoting their ability to consume a diversified diet.


The research was conducted towards the end of 2021. The team used mixed and cross-sectional approaches to collect qualitative and quantitative data for the operational research. Participatory research approaches were used to gauge and explain (as well as make recommendations) on the overall functionality, effectiveness, efficacy, short and long- term nutritional benefits of the FFS.

Some Key Findings:

  • Participation in FFS is associated with a threefold increase in receiving skills on nutrition related topics such as formulating a meal plan, knowing a seasonal food availability calendar etc.
  • Participation in FFS was associated with high adoption of nutritional and WASH practices at household levels as compared to non-FFS participants. FFS participants were more likely than non-FFS participants to have a backyard garden, to own livestock and have fruit trees around their homes.
  • FFS participants were 3 times more likely to meet their minimum dietary diversity requirement than non-FFS participants (OR =3.592, p<0.001).
  • FFS participants were 3 times more likely to meet their minimum dietary diversity requirement than non-FFS participants (OR =3.592, p<0.001).

The links below include a short and long version of the study report.

FINAL Operational Research Integrating Nutrition in FFS web-short version (2)

FINAL Operational Research Integrating Nutrition in FFS

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Ted Msokwa ,48, married and with 8 children has been farming for many years. He has been growing maize, soybeans and groundnuts. He always admired his friends who had a motorcycle but he was not able to produce enough so that he could raise income to buy the assets he wanted.

“When KULIMA BETTER came I learnt about how to develop a household vision with my family. So we sat down as a family and wrote down what we wanted to a chieve in three years’ time: a plough, oxcart, and a motorcycle. Although I have not yet got these assets, I am confident that by 2025 I will buy a motorcycle”

“As a community-based facilitator I have learnt a lot on improved technologies which have led to harvesting double the amount I used to on the same land I was cultivating. Last farming season I got 32 bags of 50Kgs and sold part of it and bought 2 goats amounting to MK32,000,” said Mr Msokwa.

Msokwa is a community-based facilitator for Twinong’one Farmer Field School (FFS) in Mwamkumbwa EPA T/A Mwabulambya in Chitipa district. The group has 13 members (9 females, and 4 males) and was established in 2019. Twinong’one Farmer Field School is currently doing a study on the effects of soil nutrient management on crop growth.

In 2020 the group grew some vegetables which were provided by the project and realised MK27,000 which they used to purchase 1 piglet at MK15,000. They started doing a livestock pass on initiative and their target is that every member should have a pig. Currently the group has managed to pass on 6 pigs to 6 members while 1 pig was sold at MK40,000 in 2021 and used the cash to purchase soya beans seed which was cultivated on 0.4 ha. Apart from that, they also planted groundnuts on a 0.4 ha as an Income Generating Activity for the group.

The group has plans to share the seeds to members so that they can also grow at household level. The remainder will be sold by the group while some will be kept for planting in the next season on a larger scale for income generation.

“Our aim is to excel as a group as well as a household that is why we work hard and share knowledge for prosperity in all aspects of life. We will not be the same in a few years to come” said Mr Msokwa, the group leader.

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Ridwell Mwanja, 49, is a Community Based Facilitator (CBF) of Witimba Farmer Field School in Chitipa. Mwanja became CBF for Witimba Farmer Field School in 2018, but before that he has been a lead farmer since 2003. Before the KULIMA BETTER project started, Mwanja confesses that he used to do most of the things without consulting his wife because he regarded her as a housewife who is only supposed to do whatever he wanted to do.

“Little did I know that I was missing out more from my wife and we were not making much profit from farming. But after we were trained in gender, I started involving my wife in decision making. This has resulted in improved yields and income because we work as a team from decision to implementation. We are also transparent to one another in terms of the money we make.

“I let my wife decide how we are going to use the money. My children also take part in reminding us our goal and what we need to do,” says Mwanja

Figure 1 Ridwell Mwanja and his wife from T/A Mwabulambiya Chitipa

The household approach aims at empowering household members engaged in farming to have better gender or power relations that will enable them to   have equitable access to and control over resources, assets, and benefits in order to improve their livelihoods. The famer field schools are trained on some gender dynamics and developing a vision for their households which lasts for three years. The members of the household describe where they are now in terms of resources and assets and where they want to be.

In Karonga, Jenala Silungwe 40, testified how her husband who had joined another group had completely changed the way he used to treat her at home. Before the household approach, he would not engage her in having access and control over resources and he would also beat her after getting drunk.

“I thank KULIMA BETTER that we have not only gained knowledge and skills, but it has also changed our men’s thinking, says Silungwe.

Mc Donald Silungwe from Msomba 2 village in Traditional Authority Kilupula in Karonga says he has become a better husband after the training in gender.

“One of the valuable skills I shall treasure in my life is the household approach. I am coming from a culture that treats a woman as a slave because of the lobola system and that had an impact on my life. We are now planning together, and I have also given my wife the power to decide what crop to grow”.

Silungwe is also the centre of people’s attention because he helps his wife with the cooking, something that others look at as abnormal.

KULIMA BETTER is using the Gender Action Learning System (GALS) Approach system with the aim of ensuring that women participate in decision making and have access and control over productive resources.

A recent study conducted by the project in 2021 showed that 27 percent of women jointly make decisions with their husbands regarding crops grown for consumption and 26 percent of women make joint decisions on crops grown for sale. About 23 percent of women can express themselves freely to their husbands concerning household issues and 34 percent of women have opportunities to speak publicly.

The study also revealed that some cultural beliefs are wrongly interpreted ultimately affecting the level of women’s participation in various project activities at household and community level. For instance, lobola is misinterpreted as the act of buying a woman. Lobola, the provision of gifts to the parents of a bride, usually in the form of cash or livestock, is an entrenched part of marriage in parts of Central and Northern part of Malawi.

Through the GALS approach, the project is sensitizing households and communities on the benefits of engaging women in household decision making. Furthermore, the project is working closely with gender champions to ensure that there is joint decision making at both household and community levels.

KULIMA BETTER is funded by European Union and is being implemented by a consortium of Four NGOs namely: Self Help Africa as lead agency, Plan International, Evangelical Association of Malawi, ActionAid Malawi. The aim of the project is to promote sustainable agricultural growth, increase incomes, employment opportunities, food, and nutrition security in Malawi despite changing climatic conditions. The project is currently reaching 380,991 smallholder farmers

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By George Mbale

They say the future belongs to the organised, Fukafuka Farmer Field School is one of the schools that has demonstrated that they will continue to work even when the project phases out this year. Fukafuka was established in 2019 and is located in Kakhuni village in Group Village Headman Namapanje, T/A Mwenewenya in Chitipa district. The group has a membership of 17 (5 males and 12 females).

In October 2020 the group bought 2 piglets at MK10,000 each using the money that they realised from the study plots which was only MK20,000. Currently the group has 5 pigs from the 2 that they purchased since 1 sow gave birth to 5 piglets but 2 died but their plans are to pass on the piglets to group members until all have been reached.

“Fukafuka FFS thought of rearing of pigs as an Income Generating Activity which will also sustain the group activities even if the project phases out and on the other hand members are also encouraged to have IGAs at household level be it rearing of small stock and farming” says Loslina Mwandira, the Community Based Facilitator for the group.

The KULIMA BETTER Project is funded by the European Union (EU) and has been supporting the Farmer Field Schools since 2018. The project is phasing out in 2022 and it is hoped that the schools will continue operate on their own.

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Ethel Subiri who is 38 and with 4 children is a single mother whose hardworking and passion in farming has made her to become a wonder in her village.

“I used to do small-scale business specifically selling groundnuts, but I was still not making ends meet when it came to having food in my household. I joined Tiyanjane FFS and now I have food throughout the year, and I also have goats.

Subiri used to harvest 5 bags but this year she harvested 29 bags.

“The secret to the bumper yields is that I followed the good agricultural practices such as making ridges, applying Mbeya manure and mulching.my dream is to buy a motorbicycle to ease transportation to the market.”

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Agnes Michael Alimoyo is 50 years old, single mother of 7 children she comes from Traditional Authority Mkanda in Mulanje. She wakes up very early in the morning to water her vegetables in the garden before she has breakfast. Ever since her husband died in 2018, life has been difficult as she had to provide for her children alone. She used to rely on piece works to get some money to buy food.

When KULIMA BETTER project introduced the farmer field school approach, she joined in 2018 because she wanted to change her story. At Tipindule FFS, I learnt about one-to-one planting, and I saw that on the same piece of land I was harvesting 10 bags, I started harvesting 25 bags in the year 2019.

“One thing I always admired to have, was a treadle pump so that I could be growing three times a year. I started planting tomato last year and bought a second- hand treadle pump at K35,000,” says Agnes.

Food Availability and improved diet

Agnes boasts of never buying maize anymore because she always has enough maize throughout the year. “At first my family used to skip breakfast and instead ate twice a day because we could not afford breakfast.”

Agnes says this is history because she has grown cassava, sweet potatoes and she has fruit trees such as orange, lemons, guavas, avocado pears, and mangoes in her house compound. I also have 8 chickens, pigeons. She also has orange, alvocado pears and guava fruit trees around her household.

Value addition

Agnes grows cassava for food and income, she dries the cassava strips which is sold to people. People use them to make flour and snacks called ‘Zikhele’ fried cassava strips.

Improved income

I have graduated from growing maize for food, I also sell some and my income has risen from 1,000 per day to around 10,000 per day.

Agnes Michael Alimoyo, Tipindule FFS Member in Mulanje showing how she is diversifying farming by growing cassava

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By Pauline Mbukwa, Self Help Africa

Mercy Selemani,46 from Chiwaula Village, Traditional Authority Malengachanzi, in Linga EPA in Nkhotakota is married with four children. She joined Kachere FFS in 2019. Before she joined the group, she lacked the knowledge and skills in how she could  increase her production.

“I used to grow maize, but I was still practising the traditional way of planting 3 maize seed per planting station, the yield was low. When Kachere FFS came to our village, I learnt about various farming methods specifically the one plant per station which has contributed to double production from 12 bags to 25 bags of 50kgs maize” Selemani says. In addition to following the technologies that she learnt at the FFS; she also joined VSL in 2019   where she made savings amounting to K300,000 which she used  to build her 4 bedrooms house.

“I am happy, I have a modern house, this is a dream come true for me and my family. Our diet has also improved because I always have money every week, because I bought a bicycle which is used for business so every week, I receive not less than K7,000.00,” Selemani explains.

“Mercy is one of the star performers at Kachere FFS; whenever she is not sure about a certain technology, she consults. She is one of the hardworking members and a role model to her fellow farmers,” concludes Benjamin Mitole, the Master Trainer.

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Prolonged drought and inadequate rainfall expose vulnerable communities to economic shocks that usually threaten their livelihoods. Unfortunately, most farmers in rural areas do not have access to reliable and accurate information on weather and smart agricultural technologies and drought resistant crops. Using the Farmer Field School (FFS) model, farmers in the area of Group Village Head (GVH) William Ngwenya of Mzimba district are identifying modern ways of farming to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Headson Mwanza is a member of Mwawiwithu Farmer Field School (FFS) in Kamwanza Village under GVH William Ngwenya under Inkosi Mmbelwa. The FFS group which has 13 men, and 17 women was formed under KULIMA BETTER project implemented by Plan International through funding from European Union.  The objective of the project is to improve household resilience to climate related shocks. In its initial phase of implementation, the project conducted a participatory vulnerability capacity assessment in the area and identified drought as one of the main hazards affecting farmer’s productivity.

“We used to have uncertainties as to when the rains are going to start and how the rainy season will go” explains Headson, a member of Mwawiwithu FFS. “This affected our production as we gambled a lot with our farming resulting in crop loss which affected our food security and livelihoods as a whole,” he says.

As a way of addressing this challenge, the project procured and installed rain gauges in all the extension planning areas to capture accurate data on rainfall in real time. The project in collaboration with the climate change and meteorology services trained data collectors in recording and reporting of the rainfall data. This information is then consolidated at district level and shared with community radios for dissemination.

With the collaboration that the project has with local community radios, the collected data is aggregated and disseminated through the radios.

“I make sure to tune in to Mzimba Community Radio because I listen to the weather updates every day and make informed decisions on activities that I can do on my field”

The FFS consists of groups of farmers who get together to study a particular topic. The topics vary from conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, animal and soil husbandry to income generating activities such as handicrafts.  FFS provides opportunities for learning by doing. They teach basic agricultural and management skills that make farmers experts in their own farms. The farmers are also trained in different smart agriculture technologies such as pit planting, application of manure, one-one method of planting and use of different drought resistance crops.

“Coupled with the trainings on climate smart agriculture, I am able to make informed decisions on which crop to grow in that season and what technologies to use because I have an idea of how the season is going to be”, adding that this has helped him to reduce uncertainties that he faced in his farming in the past years.

Diversifying to the drought resistance crops, Headson, 46, who after learning from the FFS decided to plant sweet potatoes. Boasting about his success in the previous seasons, he shares how he has been able to sell the produce and use the money to service his maize mill.

“I did not have to go to South Africa like a lot of men do in this community in search of green pastures. All I had to do was to listen to what our CBF was teaching us. So last season apart from using pit planting to grow maize, I also focused on sweet potatoes where I managed to make over MWK100, 000.00 from the sales alone” says Headson joyfully.

Headson also taught his children farming and gave them a piece of land to plant their own sweet potatoes. They managed to also make over MWK100,000.00. Headson and his family are now living a healthy and progressive lifestyle despite frequent inadequate rainfall.

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By Joseph Fatch

Chapopoma farmer Field school situated in Wadokosa village, T/A Kabunduli, in Nkhatabay has transformed livelihoods of many families. The school started in 2018 and has a total membership of 28 where 4 are males while 24 are females. From the time the school started, a lot of studies have been completed. These studies include the pest management in many crops such as Bananas, variety comparison in Maize, and soil fertility management in vegetables.

After the farmers tried and proved the technologies learnt, they thought of scaling up to other ventures. The group found capital from selling its crops and through group savings and loans. In 2020 the group made K150,000 from selling sweet potatoes and K100,000 from selling maize. This income made them to look up to other group ventures and they agreed on exploring fish farming.

“We thought that it was still relevant for us to stay together as a group even after studies were completed. The money we got from selling crops was used to get materials for constructing a fishpond which we constructed using our own hands. Looking at the nature of the land and the availability of resources we knew that this type of farming would work out. We started with 46 fish which were obtained from another pond within the locality. The type of fish which we have in the pond is Shiranus,” says Christina Kaira- Member.

“We expect to harvest 2000 fish in the pond. Part of the group contribution is used to buy feed for the fish and it is the responsibility of every member to feed the fish and we have a duty roster which everyone complies to. We also invest in opening additional ponds. We want to be millionaires in a few years.” Kaira concludes.

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By Chawanangwa Nyirenda,  Plan Malawi International

Darius, 28 , was forced to go out of the country in search for greener pastures. A journey that was meant to be a break through turned into a heart break as he was not able to find the economic opportunities he was longing for. He decided to come back to Malawi in 2017 to find his way through. The savings he had made while in foreign country were used to join a  village savings and lending group. The interest rate was high so prospects were minimal.

Fortunately for Darius, when  European Union funded KULIMA BETTER through Plan International Malawi started in Traditional Authority Kampingo Sibande in Mzimba district, he was selected to be part of Chankhomi Farmer Field School (FFS).  The FFS was established with the aim of identifying solutions to challenges that farmer were experiencing in the community as well as strengthening their livelihood. In order to increase resilience of farmers, the group also engaged in village savings and loans where members buy shares and lend money at an interest. With the training support that the project provided to the group, Darius and his colleagues have been able to make profits from the shares they bought.

“We have experienced a great change with this new approach” he says. We learnt of ways of controlling loan limits and calculation of interest. We also improved on our cash security through the use of cash boxes which significantly improved our trust in our “local bank”, a thing that resulted in more people mobilising their savings.” explains Darius.

Plan International stresses that while financial exclusion is a direct impediment to youth and female empowerment, but evidence-based accessible, collective credit and savings mechanisms such as Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) can help to generate assets at community level.

Prior to joining FFS, Darius had limited access to economic assets to sustain his family. After being equipped with knowledge on planting improved variety crops that are drought resistant to improve gains he decided to invest MWK120, 000 he gained from the VSL in Paprika and maize production.

“The VSL group helps us to find means of producing the crops that can assist our livelihoods. With the lessons learnt from the FFS groups, we were encouraged to try out improved  varieties, so I decided to grow paprika and maize in the last growing season. It was one the best decisions that I have ever done as I was able to make MWK270, 000.00 after selling my produce.”

“From that money I managed to roof my house and buy pigs. I want to intensify livestock husbandry as well to provide me with an alternative source of income” says Darius.

A focused Darius will not stop there, his eyes are now focusing on poultry production. He is planning to use his savings from VSL on poultry farming as he has established that it is more marketable in the nearest markets of his community.

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