In Malawi, the only organisation with sufficient numbers of personnel on the ground to reach farmers in the remotest of locations is the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security. Recognising this as an opportunity, FAIR, a rural livelihoods initiative supported by three NGOs, identified Mzuzu Agricultural Development Division (MZADD) as a partner for scaling up an approach which had been proven to make optimal use of locally available resources as a substitute for expensive and inaccessible chemical fertilisers – namely compost-making.
In 2002, FAIR supported MZADD in a compost-making competition, which targeted some 200,000 farmers in three districts. In the first year of the competition, over 120,000 compost heaps were made. This was to be superseded in the following year, by a record-breaking 1.2 million compost heaps.
On the back of this success, MZADD, with the support of FAIR, launched the Lead Farmer Programme, which was designed to identify innovative and successful farmers with the aptitude and commitment to work with their communities towards the ultimate goal of increasing productivity. Lead Farmers were to perform three functions: impart their knowledge of local conditions, constraints and solutions to Follower Farmers; teach Follower Farmers a simple set of technologies that would conserve the natural resource base; and provide community-based fora for sharing knowledge and information.
Since 2004/5, over 250 Lead Farmers have been trained in three districts in the north of Malawi, each of whom trains approximately 100 Follower Farmers. To date, approximately 25,000 farmers have been trained in sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies, which are providing them with viable, and more sustainable (both economically and environmentally) alternatives to chemical fertilisers. The national figure is much higher.
The success of the Lead Farmer approach has had a ripple effect. Initially, it was adopted by other NGOs in the Northern Region, and then by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security through its divisions elsewhere in Malawi. It has now been adopted throughout Malawi.