The Agricultural Pulse Of Malawi

I’ve been in Lilongwe, Malawi for just over a week as part of the Leave For Change program. So far the experience has been remarkable. Last week I spent much of my time familiarizing myself with Lilongwe1, sitting through orientation training with the folks who run the Malawian chapter of World University Service of Canada (WUSC)2, and reviewing documents I’d received from the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust (ARET), my partner agency.

In a nutshell, ARET is a not-for-profit organization that is mandated to support Malawian farmers through agricultural research and knowledge translation and transfer programs3,4. For example, their researchers might conduct studies to evaluate different crop types, or to explore different planting times so that a farmer might produce the largest, healthiest yields possible. The results of their work are then distributed to the farmers through a chain of people known as Extension Directors and Extension Officers. In this way, farmers in each corner of the country have access to the state-of-the-science agricultural tools and methods. And since Malawi’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, this means that ARET is an absolutely essential component to the economic health of the country.

Normally a Leave For Change volunteer would have started working directly with their partner agency immediately after the day and a half of WUSC orientation and training, however, in my case, my first meeting was delayed until Thursday morning5. Regardless, after reviewing the documents I’d received from ARET and after sitting down with the Director of Extension and Specialist Services on Thursday, I was extremely excited to get to work. I had a million ideas and even more questions floating around in my head.

Today I spent my first full day at ARET, beginning with a meeting with the Director and Chief Executive, the Director of Extension and Specialist Services, and the Finance & Administration Manager to discuss my mandate. While I already had a general sense of what I was going to be doing while working with ARET, the meeting provided a much clearer vision for which to start.

Briefly, I’m going to be working with the Director of Extension and Specialist Services (and the other branches of ARET) to help develop a framework on which to build several different services internally and externally. This requires working closely with the staff of ARET to develop a thorough understanding of the system’s users, their needs, the data they need to collect, the outputs they would like generated, and the various different ways in which they will communicate this information to the various stakeholders.

In many ways, this parallels some of the work I’m doing in the community of Rigolet, Labrador. In both cases, there are some environmental and technical issues that need to be addressed. In both cases, I need to work with a community to develop tools that are useful and user-friendly. And in both cases, I need to design the systems so that they are as robust as possible to allow for expansion in the coming years as the technology and infrastructure adapt and grow.

Where these projects differ is in their scope. My work in Rigolet is a pilot focussed on the immediate community. While there are future plans to expand the work across Nunatsiavut and beyond, we are very much developing community-led solutions at a very local level. In Malawi, we are working together to develop a system that will provide extension services to all farmers across the country.

The process I’m about to work on is also a perfect example of the development processes that I teach in my CIS3750 classroom. From understanding the users/client, to developing requirements, use cases, timelines, and (if time permits) prototypes, the project I’ve just begun is going to draw on almost all of the skills I try to pass on to my students.

I’m really excited that I get to work with ARET to help develop the groundwork for what I think will be some truly innovative programs in the future. More than that, I’m really thankful that I get to work with a group that is trying to help develop capacity and resiliency in the people who are the economic hub of this country.

1 Although truth be told, I’m only somewhat familiar with my local neighbourhood and the neighbourhood that surrounds the WUSC main office.

2 While some of this included a recap from training I’d received in Toronto several months ago, it was a welcome way to start my Leave For Change appointment. It also gave me a much better sense of the Malawi, the city of Lilongwe, and the people who call this amazing country home.

3 Historically ARET has focused their research on improving yields and resiliency in tobacco harvests, as tobacco has been the primary export and major source of income for the country. However, given anti-smoking campaigns around the world, they are working with local farmers to transition to other income generating crops (e.g. legumes, and oil-producing seeds).

4 From what I’ve been able to determine, I believe that ARET is using the term extension in the same way that I would use Knowledge Translation and Transfer. That is, extension seems to be the process by which scientific results are turned into meaningful tools and methods that are accessible by (in this case) farmers.

5 And Friday I was off to Liwonde National Park for a safari adventure.

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