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SIMLESA review finds many successes and major challenges

Farmers selecting pigeon pea varieties at Msingisi village, Gairo district, through SIMLESA. Photo: CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes

On 16-31 October 2015, the Sustainable Intensification of Maize and Legume Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA) project undertook a two-week long Mid-Term Review (MTR) of its agricultural research and development activities on station and on farm. SIMLESA undertook this review to assess project performance and recommend actions to refine activities. The last MTR was carried out in 2012.

To wrap up the review, a two-day meeting was held with the participation of 40 people, including representatives from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the national agricultural research systems (NARS) of Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania, and CIMMYT scientists from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.

The primary objective of the SIMLESA project is to improve food security for 650,000 small farming households by increasing food production and household incomes of vulnerable but commercially viable farmers by 2023.

A five-member team from ACIAR, SIMLESA’s funding institution, assessed the different maize-legume and forage/fodder production systems in the project’s core countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania, and one spillover country, Uganda. The team also analyzed reports and presentations from Mozambique, and SIMLESA spillover countries of Botswana and Rwanda.

At the meeting held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 31 October, the entire MTR team acknowledged that CA-based maize-legume cropping systems are a highly relevant intervention to reduce smallholder farmers’ vulnerability and food insecurity.

MTR team leader Bruce Pengelly said SIMLESA’s second phase would enable the project to better support regional activities, and would place it more strategically among government, non-government, and development partners. His advice to SIMLESA participants: “It may not be in your best interest to embark on new, demanding work now…this is the consolidation phase where you are expected to enhance planned activities.”

SIMLESA Project Steering Committee co-chair Eric Craswell said, “Showcasing our program of work remains a significant challenge. This can be overcome through programs that demonstrate the values of agricultural research and development through the use of maize-legume cropping systems, and help us share lessons learned, and experiences gained.”

Project leader Mulugetta Mekuria stressed that “While taking stock and celebrating our many successes, we are aware that there are still major challenges to be overcome. We will achieve our targets if relevant stakeholders work together for a common goal.”

Overall, the on-farm exploratory and on-station research trials implemented during the first phase (2010-2014) demonstrated useful technologies that were adopted by farmers. However, the concerted efforts of research institutions and the continued training of government extension workers are critical for SIMLESA’s long-term impact in the second phase (2014-2018). Another challenge is building a strong monitoring and evaluation framework, development outreach and communications, and mainstreaming gender into the way NARS plan and think.

According to adoption monitoring studies, over 46,000 farmers across SIMLESA sites adopted CA and improved maize-legume technologies in 2013. As a result of on-farm exploratory trials, by 2014, over 68% of host farmers were using two or more of these technologies in Mozambique. Across the six SIMLESA districts in Malawi, use of CA technologies increased from an average of 4% during the baseline year to 38% in 2013. This year, the project reached out to a total of 173,533 farmers, compared to the target of 143,607, accounting for a 21% increase in the number of farmers.

SIMLESA envisaged a 30% risk reduction by 2023. Using SIMLESA data from Malawi, the project found that the chances of producing extremely low yields were actually higher than had been assumed in many studies. This indicates that crop diversification and minimum tillage are strategies that can reduce the risks implicit in maize production.

Addressing participants at the MTR meeting, SIMLESA cropping systems agronomist Isaiah Nyagumbo said that during the first five years, the project focused on establishing on-farm and on-station trials to develop and test productive, resilient, and sustainable maize-legume systems that are well adapted to each country’s socioeconomic, agroecological, and cultural environment.

SIMLESA Steering Committee co-chairperson Eric Craswell addressing
participants at the project’s mid-term review meeting in Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia. To the right is SIMLESA project leader Mulugetta Mekuria. Photo: Johnson Siamachira

A total of 268 maize and 378 legume varieties underwent on-farm participatory selection. “From these, the best performing maize and legume varieties that met farmers’ preferences were selected and scaled up by partner companies,” said Peter Setimela, SIMLESA seed systems specialist. The best varieties yielded 30-40% more under drought and 20-25% more under optimum conditions compared to commercial checks.

By October of this year, 56 agricultural innovation platforms had been established and were operating in 31 sites, according to Michael Misiko, the person responsible for scaling up project activities.

Through the project, 22 doctoral students enrolled at different universities in South Africa, Australia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. A further 42 students are pursuing Master of Science degrees at national universities in SIMLESA partner countries. Three out of 64 SIMLESA-supported NARS staff members graduated (two Ph.Ds. from Tanzania and Kenya, and one M.Sc. from Rwanda). Two more M.Sc. candidates from Mozambique studying at the University of the Free State in South Africa submitted drafts of their theses and are expected to graduate this year.

“We are encouraged by the progress made so far and expect to have a measurable impact in the years ahead. New areas of research, crop livestock integration, market link mechanisms, agricultural innovation platforms, specific climate-smart agricultural practices, and capacity building are fresh challenges the project faces in the coming years, “said Mekuria.