Chasing Climate Smart Agriculture – Dr Phiri leverages networks and relationships to improve food security in Malawi


With agriculture accounting for almost one-quarter of Malawi’s GDP and smallholder farmers constituting almost 80% of Malawi’s population, it (along with tourism and mining) is one of the most critical components of Malawi’s national development agenda (Malawi 2063 Vision). Australia Awards Africa alumnus, Dr Austin Tenthani Phiri, a Chief Agricultural Research Scientist at the Ministry of Agriculture, dedicated his career to increasing agricultural productivity and food security and reducing the impact of climate change in Malawi. In 2021, his efforts were awarded when he secured funding for two critical agricultural research projects.

Both projects impacted Malawi and the rest of the African continent. To secure this funding, Dr Phiri put the skills and knowledge he learned during the Australia Awards Africa short course (Increasing the Impact of Agricultural Research2019) to use. Using the networks that he had established during his career to build impactful bid consortiums whilst simultaneously implementing the techniques he learned to write winning bids, have been catalysts for his success in securing this funding.

The Agriculture sector faces immense challenges, including declining soil fertility, low crop productivity and ultimately food insecurity – all factors influencing the current climate change crisis that Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa face today. To counter this, Dr Phiri developed relevant research programs to generate new knowledge and technologies to improve agricultural outputs. Dr Phiri also used agricultural research findings as a mechanism to influence the agricultural policy-making sphere in Malawi and other countries in Africa.

The challenges faced in Malawi are not unique and, therefore, Dr Phiri used the skills and knowledge gained from his short course to network and collaborate with fellow researchers from other African countries in conceptualising and implementing research proposals that improve food security across Africa.

Dr Phiri became aware of a funding opportunity at the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills, through colleagues from Uganda and Kenya whom he met in 2019 on a course on “Translating research outputs to policy and practice” delivered in Nairobi, Kenya by a Swedish Consortium called Agriculture for Food Security 2023 (AgriFoSe2030).  Thereafter Dr Phiri linked the AgriFoSe2023 colleagues to the Lilongwe University of Agriculture (LUANAR) in Malawi which has collaborative links to the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

Ultimately, in 2021 Dr Phiri and his colleagues secured funding from the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills to train students, conduct climate change-responsive research and deliver a post-graduate, university-level curriculum in Agriculture, Economics and other cross-cutting subjects like gender. The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), and three African academic institutions: Maseno University, Kenya; Lilongwe University of Agricultural and Natural Resources (LUANAR) and Makarere University in Uganda; and the Department of Agricultural Research Services under the Ministry of Agriculture in Malawi collaborated on the project. Inspired by Dr Phiri’s thoughts, the collaboration group called the project “Building Capacity for Innovation and Advancement of Climate Smart Agriculture in East and Southern Africa”. It will last until 2026.

Photo of Dr Phiri with colleagues at a workshop
Dr Phiri with colleagues at a workshop

The program is multifaceted: It delivers five joint academic courses across the partnering institutions, provides for academic and research exchange opportunities of between two to six months and leverages other agricultural productivity programs within the community. The program supports six PhD and 14 MSc students. The intention is that research findings or innovative technologies developed through the program will be shared with local farmers who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the program. and together with the farmers, they are working to innovate climate change-responsive solutions within their communities and farms.

In Malawi, Dr Phiri has focused both research and outreach activities on improving sorghum productivity. Research trials at research stations and farmers’ fields (funded by the African Plant Nutrition Institute under the Phosphorus Fellowship) were already well established across Malawi and provided a cost-effective platform for the graduates to undertake their research. Graduates also use the on-station and on-farm trials for their research projects and data collection while agricultural extension officers use the on-farm trials to demonstrate to farmers the benefits of growing climate smart crops like sorghum.

In 2021, together with colleagues in Nigeria, Kenya and Malawi, Dr Phiri and his co-principal Investigators secured funding from the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC-2021-2022) for a research project called “Sustainable Scaling of climate-smart agricultural technologies and Practices in sub-Saharan Africa: The case of Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria”. Dr Phiri once again used his existing relationships to bring together a team of academics across the continent to undertake critical climate change research.  Participating as Co-PIs in the project were the following: Dr Mirriam Charimbu (Department of Crops Horticulture and Soils, Egerton University, Kenya), Dr Sarah Edewor Edore (Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research, Nigeria) and Elias Gaveta (Mzuzu University, Malawi). Dr Phiri met his fellow investigators on the One Planet Fellowship program in 2019 and used these connections to respond to the bid.

These research findings resulted in two published articles and a policy brief and Dr Phiri was invited to present the findings at the African Economic Conference in Balaclava, Mauritius in December 2022.   Dr Phiri also was part of a national dissemination workshop organised by the African Economic Research Consortium where the research findings from the study were disseminated to agricultural policymakers and Malawian agricultural sector stakeholders. The workshop was also televised nationally in Malawi and reached both beneficiaries and other policy influencers in the Agricultural Ministry of Government.

Subsequently, the team have now been formalised as the Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance (CliSAA) for Eastern, Southern and Western Africa group which continues to source funding for further research.

To learn more about Dr Phiri’s outstanding work please visit the following website and YouTube links:

Climate Change Adaptation through Improved Sorghum Productivity in Malawi – African Plant Nutrition Institute (APNI)

Sorghum Productivity Improvement Project Documentary Part 1 and  Sorghum Productivity Improvement Project Documentary Part 2

Dissemination workshop on “Climate Change and Economic Development in Africa” Collaborative Research

AEC 2022-Concurrent Sessions 2.1: Adaptations of Climate Smart Agriculture in Africa.  (voice starts at 3:47 minutes after play)

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