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Conservation Agriculture and Climate Resilience in sub-Saharan Africa

Prof. Andy Dougill (SEE), Dr Stephen Whitfield (SEE)

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Enhanced climate variability is severely affecting many millions of African smallholder farmers. Significant international donor, and national government investment, is being targeted at ‘climate-smart agriculture’ initiatives aimed improving the effectiveness of land management measures designed to adapt to hotter, drier conditions predicted to affect sub-Saharan Africa (IPCC, 2014). The differential impacts of extreme climate events on farmers who have adapted their land management practices to become more ‘climate-smart’ remain poorly understood and quantified. This project will extend findings from a NERC/DFID El Ni┼ło 2016 Programme project (ACRES) by studying the impacts of the uptake of Conservation Agriculture (CA) land management practices in three Districts in southern Malawi.

CA involves shifts in farming practices to reduced soil tillage, permanent organic soil coverage and intercropping or crop rotation (Figure 1). It is widely seen as a form of climate-smart agriculture capable of enabling development, enhanced climate change adaptive capacity and soil carbon storage (Pretty & Bharucha, 2014). However, evidence of the benefits of CA on agricultural yields and livelihoods is fragmented and contested (e.g. Giller et al., 2015), complicated by the heterogeneity and temporal variability of sub-Saharan African farming systems (Whitfield et al., 2015). The established network of CA studies across Malawi (see - offers an opportunity to evaluate direct and indirect impacts of CA interventions on soils, crop yields and livelihood resilience.

Figure 1. Conservation agriculture field trial at Chitedze, Malawi (left hand section a CA maize crop, right hand section a conventional ridge and furrow maize crop).


In this project, you will work with agricultural systems experts at Leeds and with Malawian partner institutions (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Chitedze Agricultural Research Station) to investigate the effects of CA on crop yield, crop pest and soil parameters and their impacts on farming system resilience.

In particular, according to your particular research interests, the studentship could involve:

  1. Assessing whether farmers practicing CA can better maintain crop yields under climate variability and examining reasons for changes in land management practices following drought events (as affecting Malawi in 2015/16 ACRES project study).
  2. Analysis of the impact of land management practices on the incidence of crop pest damage and changes in the nature of post-harvest crop losses under different rainfall conditions.
  3. Evaluation of the changes in farmer decision-making with regard to land management, cropping and post-harvest handling as a result of enhanced climate variability experienced over recent years in southern Malawi.

Potential for high impact outcome

The project links to an established programme of collaborative research across Malawi, including direct links with the NERC/DFID Future Climate for Africa UMFULA consortium project ( and the NERC/DFID El Nino 2016 project on Agricultural Climate Resilience to El Nino in sub-Saharan Africa. Strong links within the country exist to the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resource that have led to a wide range of joint research outputs (e.g. Mkwambisi et al., 2011; Stringer et al., 2010; Simelton et al., 2013; Dougill et al., 2016). These connections also provide direct routes to guide national policy makers in agricultural sector and in the Environmental Affairs Department. Supervisors are working directly with donor organisations (e.g. DFID, Irish Aid) and NGOs (Concern Universal, Christian Aid) to evaluate the national Enhancing Climate Resilience Programme with scope for PhD findings to guide future project developments and policy development nationally and internationally.


The student will work under the supervision of Prof Andy Dougill and Dr Stephen Whitfield in the Environment and Development Research Group in the School of Earth and Environment. They will be further supported by Dr David Mkwambisi at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources whilst planning and undertaking field research. You will join an active research group assessing climate resilience issues in Malawi (currently 3 PDRAs and 2 PhD students) offering significant scope for cross-disciplinary collaborations, mentoring and bespoke training.

Student profile

The student should have a strong interest in climate and agricultural sustainability issues, ideally with knowledge and experience of African farming systems research. A willingness to undertake fieldwork in remote, rural locations will be essential and an ability to develop participatory skills in environmental assessments will be vital. A Masters level qualification or equivalent in (one of): environment and development, soil science, agriculture, ecology or agronomy would be desirable.


• Dougill, A.J., Whitfield, S., Stringer, L.C., Vincent, K, Wood, B.T., Chinseu, E.L., Steward, P., Mkwambisi, D.D. (2016). Mainstreaming Conservation Agriculture in Malawi: knowledge gaps and institutional barriers. J. of Environmental Management.

• Giller, K.E., Andersson, J.A., Corbeels, M., Kirkegaard, J., Mortensen, D., Erenstein, O., Vanlauwe, B., 2015. Beyond conservation agriculture. Front. Plant Sci. 6, 870.

• IPCC, (2014) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

• Mkwambisi, D.D., Fraser, E.D.G., Dougill, A.J. (2011). Urban agriculture and poverty reduction: evaluating how food production in cities contributes to food security, employment and income in Malawi. J. of International Development, 23, 181-203.

• Pretty, J., Brarucha, Z.P., 2014. Sustainable intensification in agricultural systems. Ann. Bot.-London 114, 1571-1596.

• Simelton, E., Quinn, C.H., Batisani, N., Dougill, A.J., Dyer, J.C., Fraser, E.D.G., Mkwambisi, D.D. Sallu, S.M., Stringer, L.C. (2013). Is rainfall really changing? Farmers’ perceptions, meteorological data and policy implications. Climate and Development, 5(2), 123-138.

• Stringer, L.C., Mkwambisi, D.D., Dougill, A.J., Dyer, J.C. (2010).  Adaptation to climate change and desertification: Perspectives from national policy and autonomous practice in Malawi. Climate and Development, 2, 145–160. http://dx.doi:10.3763/cdev.2010.0042

• Whitfield, S., Dougill, A.J., Dyer, J.C., Kalaba, F.K., Stringer, L.C. (2015). Critical reflection on knowledge and narratives of Conservation Agriculture. Geoforum, 60, 133-142.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental science
  • Physical geography