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Meeting Malawi’s agri-information gap

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

Charles Mkoka is an environment and development journalist, and long-standing correspondent for WRENmedia based in Malawi. Here, he explains the importance of agricultural reporting to support the country’s largely farm-based economy.

Charles interviews Estherine Fotabong, Head of Programme Implementation and Coordination Directorate for NEPAD PCA – the development agency of the African Union

When did you first get involved in science and environmental reporting – was it a passion from the start of your career? And how has it changed over the years?

After school, I attended the Malawi Natural Resources College, which was built in Lilongwe with support from the Canadian International Development Agency. It was one of the best institutions providing training for technical assistance in the field of agriculture. I studied environment and natural resource management under a government sponsorship scheme and it is here, whilst reading through newspaper columns on wildlife, agriculture and environment, that my passion for environmental science subjects began to blossom.

After graduation I was assigned to the environment education, outreach and extension unit of the Malawi Government where I worked with communities to generate content on school and club visits to protected areas, wildlife species and sustainable development issues for newspapers and radio – television was not fully operational in Malawi back then. The main aim was to raise awareness among peripheral communities surrounding protected areas to appreciate the link between conservation and agriculture, and the importance of protecting the local environment.

Reporting on agriculture has not always been a priority for national outlets. Do you think this remains a challenge?

Malawi is largely an agriculture-based economy so there is a need to connect the dots on environment, agriculture, food security, and nutrition, and to link all of these back to the country’s overall development agenda. However, I first noticed the lack of more detailed and comprehensive coverage of agriculture and environment-focused articles in the local press in the early 1990s. Whilst the newspapers were covering politics, business, arts, culture and sports, there was a gap in environmental science updates. Noticing this gap, I was driven to supply the missing content and in 2000, I quit my job with the government to start reporting on agriculture, environment, food security and nutrition.

Things have since changed; the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, for instance, now offers a course in agriculture communications, which is a welcome development helping to fill the information gap.

What key advice would you give to students who might be thinking about reporting on agriculture?

A proper background in the subject and awareness of the entire agricultural value chain is important. You need to be aware of issues around production and what is involved in crop and animal husbandry practices – for handling, processing, storage, pest and disease control – as well as how farmers access produce markets. Then you can learn about journalism, about how to develop content, fact collecting and content analysis.

Understanding of the national process for agriculture-led transformation among student journalists is also a critical ingredient to effectively connect local development to national and international agendas.

You have worked with WRENmedia for some years, reporting for Spore but also providing stories from the field for other organisations. Can you share some of the key highlights in covering stories from Malawi for a more international audience?

As a WRENmedia correspondent in Malawi, I have covered a lot of stories for Spore. I have also reported on a number of projects supported by the International Development Research Centre, for example, for their Cultivate Africa's Future (CultiAF) programme. The Expanding Business Opportunities for African Youth in Agricultural Value Chains in Southern Africa CultiAF project in Malawi was an entrepreneur hub that worked to strengthen youth involvement in agribusiness initiatives in agricultural value chains. Youth groups were trained in developing business blueprints, marketing strategies and financial planning, and received monetary support in the form of grants to upscale their research and generate and test creative business models. Through the use of solar powered cold storage and vacuum storage containers, one exciting agri start-up was aiming to curb post-harvest fish losses in the country.

Through WRENmedia, I have also written stories for the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines – a not-for-profit company dedicated to making livestock health products accessible and affordable to smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia. For example, I have written about their Newcastle Disease (ND) vaccine programme, which aimed to provide backyard poultry farmers with small doses of the vaccine instead of the previously available packs suited for commercial chicken farmers. Community vaccinators were trained to administer the ND vaccine in rural areas of Lilongwe and, in return, the farmers would pay a modest fee for the vaccinations.

It was interesting to report on these stories from the field because I was also able to network with new experts, share experiences, learn new ideas and more importantly, understand the challenges my sources were going through. These opportunities provided me with great learning experiences all in all.

Sophie Reeve

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