Deep Bed Farming (DBF) is a low-cost, low-tech set of farming practices, which has been producing spectacular results in Malawi.
DBF is a hybrid form of Conservation Agriculture (CA) a well established (and successful) set of methods which involve minimal soil disturbance, cover crops and crop rotation. Over several years of trial and error Tiyeni has developed new innovations to build on the CA approach, notably by breaking up the hardpan and on the particular design of the Deep Beds.
It is a testament to the remarkable success of these methods that DBF has spread in Malawi from just 38 farmers in 2012 to nearly 15,000 by 2020 - with minimal inputs or handouts, and a demand-led model of only responding to requests from for assistance, rather than trying to push our techniques onto farming communities.
We believe that DBF could be of great use to millions of farmers, in Malawi and beyond, and it could have major impact on curbing hunger.
This page contains research reports on DBF, from our own internal research, from official research, and from independent external researchers.
More research is needed on DBF, however, to discover more about what works, how it works, and how the technical aspects of DBF fit (or don't fit) with the sociological, cultural and political background of the places where it is practiced.
At the bottom of the page we outline a number of potential avenues for researchers. We warmly invite them to come to Malawi and investigate what is happening.
France Gondwe, June 2020.
This survey group of 346 farmers in 14 groups in Malawi's North and Central regions once again found a doubling of yields for farmers who adopted Deep Bed Farming (DBF,) and a steady increase in adoption from 2017 to 2019. However, when profitability was calculated -- a simple calculation of revenues minus costs -- the results were more spectacular.
For conventional ridge farming, only some of the areas showed any profit at all, while some showed monetary losses. On average, profits were MK 49,000 per hectare per year.
For Deep Bed Farming, however, profitability in the first year was MK427,000 per hectare per year on average, nearly nine times as much as the average for conventional ridge methods.
However, DBF involves a lot of intensive (and expensive) manual labour in Year 1, as the hardpan is broken and the Deep Beds built, but once the Deep Beds are in place the costs are significantly lower than with conventional ridge methods. So if the (lower) average five year projected costs are considered, profitability rises to 624,000 MK per hectare, over 12 times as much as conventional methods.
France Gondwe, May 2020.
A study of the impact of Deep Bed Farming (DBF) on hunger among 560 Malawian farmers. Results include:
France Mzotah Gondwe, Tiyeni, April 2020
Many projects to promote new farming technologies in different countries show high adoption and retention rates during the monitoring phase while projects continue to provide extension support, inputs and incentives. However, retention rates often fall sharply after the projects come to an end and the inputs and support dry up.
Drawing on the 2018 baseline report (below) and adding new survey results, this short preliminary study shows i) exponential growth rates of the adotion of DBF as farmers see and emulate their neighbours' successes; ii) abandonment rates of just three percent during project implementation; and iii) retention rates of 55 percent after the departure of Tiyeni field extension officers and inputs, significantly higher than for other farming technologies. How Many Farmers are Retaining Deep Bed Farming?.
Albert Mvula and Alan Dixon, University of Worcester, 2020
A study of 111 farmers adopting DBF via a field survey in 2017. Highlights
This table highlights the enthusiastic response, as farmers start with a conservative approach, only allocating a small part of their land to Tiyeni methods, then expand.
Malawi Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS,) Sept 2019.
An official Malawi government assessment of Deep Bed Farming, using a randomised complete block design with split plots. Deep Bed Farming was compared with conventional tillage, Conventional Tillage with box ridges, Pit Planting, and Deep Bed Farming.
The abstract and introduction say:
“Though farmers have increasingly demanded and adopted the Deep Bed method of farming due to its apparent superior performance even under stressful agronomic conditions such as dry spells, the technology is yet to be approved for farmers use in Malawi. An experiment, therefore, was conducted. . . . The study revealed that deep bed tillage system increased maize yield in two of the agroecologies (higher and lower altitude) for under on-station management. Conversely it increased maize yield yields in the mid agroecologies under farmers management. Maize biomass yield was also increased under Deep bed farming system compared with the pit planting system in the low altitude agroecology sites under on-station management. Legumes grain yield was increased when deep bed and conventional tillage with box ridges in all the agroecologies under on-station management. Deep bed and conventional tillage with box ridges also increased biomass yield in the mid and high altitude agroecologies. Similar to crop yield, Deep bed especially under intercropping, also increased land equivalent ratio than all the tillage systems. Soil moisture was also increased under deep bed and pit planting systems especially in the low altitude agro-ecology which is the hottest agro-ecology of the three agro-ecologies under study. In general, Deep bed farming can be a new good technology that may be promoted among farmers in Malawi as it increases both maize and biomass yields. The increased biomass production may lead to increased soil organic matter in the long run as the crop residues are laid on the soil surface.” (Our emphasis.)
A copy of the full study is available on request.
At the time of writing (April 2020), Tiyeni is hopeful that Deep Bed Farming will be approved as an official farming technology by the Malawian government.
Our 2018 baseline report, which interviewed 560 farmers in eight different Extension Planning Areas, provides a wealth of data. These include findings such as:
Colin Andrews, with Francis Shaxson, and Tim Jones, 2018
A 2018 study prepared by Tiyeni's Colin Andrews of 11 farmers who had agreed to prepare DBF on a plot adjacent to a plot where they continued with the traditional farming method. The tilling and planting done was identical, as well as the application of mulch and fertiliser. This was reviewed by Tim Jones, a well-known statistician. While the sample size is small, the data suggests that the DBF method yields significantly more than the Ridge method. Table one, below, is in the order of the original data.
UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO,) 2016
A report on soil erosion in Malawi (not about Tiyeni, but highly relevant to us.)
"The average national soil loss rates in 2014 was 29 ton/ha/yr. The areas with relatively high rates were the north and some pockets in the southern region. The northern region had soil loss rates ranging between 0.4 ton/ha/yr to 39 ton/ha/yr.
. . .
The net effect is loss of agricultural productivity, increased expenditure on fertilizers (that are required to maintain the yields), and a general decline in profitability of crop production. Besides the negative impact on agriculture, soil loss also affects surface water resources through loss of water quality and quantity, increased flashfloods, and siltation of rivers and irrigation canals. There are also arguments of soil loss increasing emissions of greenhouse gasses."
A report by CIAT on DBF identifying areas for further research. Preliminary conclusions were scant but include this:
"[Tiyeni has] empowered farmers to grow food on small plots and attain bumper yields in the face of declining soil fertility and moisture levels due to climate variability."
Click here for the full report.
Alan Dixon, Institute of Science and the Environment, University of Worcester, 2015.
This contains a number of testimonials from farmers, and some preliminary conclusions, including:
"In summary, the evidence to date suggests that Tiyeni activities are having a significant impact on the livelihoods of their beneficiaries. . . there is little doubt that Tiyeni is making a key contribution towards this through its modest implementation activities which contribute to social, economic and environmental well-being, while building resilience and adaptive capacity."
Deep Bed Farming has been very effective, but (of course!) it does not work 100 percent of the time. Some farmers have abandoned it, for a variety of reasons: including:
So we could imagine any number of further research projects, investigating the strengths and weaknesses of DBF and how to improve and adapt the method for local conditions, such as:
In short, there are endless things to study, and we welcome all those who wish to find out more.