Written by Austin Dunn

Austin using GPS in our commercial garden

Austin using GPS in our commercial garden

In 2012, I spent seven weeks at the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology. I was there conducting independent undergraduate research with support from the University of Iowa. During this time, I spoke with government officials, agricultural development professionals, and smallholder farmers about their experiences with and visions for agriculture and food security in Malawi—all while living and learning (and eating!) the benefits of permaculture at Kusamala’s demonstration farm. It did not take long for me to realize the potential of agro-ecological approaches to farming in Malawi, a country struggling to combat malnutrition and environmental degradation. By the end of my stay, I was thoroughly intrigued and inspired by the work of Kusamala, and I was determined to further investigate the benefits of alternative agriculture in Malawi.

After returning to the U.S. to finish my degree in Geography, I am now very excited to return to Kusamala with a new research project, “Participatory Mapping for Permaculture: Expressing and Sharing Knowledge through Geographic Visualization in Malawi.” Joining me as co-investigator is Julia Reynolds, who brings her experience conducting qualitative research on rural food systems in Latin America.

Julia tracing a google image of the centre

Julia tracing a google image of the centre

Julia and I have recently been awarded a Young Explorers Grant from the National Geographic Society to support a year of fieldwork in Malawi. Over the next year, we will be utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) and participatory mapping exercises with local farmers to identify the environmental, economic, and nutritional benefits of implementing permaculture and agro-ecology. With help from local smallholders, we will create farm-scale maps of conventional and alternative agricultural systems, which will serve as the basis of our analysis. The maps produced through this project will in turn be used as teaching tools for local farmers and, additionally, as a way to communicate Kusamala’s work to larger audiences.

In addition to support from National Geographic, we have been granted GIS resources from the Esri Conservation Program. Esri (Environmental System Research Institute) is a global leader in GIS technology and has taken interest in our project and our use of GIS at Kusamala. We are excited that they have also agreed to sponsor Asa Strong, another UIowa Geography grad and former Esri employee, as he joins us in November to assist Kusamala in developing a GIS program, which will help the organization monitor and evaluate its impacts in Malawi.

As our plans come to fruition, they are complementing Kusamala’s new Climate Smart Agriculture project in exciting ways. The CSA project hopes to use GIS to monitor its progress, as well as to showcase Kusamala’s demonstration centre through online, interactive maps. We are very happy to be involved in this project and anticipate a mutually beneficial relationship between all the project’s partners. Stay tuned for updates on our progress, and check out our research blog!