Livestock Research for Rural Development 23 (11) 2011 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Challenges and Opportunities of Smallholder Dairy Production Systems: A Case Study of Selected Districts in Malawi

L J Banda, T N Gondwe, W Gausi, C Masangano, P Fatch, K Wellard, J W Banda and E W Kaunda

University of Malawi, Bunda College of Agriculture,
PO Box 219, Lilongwe Malawi


Livestock make a significant contribution to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Malawi. Among the livestock, dairy cattle have significantly gained importance over the years as evidenced by an increase in farmers with interest in smallholder dairy production.  Government and NGOs have put smallholder dairying a priority in livestock production. A baseline study was conducted in Kasungu, Mzimba, Lilongwe and Thyolo Districts to characterize the livestock production system and document existing challenges and opportunities for integrating smallholder dairying.

Results showed that the production system is a low input-low output with farmers keeping 2.23±1.56 dairy animals, of which 1.31±0.97 (~ 60 %) are cows. The animals are bred through artificial insemination (AI) conducted by trained AI technicians. Income from milk was significantly higher (p<0.05) than other livestock products. Challenges in the dairy sector included low milk prices, unreliable milk collection by milk processors, transport problems for AI technicians, lack of AI equipment, and low competency of AI technicians. The challenges were further complicated by inadequate knowledge in animal husbandry by livestock extension workers who had an average performance score of 70%. However, farmer AI technicians had a higher average score (74%) which the study considered as satisfactory for farmers. The results show the potential for enhancing smallholder dairying and suggest that the use of farmers to support dairy extension work could be an opportunity to complement extension workers. This could be more effective with regular follow ups and refresher courses in place. 

Keywords: cattle, extension, husbandry, knowledge


Livestock provide a significant nutritional supplement to vulnerable groups, increase the resilience of smallholder households in the face of food crises, and help to maintain traditional social safety nets (Randolph et al., 2007).  However, they constitute only a limited part of most people’s diet in Malawi, as they account for less than 10% of average household expenditures and only an estimated 1.3% of total energy intake (ASD, 2006).  Smallholder dairy farmers produce the bulk of milk available for processing in Malawi. The sector is organized into milk bulking groups (MBGs) and there are about 50 MBGs throughout the country. Most of the milk (80%) is produced in the Southern Region with the Central and Northern Regions supplying 15 and 5%, respectively (CYE, 2009). The farmers receive technical support from government and some NGOs. Smallholder dairying has the potential to expand outside traditional milk production areas. This study was carried out to provide an overview of the status of dairy production and general extension in Kasungu, Mzimba, Lilongwe and Thyolo districts and outline challenges and opportunities for farmers and extension workers. 

Materials and methods

A baseline survey was conducted in Lilongwe, Kasungu, Thyolo, and Mzimba Districts in Malawi. The districts represented the Central (Lilongwe and Kasungu), Southern (Thyolo) and Northern (Mzimba) milk production areas. Within the districts, farmers from specific milk bulking groups (MBGs) were randomly selected. Data were collected using structured questionnaire that were given to 163 individual dairy farming households. More data on the farming systems and existing extension service providers were collected through key informant interviews and focus group discussions in the funding project target EPAs in Mzimba and Kasungu Districts to understand how dairy production could be integrated in the existing systems. Data collected were analyzed for descriptive and inferential statistics using SPSS 15. Chi-square was used to compare - variables between districts. 

Knowledge on dairy cattle husbandry was assessed among farmers and extension workers in four Extension Planning Areas (EPAs) in Mzimba and Kasungu Districts where 120 farmers were purposively sampled to capture information on current animal husbandry practices. Agricultural Extension Development Officers (AEDOs), Assistant Veterinary Officers (AVOs), and farmer AI technicians (FAIT) working in the study areas were interviewed. The responses were scored and quality of performance was categorized as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The cut off points between satisfactory and unsatisfactory were 60, 75 and 90% for farmers, FAIT and extension workers, respectively. Any score less than the cut off points in this study was considered as an indicator for the need for further capacity building and/or refresher courses.  

Results and Discussion

Respondents were interviewed from a total of 12 MBGs where five are in Mzimba, four in Thyolo, two in Kasungu and one in Lilongwe District. The average age of the household was 49.1±12.93 years and ranged from 21 to 84. The average household size across all districts was 5.7±2.60 with an adult equivalent of 4.7±2. These variables were not significantly different (p>0.05) between districts. Approximately 66.7% of the household had attained basic literacy showing that most of the famers engaging in dairy production are literate. This is an important positive aspect which can facilitate promotion of dairy records keeping. 

Most farmers kept Holstein-Friesians (53.6%), Holstein x Malawi Zebu Crosses (16%), Jerseys (13%) and Jersey x Malawi Zebu crosses (11%) with significant differences between districts (p<0.05). Approximately 80% of the farmers in Thyolo District had pure Holstein-Friesians and its crosses with Malawi Zebu, while 32% and 25% of farmers in Lilongwe and Mzimba Districts had Jerseys. The average herd size was 2.2 ±1.6 with no significant difference between districts. As expected, the herds are mostly comprised of cows (1.3±0.34). A few farmers had no cows, but had either pregnant heifers or heifers. Very few farmers (9.2%) owned bulls which are used for natural mating and hired by other farmers as an alternative to AI.  

Challenges faced were categorized into breeding, feeding, health and marketing. Challenges in animal breeding were mainly unavailability of AI services (44.6%) and scarcity of good guality semen (17.0%). Unavailability of AI services had a significantly (p<0.05) higher frequency in Mzimba District (67.3%) than the rest of the districts. The main challenge related to feeding was difficulty to get feedstuffs (59.8%), with only 2 farmers (1.8%) from Kasungu citing shortage of feed and labour to collect feed as challenges. The high cost of drugs (42.6%) and disease incidences (7.8%) were challenges in animal health, while low milk prices (56.8%) and poor markets (39.2%) were the major challenges in milk marketing. The solutions to challenges that farmers proposed included refresher courses in dairy management; installation of more milk cooling tanks; assistance on milk marketing and pricing; provision of AI kits; access to more loans; and improved extension services. 

The farmers in Kasungu and partly Mzimba Agricultural Development Division have been supported by several NGOs through heifer exchange (pass-on loan) scheme. The organizations include Land O lakes, Plan International, and World Vision International. These also offered some training in dairy production, management and marketing skills. The institutions complement government extension services and provide opportunities for further farmer capacity building. The results showed that income generation from livestock was important with beef and dairy cattle being the most important in Luwerezi and Kaluluma EPAs, respectively (Table 1). Kaluluma EPA farmers generate more income from milk production (p<0.05). This is attributed to the support to dairy cattle production that the farmers get from organizations such as Plan International. The higher proceeds from dairy production demonstrated in Kaluluma EPA may be an indicator that dairy farming has a potential as a source of income at household level.

Table 1: Annual household income generated from livestock and livestock products in Luwerezi, Emfeni, Kaluluma, and Kasungu-Chipala Extension Planning Areas (EPAs).


EPA Mean Income (MK*)

Livestock Species

























Livestock Products




















*1US$ = MK150.00

The results indicated that the general extension workers (AEDOs) had knowledge gaps in most of the recommended dairy husbandry practices (Table 2). They did not achieve a score close to 90% as an expected satisfactory score in this study. The relatively low scores could be a reflection of lack of frequent use of the knowledge. It was noted that AEDOs spend relatively more time on crop production extension than livestock production. The AVOs have appreciable knowledge in animal husbandry as their average score was 70%. The results show that each of the AVOs has some areas where they are strong and others where they are weak or just average. This may be a reflection on which animal husbandry practices they frequently provide services for. It can be noted that neither of the AVOs scored 90 % showing that their level of knowledge is not satisfactory. This suggests that there is need for further capacity building, particularly in artificial insemination and pregnancy diagnosis which are the key to the expansion of dairy cattle production. 

The FAIT had relatively higher knowledge in AI and pregnancy diagnosis than the AVO from Kaluluma EPA in Kasungu District (Table 2). The reason is probably that the FAIT frequently put their knowledge into practice than the AVOs. The average score (74%) was almost up to the score of 75% which the study considered as satisfactory for FAIT.

Table 2: Performance of extension workers and farmer AI technicians in a knowledge test on cattle husbandry in Kasungu and Mzimba Districts.


Knowledge % (mean±SD)





Animal husbandry aspect






Artificial Insemination






Pregnancy Diagnosis






Animal housing






Animal feeding






Milk management & marketing






Parasite & disease control












AEDOs: Agricultural Extension Development Officers; AVOs: Assistant Veterinary Officers; FAIT: farmer AI technicians

The technicians scored way above 75% in several aspects including animal housing, disease control and milk management. This suggests that use of FAIT to support extension work could be effective with proper follow ups and refresher courses in place.

This study was carried out to provide an overview of the status of dairy production and general extension in Kasungu, Mzimba, Lilongwe and Thyolo districts and outline challenges and opportunities for farmers and extension workers.



The authors thank the Bunda College -Flanders International Cooperation Agency (FICA) Project for funding the work and all the research assistants involved in data collection. 


ASD 2006 An assessment of current status of livestock production in Malawi. In Kadohira M., Mfitilodze, W., Mlangwa, J., and Lungu , J. 2006. Animal Agriculture in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia at the beginning of the 21st Century. Obihiro University, Japan.

CYE Consult 2009 Value chain analysis of selected commodities institutional development across the agri-food sector. Final Report. Ministry of Agriculture , Lilongwe Malawi.

Randolph T F, Schelling E, Grace D, Nicholson C F, Leroy J L, Cole D C, Demment M W, Omore A, Zinsstag J  &Ruel M  2007  Role of livestock in human nutrition and health for poverty reduction in developing countries. Journal  Animal Science 85: 2788–2800.

Received 26 July 2011; Accepted 3 October 2011; Published 4 November 2011

Go to top