Portrait and interview: "Friends of ZEF" Prize co-winner Powell Mponela

Photo of Powell's research in Malawi.

May 18, 2022.  

Dr. Powell Mponela, an expert in Forestry from Malawi, received the "Friends of ZEF" Prize for best doctoral theses written 2018-2020 at ZEF for his doctoral thesis on: “Options for sustainable intensification in maize mixed farming systems: Explorative ex-ante assessment using multi-agent system simulation”. Powell obtained his doctoral degree in 2020 from Bonn  University's Faculty of Agriculture.

Dr. Mponela won the Prize together with ZEF alumna Dr. Marwa Shumo (an Entomologist from Oman). Find more information on co-awardee Dr. Marwa Shumo here.

More information about the "Friends of ZEF" Prize and the selection procedure here.


We have been talking to Dr. Powell about his research and studies at ZEF. Read here what he has to say:

What was your motivation to become a scientist?
Growing up in a small farm family in rural Malawi, with little education, I realized that the livelihoods of farming communities depend on linking scientific understanding of natural resources and local knowledge systems.

Why did you choose the topic of sustainable intensification for your doctoral thesis? 
Sustainability of farming livelihoods is a trending topic, with well-developed theoretical frameworks and disciplinary analyses. However, transdisciplinary analytical methods are inadequate. In this research, I consider small farms as business portfolios whose performance and sustainability are driven by varied responses to policies and the environmental change.

Why is this research relevant?
The research contributes to research and development by first developing a sustainability analytical method and, through it, simulating the potential effects of policy regime change on farm productivity and farmers’ decision making.

What are the main problems farmers in Malawi are facing?
Farmers face declining productivity amid lack of knowledge, institutions, infrastructure, and techniques which lead to high inefficiencies and render them vulnerable to emerging forces such as climate change.

What were the basic research questions you have looked into?
First: How can sustainability of complex farming systems be analyzed? Then, I used the scientific tool to answer research questions for development: What are the anticipated sustainability outcomes if supporting policies are altered?

Malawi is one of the few countries, which has been consistently subsidizing its farmers (especially fertilizers). What have been the pros and cons of this policy in comparison to countries who have not followed this policy?
Before receiving subsidies, farmers used mostly local varieties and locally available soil fertility measures. After providing subsidies, Malawi increased its fertilizer and improved seed use which boosted crop yields that ensured food self-sufficiency. Malawi turned from food importer to food exporter. The downside is that the over-reliance on subsidy has led to a dependence syndrome: The initial shift in maize productivity plateaued and is diminishing while farmers still rely on governmental support for small-scale subsistence farming. In other countries, farming is commercialized resulting in the emergence of medium-scale farms.

You also looked into the role of women farmers. Could you tell us a bit more about what you found out?
Women promote legume cropping to enhance household nutrition. We see that with increased bargaining power in decision-making, they tend to disfavor organic manure inputs due to the increased labor demand.

What do you consider the most important outcomes of your doctoral research? 
I developed a sustainability analytical tool, called MASSAI (Multi Agent System for simulating Sustainable Agricultural Intensification), that integrates ecological soil-nutrient transfer processes and human-induced transfers at the level of a managed plot. I also analyzed the sustainability impact of the major policy program in Malawi, FISP (Farm Input Subsidy ­Program), and found that providing subsidies induces dependence and lower nutrient inputs among the resource-poor farmers. These subsidies-induced behavioral changes are projected to lead to decreased maize productivity and loss of phosphorus on the one hand, but soil nitrogen gain on the other.

Why did you choose ZEF for pursuing your doctoral thesis?
I came to know ZEF from working with ZEF alumni Lulseged Tamene and Quang Bao Le within CGIAR, a global agricultural research organization. I was further inspired by contacts with the ZEF alumni network in Africa including Job Kihara of Kenya, Wilson Agyare of Ghana and Kelebogile Mfundisi of Botswana, who all work in CGIAR- and university-contexts.

What do you consider the biggest benefits of your doctoral training at ZEF?
I benefitted from the interdisciplinary set-up and international setting. The biophysical and socioeconomic courses were a foundation for my thesis to investigate the link between external socio-political factors, farmer decision making and land productivity.

You defended/graduated in 2020. What has been your professional path since then and what are your plans for the future?
After graduation, I returned to the Alliance of International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Bioversity International and assumed a post-doc position in socio-economics. I evaluated the impact of participatory action research on technology adoption and farm-gate nutritional outcomes for the Africa RISING project that was implemented for close to a decade and uplifted the lives of over 30 million farmers in Africa. I also evaluated the gender dynamics in land restoration initiatives in Ethiopia. Since April 1, 2022, I have joined the new CGIAR initiatives that will run in phases until 2030. My role is to develop tools and methods for evaluating impact of technologies and innovations in mixed crop-livestock farming systems in Africa and Asia.


Dr. Mponela, thanks for this interview!