Mechanized agriculture seems the way to go: in developed countries most agriculture is mechanized, and some of these countries do export a lot a agricultural products. But a closer look is needed.
IN many cases mechanized agriculture is profitable only because of large state subsidies. This is the case with maize in the US (Americans call maize: corn). Without government subsidy mechanized maize farming would not be sustainable in the US. IN Europe agriculture receives huge subsidies from the EU. This has caused big surpluses of dairy products, that are dumped world wide. This is paid for by the European tax payer and destroys honest competition in Africa. Here in Malawi considerable amounts of European milk products are dumped at prices our dairy farmers cannot compete with. The opposite of development aid, in fact it is development destruction. With mechanized sugar growing in Europe, the local farmers are shielded from international competition with huge import levies, that make (cheap) imported sugar artificially expensive. (As a makeshift compensation the EU has some projects for small scale sugar farmers in Malawi, that do not do much good…)
This shows how world wide, most mechanized agriculture is not cost effective, but is only made possible with subsidies paid for by the tax payers of these countries. In some cases mechanizing agriculture is cost effective, though. But then the cost that is saved to pay for the expensive equipment and fuel, is the cost of saving labor. This means in countries where wages are high, as in many developed countries, replacing a worker with a machine makes sense. If you need 100 workers to grow on a certain piece of land, or you need one worker and an expensive machine, you offset the cost of the 99 workers against the cost of running the machine. In cases of cheap like Malawi, the machine does not easily make sense. IN countries with expensive labor like western European countries it does make sense.
And then there is another factor: if you save the labor of 99 people, where are these people going to make a living? IN a developed economy these people are absorbed in a big labor market that needs these people in other sectors like industry, IT or services. Btu in Malawi we have very little of these other sectors, and not enough job opportunities. So again it does not make sense to pay for expensive machinery.
Another factor is: mechanized agriculture needs large areas of flat land for machines to move on. Malawi only has very small plots, many of them on hilly terrain. The areas good for mechanization, like the Illovo farms, are already mechanized, and otherwise we have very little space to do so. We certainly do not have the huge areas of uncultivated land that are used by big international firms in countries like Zambia. If you want to find arable land in Malawi, you are going to displace the occupants, unlike countries that have arable land in plenty.
All in all, mechanized agriculture does not make much sense in Malawi. So what is the other option: the situation now is not good for the majority of the population, and the population is growing, so pressure on land is going to increase?
I propose for the short term to improve smallholder practices. Since the times of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the extension services have been terribly neglected. We need our government to support the population with good extension services, that spread knowledge about good agricultural practice. Secondly, we need to improve access to markets for cash crops. Tobacco is not doing very well at the moment and in the long term the world wide demand for our tobacco is only going to shrink. We need to diversify, with the help of extension services, and systems for other crops, comparable to the tobacco auctions now. Because we are land locked we need to look for crops with high value per kg, so transport costs do not weigh on the products too heavily. I propose tree crops like cashew nuts and macadamia nuts, and chilies. Other ideas are very welcome. We need government to create an enabling climate, by creating access to markets for these crops, like we have for tobacco.