Zambian subsistence farmers are reporting successes with conservation farming which advocates new methods of maximising crops in areas with low rainfall and difficult conditions.
Up to 2.9 million Zambians face starvation partly because of a drought that has forced the government to appeal for relief food. But, farmers practising conservation farming have demonstrated an ability to boost yields with a minimum of expensive inputs which could have implications for future food security.
An example of conservation methods can be found in the remote village of Lwimba in Chongwe district, about 80 km southeast of the Zambian capital, Lusaka. The bumpy, dusty road cuts through large tracts of cleared brown-red earth with neat rows of collected dried maize or millet stalks from the previous harvest.
The bundles of stalks and anything else found in the field such as weeds are interspersed by shallow holes called basins. The basins are dug carefully without turning the earth up as much as an ox-driven plough or a tractor would have. This keeps the nutrients in the soil alive and retains precious moisture.
When the first rains collect and sink into the basins, instead of running over the heavily tilled land and eroding the soil, the water seeps gently into the soil. Farmers then plant their new maize in the moist soil and wait for the seeds to germinate.
An organisation assisting with this method in Lwimba is the Conservation League of the United States of America (CLUSA), a United States Agency for International Development-funded project. Over the last two trying seasons, it has supported about 150 subsistence farmers in the district with inputs like fertiliser and seed, and the technical advice needed to harvest more food from a relatively small tract of land. It plans to increase this to 350 farmers.
Rhoda Mooya, a 49-year-old mother of eight called it a farming method for people who do not want to starve.
Standing proudly in her field, Mooya told IRIN: "I used to harvest just between four to five bags from one hectare because of poor rains. But when I started conservation farming, my yield in the last farming season just boomed. I got 14, 50 kg bags, of maize from the same area."
However, Mooya said her husband was wary of the new method. He suggested she should have a test run and they would compare results with his own traditional way.
"I have beaten him once already in terms of doubled yields and am getting another hectare while he remains doubtful and stuck in his old methods," she said with a triumphant smile.
George Allison, CLUSA programme manager, said conservation farming was gaining momentum and popularity as farmers saw their neighbours' results.
Allison explained that Zambian subsistence farmers usually only began preparations for the next crop when the rains started, which he felt handicapped potential yields.
"With conservation farming, you prepare the land during the dry season and anticipate this event [the rains] so this means you are ahead in the game compared to those who wait for the rains.
"Any lost day in maize growing means that you have lost 1 percent of the yield and in a month you have lost 30 percent, which you cannot recover with all the fertilizer or best variety of seed," he said.
In Zambia only 16 percent of the estimated nine million hectares of cultivable land is regularly cropped, and only six percent of an irrigation potential of up to three million hectares is used for irrigated agriculture, according to the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
Around 800,000 small-scale producers farm an average of 1.5 hectares. A combination of lack of access to credit, poor rural infrastructure and labour practices have depressed agricultural production, reflected in part by Zambia's chronic rate of child malnutrition. Agricultural GDP growth averaged only 1.5 percent annually between 1965 and 1997.
CLUSA, with the help of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) are supporting up to 30,000 households in rural Lusaka, Central province and Southern province.
WFP are redirecting their assistance from food for work programmes to conservation farming and FAO are helping with the inputs, Allison said.
CLUSA's goal was to make the farmers self-sufficient, sourcing their own seed and inputs within three to five seasons.
The method is being supported by the Zambia National Farmers Union through its Conservation Farming Unit.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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