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Conservation farming - diminishing hunger in Zimbabwe

In 2004, Concern Worldwide began to promote conservation farming (© Patrick Bentley/Concern Worldwide)
In 2004, Concern Worldwide began to promote conservation farming
© Patrick Bentley/Concern Worldwide

In 2004, Concern Worldwide began to promote conservation farming (CF) in Zimbabwe and in eight years, farmers involved in the project have transformed from being beneficiaries of food aid to becoming the providers of food aid. "We have realised that conservation farming is the way forward," enthuses Panagayi Gwara, a CF village facilitator.

Avoiding soil disturbance

"Conservation farming is based on the concept that soil is best left undisturbed," says Gwara. "By protecting land from the sun and the plough we don't harm the soil's natural structure. This means the soil is less prone to erosion." In Zimbabwe, an adaptation of zai holes, traditionally used in the Sahel, have been introduced; manure and fertiliser are placed in each pit and the soil dug out from the pits is then used to help trap water around each pit. Once the rains have started, three maize seeds are planted in each pit and then thinned to two plants.

By leaving crop residues on the ground, the soil is kept cool and moist. "Increased organic matter improves soil structure, makes it less susceptible to erosion, acts as compost and enhances the effectiveness of artificial fertilisers," says Raza Shiri, another CF farmer.

To manage soil fertility and prevent the build up of pests and soil pathogens, Concern Worldwide encourages farmers to divide their plots into quarters, planting two-quarters with maize, one-quarter with sorghum and one-quarter with groundnuts, and rotating the crops each season. "Crop rotation has been one of the hardest parts of conservation farming for farmers to adopt," says Tawanda Mutonhori, a Concern Worldwide Food Security Officer. "Marginal farmers often have very small land holdings and struggle to produce enough of their staple crop to feed their families, so rotating with a non-staple crop such as groundnuts is not an option."

Assessing impact of CF

Zai holes are traditionally used in the Sahel (© TREEAID)
Zai holes are traditionally used in the Sahel

"In tropical agriculture systems the planting date is the most important variable in determining yields," observes Israel Pilime, District Head of Agriculture Technical Extension Services (Agritex) for Gokwe South district. "Many tropical soils become very hard as they dry and field preparation is impossible until the first rains have soaked into the soils." Farmers may then experience further delays if they have to wait to borrow or hire an ox for ploughing. For each day that planting is delayed after the onset of rains, 1.5 per cent of maize yield is lost, so one week's delay in planting results in a 7-10.5 percent loss in yield. "Because conservation farming does not rely on ploughing this enables farmers to plant early, which means that crops can mature before the rains end and the crops are able to take advantage of the flush of nitrogen released from soil organic matter when the first rains fall," says Pilime.

"If we don't do conservation farming, the national average yield is about 0.6 tonnes per hectare," explains David Lowe, conservation farming consultant for Concern Worldwide, "compared to three tonnes per hectare with conservation farming. So it's quite dramatic." Gokwe districts are characterised by sodic soils but the soil structure has improved since the biological life base has expanded due to added organic matter, thereby increasing infiltration rate, aeration and soil fertility.

CF technology has undoubtedly augmented food production and both poor and very poor CF farmers have better harvests even in areas affected by erratic rainfall. This is shown by information gathered after the 2011 harvest: very poor CF farmers are harvesting 46 per cent more food as compared to non CF counterparts, and poor CF farmers are getting 57 per cent more food, mainly cereals, (maize, sorghum and millet) as compared to non CF farmers. "Not only does conservation farming have an impact on the livelihoods of poor smallholder farmers but it also has an impact on the wider community," says Paul Wagstaff Concern's agriculture advisor.

Currently, over 10,000 farmers are practising CF in three districts, 8,300 having been trained by Concern Worldwide and over 2,000 by other farmers with the assistance of Agritex officers. CF is clearly 'climate sustainable' because CF principles entail minimum disturbance of the ecosystem and hence even if only a little rain falls farmers are able to produce something."A well-practised CF system entails little deforestation and furthermore makes use of water conservation techniques, so burning of vegetation is reduced and there's no violation of the hydrological cycle," says Pilime.

Looking to the future

Mulch from a previous harvest retains water and provides more nutrients (© Concern Worldwide)
Mulch from a previous harvest retains water and provides more nutrients
© Concern Worldwide

"Converting to conservation farming requires a 180 degree change in traditional practices, with new tools and often more labour during the initial stages," admits Leonard Chirume, Gokwe North Agritex Officer. Weed control is one of the greatest challenges. In Zimbabwe, farmers have had to weed up to six times in the first season of CF, although this does reduce to three in the second season and only once or twice in the third and subsequent years. This extra work poses a serious problem for the elderly or chronically sick. CF also requires commitment and cost in the provision of extension services.

However, a system of communal, reciprocal labour promoted by Concern Worldwide has been rapidly adopted by farmers, enabling them to overcome the higher labour-demands associated with CF. In Gokwe North, for example, farmers worked in groups and together prepared planting basins for the elderly. Basically, the system became community owned with the farmers implementing a community-based monitoring plan ensuring sustainability.

Using the experiences gained in Zimbabwe, Concern Worldwide has extended the work with farmers to the central highlands of Angola in addition to rolling out the system in Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. Concern Worldwide has also been asked to train ministry staff and researchers in conservation farming in North Korea.

Date published: May 2012


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