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Some African farmers are turning the tables on starvation by no longer turning the soil.
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This article was published 10/4/2015 (1441 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Improving the productivity of smallholder farmers in Africa is both the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity for addressing hunger and poverty on the continent.
More than 80 per cent of the population depends on farming. Agriculture also makes up a significant proportion of their GDP: as much as 45 per cent in Ethiopia and 37 per cent in Malawi. (By comparison, two per cent of Canadians live on a farm and the sector accounts for eight per cent of this country’s GDP.)
So growth in the agricultural sector in these countries is critical — not only for feeding their rising populations, but to grow their economies.
Manitoba Co-operator editor Laura Rance recently spent five weeks in three African countries on a special assignment supported by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, exploring the links between investing in agriculture and development.
She found while modern technologies such as hybrid seeds and fertilizers can make a difference, the foundation for real agricultural growth starts with healthy soils.
Many farmers in Africa are unable to produce enough maize to feed tehir families through the months between harvests.
We could hear the grief, wails rising and receding like waves, as soon as we stepped out of the Toyota Landcruiser in this farming district located about an hour outside of Chipata, Zambia, on a bone-jarringly rough road.
Laura Rance recently spent five weeks in three African countries while on secondment to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to write about agriculture and development.
The chorus of voices gathering to support a neighbour who had just lost a loved one echoed through the trees, spreading the sombre news to all in the vicinity.
This was the third funeral we had encountered in as many days as researcher Chris Woodring and I criss-crossed the Zambia-Malawi border in late February interviewing farmers about conservation agriculture (CA).
Ruairidh Waddell, (pronounced Rory), program consultant for Zambia and Malawi with the development and relief agency World Renew, accompanied us for part of the tour.
He confirmed the deaths were no coincidence.
The months between December through March are known as the "hunger months" or "lean months" in southern and eastern Africa — the gap between when last year’s harvest is running short and this year’s crop is not yet ready.
The degree of shortages varies from household to household. But for many families, it becomes a season of tough choices. Do they skip meals or make do with smaller portions? Will assets be sold to purchase staples such as maize? Or should that money be used to pay school fees, even if it means the children attend on an empty stomach?
It is also a season that takes a heavy toll on the old, the young and the sick.
"I would definitely say there is a correlation between the two," said Waddell.
"The hunger months, also the very cold season, present the most challenging periods for families in this area, especially in relation to diseases like HIV/AIDS that suppress people’s immunity," he said. "They require better nutrition in these periods. You’ll find this time of the year the balanced diet sort of goes out the window."
The rainy season is also when malaria and pneumonia, which are increasingly resistant to available antibiotics, are more apt to strike.
"Children also tend to suffer at this time of year," Waddell said. "Culturally and traditionally, children are often the last to eat, and so you may find that the adults are taking more food. They are working in the fields so they require a higher daily calorie count. Amongst children, you often see a lot more fatalities at this time of the year."
To make matters worse, the rains have become less predictable in recent years. This growing season, the "planting rains," which should have fallen in November, came late in December instead, pushing everything back.
"This year with the delayed rains, it means crops that would traditionally be available, like pumpkins at this time of year to add a little bit of extra nutrition to their diet, are late," Waddell said. "They are three to four weeks behind, so people are in an even more acute position this year than they normally are."
This is when I began to understand the distinction between being hungry — as in, those pangs you feel between meals — and living with a hunger that defines your day-to-day existence and compromises your family’s future.
It’s a sad irony that most of the hungry people on the African continent are farmers, many of whom live from crop to crop and in perpetual poverty. More than 80 per cent of the populations of these countries live in rural areas and farm for a living.
Their survival is based on what they can produce on small parcels of land, often one hectare or less. And in many countries, where land can be occupied but can’t be bought and sold, those parcels are divided into even smaller pieces with each generation. In the face of a population that is growing by 2.5 to 2.8 per cent per year, it is giving rise to a demographic of young peasants who can’t possibly produce enough to live.
But in an underdeveloped economy, there is nowhere else for them to go.
It is also placing unsustainable pressure on soils that are already degraded and rapidly losing their productive capacity.
Heavy tillage and the removal of crop residues leaves soils in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa exposed to wind and water erosion.
You don’t have to be a soil scientist to see Africa’s soils are in trouble.
You only have to drive across the Great Rift Valley south of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, a region where farmers plough their fields with oxen no less than five times before seeding and where the mountains on either side are obscured by soil particles hanging suspended in the air. The dust devils run rampant, vacuuming up the earth like dirt on a floor.
The Montpellier panel, an elite group of European and African scientists commissioned to analyze development issues on the continent, published a report last December that characterizes two-thirds of Africa’s soils as degraded, along with 30 per cent of the grazing lands and 20 per cent of the forests. That degradation affects the food security of 180 million people and cuts productivity to the tune of US$68 billion annually.
"The burdens caused by Africa’s damaged soils are disproportionately carried by the continent’s resource-poor farmers," said the panel’s chairman, Sir Gordon Conway, in releasing the report No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa’s soil.
"The decline in fertility exists everywhere," Sheleme Beyene, a soil scientist with Ethiopia’s Hawassa University, said in an interview.
"In areas where there is a dense population, the land holding is so small that everything from that land is utilized — removed." Grazing animals are turned out after harvest to clean up anything that is left. From the road, they appear to be grazing on dust.
"We mine the nutrients from the soil. The assumption was that some amount would be returned to the soil through chemical fertilizer. But chemical fertilizer will not return all the nutrients," Beyene said.
Soil-mapping has only recently begun in earnest across Africa, but what little has been done shows a growing gap between the nutrients removed by farmers’ crops and their replenishment. Micronutrient deficiencies such as zinc and iron show up, correlating with nutrient deficiencies in the humans who consume what the land produces.
Across the continent, governments have initiated campaigns to encourage farmers to switch to improved hybrid seeds and use more fertilizer.
The continental goal is to increase fertilizer use from an average of eight kilograms per hectare, which is the lowest in the world, to at least 50 kg/ha.
But those fine particles that create the throat-tickling, smoke-like haze in the Great Rift Valley are also an indication of badly degraded biological health in the soil, a declining capacity to bind and create humus, to absorb water and nutrients, and to build organic matter.
That compromised biological health sets the stage for an environmental travesty that is repeated across the continent, evidenced by the washed-out roads, deep crevices dividing farmers’ fields, plants left dying with roots exposed after heavy rainstorms and rivers laden with rich, red silt.
The Montpellier report identifies water erosion as the single biggest cause of soil loss on the continent, an irony every bit as sad as Africa’s hungry farmers.
Rain, moisture so desperately needed to sustain life in this land, is simultaneously at war with its exposed and degraded soils. It pulverizes them before taking them hostage and carrying them away to the sea.
All the fertilizer in the world won’t fix that.
The Montpellier panel was critical of Africa’s continental agricultural strategy, the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program, and of international donors for not placing a high enough priority on soil health in their strategies to improve the continent’s food security.
"All donors must consider whether their efforts to reduce food insecurity and generate economic growth, particularly in rural areas, risk falling well beneath their potential if greater political attention and development resources are not channelled into land and resource management," the panel says.
"There is an urgent need for donors to work with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to develop a clear and transparent process for monitoring aid to soil and land management," it says.
The panel calls for an integrated soil-management strategy that combines organic-farming methods, conservation agriculture, ecological approaches and selective and targeted use of inputs such as fertilizer.
It’s an approach a dizzying number of non-government and government development agencies, as well as internationally respected research and development organizations, believe offers the best chance for Africa to save its soils and feed, clothe and educate its growing population.
But in the absence of a cohesive, broad-based and well-funded strategy, these efforts are akin to taking on a forest fire with garden hoses.
Christian Thierfelder, a senior agronomist with the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre, demonstrates how soil under conservation agriculture becomes more resilient and productive.
Thomas Nkhunda describes his cropping practices to a small group of international visitors gathered in his fields located about two hours inland from Lake Malawi.
But my attention is focused on raindrops.
The fact it is raining isn’t surprising. It is, after all, the rainy season.
What is interesting, however, is what happens to those raindrops as they hit the ground.
Even though it is a gentle rain, nothing like the torrents that have wiped out crops and displaced people further south, where those drops fall — on the path, on the road and in the neighbouring field — they almost immediately start to puddle, forming rivulets that gradually turn red with the soil as it follows the path of least resistance.
But where I’m standing in Nkhunda’s field, the raindrops hit the ground and disappear without a trace. His field soaks up that water with a spongy thirst.
Nkhunda, a 37-year-old married father of three, is participating in a project promoting conservation agriculture offered by the NGO Total Land Care, with technical support from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, an internationally supported non-profit research agency focused on improving cereal varieties and sustainable farming practices.
The project has changed how he farms. It has also changed his life.
It has transformed his subsistence farm into a small-scale commercial operation and made his routinely hungry family become food-secure.
That change became possible largely because of how his land deals with rain.
Farmers in this part of Malawi typically farm with a hoe. They plant crops into rows and then pull those rows into ridges, like we would hill potatoes, sometimes a foot high, leaving deep gullies between rows. It’s back-breaking work.
Under conservation agriculture, farmers do away with those ridges. They instead make planting basins into which they put a small amount of manure and later poke their seed in with a stick. Without the ridges, they can plant their rows closer together, which increases the ground cover, paving the way for higher yields.
They use mulch made from past crop residues or composted plant material between the rows to help suppress weeds, hold in moisture and build organic matter. In this environment, higher-yielding hybrid seeds have a better chance of meeting their yield potential.
The extra moisture and organic matter have resulted in a doubling of his maize yields. Nkhunda’s family no longer suffers food deficits during the lean months. There is less hoeing involved, which has freed both Nkhunda and his wife to tend to other jobs.
He now grows a wider range of crops, which is also good for his land. He can reap the benefits of higher-yielding seeds. He has started a fruit-tree nursery and a small grain-buying business.
Nkhunda summed the family’s progress up with three words he hesitantly spoke in English: "fixed deposit account."
"He is saving money," the interpreter says. "Before, they were not saving."
Even a little bit of increased productivity can bring about remarkable changes for smallholder farmers.
In the Katete district of eastern Zambia, we met Juliette, the eldest daughter of Olipa Tembo and Dickson Nkata, who described through an interpreter her humiliation at being sent home from school because of unpaid school fees four years ago as though it were yesterday.
"She wanted to learn, but the teacher would send her back home," her father said. "She was being teased, and she was crying."
It became a familiar story as we travelled from district to district.
Rural families see education as the best hope their kids have of achieving a better life than the farm can offer. But when there is no food or money, and there is field work to be done, compromises must be made. In resource-poor countries such as Zambia, there is no free ride.
Juliette, however, was determined not to fall behind in her studies. The interpreter chuckled as she relayed her description of what happened next. "She forced her parents to pay her fees."
That became more possible after her mother was selected by the Zambian government to receive training in crop rotation, crop diversification, gardening and poultry production.
For the past three years, the family has also participated in a program promoting conservation agriculture offered by the Reformed Church of Zambia, with support from World Renew and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
These investments in her capacity as a farmer are paying big dividends for her family and their community. For starters, they no longer run short of food, and the school fees get paid on time. Visiting the family’s farm today is like being on a mini-research station. Tembo runs field schools to share her knowledge with other farmers.
Nkhunda and Tembo are textbook examples of smallholder transformation that organizations who promote conservation agriculture in Africa hope will become the norm.
Since learning of soil-healthy farming, the farmers have embraced the concepts and are reaping the benefits.
They are also helping to spread the word.
In some parts of the continent, the conservation agriculture message is even treated like gospel, referred to as "Farming God’s Way" because of its emphasis on a reconnection between humans and their soil.
At its core, the approach emphasizes minimal soil disturbance to prevent erosion and conserve moisture while employing strategies that support healthy soil biology.
Some farmers use oxen and what is known as a "ripper," a device that slices a narrow opening for the seed, instead of a plough. While many use a combination of chemical and organic fertilizers, just as many produce some of their own fertilizer by growing nitrogen-fixing legumes, sometimes intercropped with staple cereal crops.
Christian Thierfelder, the senior agronomist with the maize and wheat improvement centre’s field station in Harare, Zimbabwe, toured participating farms in Malawi the same day we visited.
He grabbed a handful of dirt from the conservation agriculture field and then another from a nearby field grown under traditional methods. The comparison left little doubt as to how the soil changes under conservation agriculture management.
"When you look at the soil, the soil (under CA) is very loose, and when you get a heavy rainfall, the water can infiltrate because there is a lot of biological activity — earthworms, beetles and ants and so on that create these bio pools, like a sponge," he said. "The rainfall hits the soil surface and infiltrates, whereas on the conventional system, it just runs off or stands there."
The traditionally farmed soil was hard and gravelly. "The conventional system can only make use of the water that is in the ridge and not further down in the soil," he said.
Plant roots grown using conservation agriculture techniques are able to penetrate deeper into the soil and reach for added moisture. "And also, because of the residues on top, there is less evaporation of water — it just has more water available for plant growth."
That’s "climate-smart" in a region where sporadic rainfalls can wreak havoc with food production.
But it is the link between better-performing soil and food security for farmers that offers the most tangible benefit. More stable production of maize, the staple crop, means farmers can sow less of their farm to it, opening the door to better crop rotations and the inclusion of cash crops, he said.
But for every farmer like Nkhunda, who has converted most of his three-hectare farm to the conservation agriculture approach, there are dozens who are either struggling to make the system work, or who are shunning it altogether.
Despite efforts to change farming practices, the majority of farmers still cling to traditional methods that involve deep tillage, using ploughs pulled by oxen, leading some to suggest conservation farming isn't a good fit with African smallholder agriculture.
Despite the promotional efforts of hundreds of projects offered by donors, governments, faith-based development organizations or research organizations such as the maize and wheat improvement centre over the past decade, uptake of conservation agriculture by smallholder farmers in Africa has been slow — less than five per cent in most countries.
That’s given rise to a debate over whether this approach, which relies on a complex understanding of how soil, water and plants interact, is the answer to productivity issues facing resource-poor farmers who have little education and a pressing need for immediate boosts in yield.
In a 2009 study titled Conservation agriculture and smallholder farming in Africa: The heretic’s view, four U.S.-based researchers challenged the notion conservation agriculture is a solution for all sub-Saharan African farmers.
In their view, the empirical evidence supporting these campaigns is lacking and contradictory. As well, they argue the claims for the potential of the technology in Africa are based on the experience in the Americas, "where the effects of tillage were replaced by heavy dependence on herbicides and fertilizers."
Yet, "it is actively promoted by international research and development organizations, with such strong advocacy that critical debate is stifled," wrote study authors Ken Giller, Ernst Witter, March Corbeels and Pablo Tittonell.
"Concerns include decreased yields often observed with CA, increased labour requirements when herbicides are not used, an important gender shift of the labour burden to women and a lack of mulch due to poor productivity and due to the priority given to feeding of livestock with crop residues."
Research published in the journal Nature in 2014 concluded that simply eliminating tillage from these systems might actually reduce yields and increase food insecurity.
"The common assumption that no-till is going to play a large role in the sustainable intensification of agriculture doesn’t necessarily hold true, according to our research findings," said Cameron Pittelkow, who co-authored the Nature study as a post-doctoral scholar at University of California-Davis.
These researchers concluded the only way conservation agriculture works is when it is part of a system that also includes crop rotation and mulches that retain water, suppress weeds and improve soil quality.
Those aren’t always available to resource-poor farmers.
The authors also pointed out some of the promised benefits, such as increased fertility and weed suppression, take years before they become noticeable.
In January, the Journal of Sustainable Development published an article documenting high abandonment rates of conservation agriculture once NGO support is withdrawn. Some have suspected smallholder farmers who participated in the projects were only there for the free fertilizer, seed and food served on the extension days.
But that article also noted persistent adoption was more prevalent among the poor, which "supports claims that CA is a pro-poor technology."
Young children hunt for crickets that burrow into the moist, mulched soil in a conservation agriculture field. Roasted crickets are considered a delicacy in Malawi.
At first, it looked as though youngsters were simply playing a grown-up’s game as they raced from spot to spot using a hoe bigger than they were to dig holes through the mulch in the maize patch.
Then one boy plunged his hand deep into the freshly hoed earth and emerged triumphantly holding a 10-centimetre-long insect that was buzzing like a windup toy.
It was a male cricket that when boiled and roasted, is a sought-after food for people living through the lean months. Apparently, crickets like conservation agriculture too, because they are frequently found in the moist soils beneath the mulch.
Food security comes in many packages. But can the success of a farming system be measured in crickets?
In a bid to give the people with the most at stake a voice in the debate over conservation agriculture, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, with support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, recently hired a researcher to go talk to them.
Chris Woodring, a researcher and small-scale farmer from Kentucky, was assigned to interview 50 farmers across five African countries about their experiences with conservation agriculture, documenting where it is working, where it is not and identifying the challenges smallholders face in adopting the soil-saving methods.
Conservation agriculture proponents, including the son-of-a-billionaire philanthropist financing this research, believe it offers the best opportunity to stave off a looming environmental and human catastrophe in Africa.
But the diversity of these farmers, their remote locations and cultural and language barriers make theirs a difficult story to tell.
People don’t necessarily measure the success of their farming in yield per hectare or map out their plots with laboratory precision. Rather, it is based on whether their farm produced enough to feed the family from one crop to the next, whether their diets have become more diverse and whether there is enough money to send the kids to school or buy sugar, soap or a cellphone.
Understanding the cultural context and why there is a difference between what they say and what they do can also be difficult.
For example, after three years of growing maize under conservation agriculture, Malawi farmer Nkasauka Nthala told us she is a believer.
Yet she has converted only a small portion of the farm she shares with her husband and six children.
It took a bit of coaxing as we sat beneath the shade of the tobacco-drying shed in this community on the Malawi-Zambia border. Eventually, Nthala and her neighbour, Zione Mbewi, explain why.
It is hard to find enough of the mulch they use to cover the ground between the rows of maize, especially in the early years.
During the dry season, farmers with livestock often allow their cattle to roam freely looking for forage. Landowners have no fences to keep them from eating the mulch.
As well, the decaying crop residues attract mice, which brings the "mice-catchers," children who set the field on fire so they can catch the rodents as they flee. Once caught and their entrails removed, the critters are boiled and roasted until they are crispy and consumed as a delicacy.
Then there is what one farmer described as the "man problem," a gender-based competition within families over resource allocation.
"It is customary here that the husbands are in control of the land, so they are the ones who share a portion for them to practise CA," our interpreter explained. "Most of them are not interested, because they are not seeing instant benefits, so they just give small portions to their wives, because it is mostly the wives who have adopted the technology."
Mbewi said she had hoped to expand her conservation agriculture plot to include soybeans and groundnuts in addition to maize, but her husband wouldn’t give her the land. Now that he has seen how her small maize plot has performed after it was enriched with mulch and manure, he wants to take it over and plant tobacco, the country’s biggest export crop.
"In Malawi, food production is done by women, and so you find that food becomes a gender issue. Men would prefer to grow a cash crop where women would like to look after their families. So hunger becomes the main issue for the women,’ said Sain Mskambo, a project officer with the NGO Find Your Feet, based in Mzuzu, Malawi.
The tobacco industry began contracting with smallholder farmers here in the early 2000s after large commercial tobacco-producing companies went bankrupt.
Farmers are provided with inputs and advance cash payments to tide them over until their crop can be sold. Local extension workers say farmers sometimes don’t get enough from their crop to pay those loans back. But they also say that when prices are good, businesses and the booze halls in the region do a booming trade when the tobacco is sold in May.
Cellphones, televisions and new clothes don’t do much for food security, and many of these families still struggle to find enough food to eat during the lean months.
But they do bring with them a certain status. Hunger here is often hidden behind a flashy dress shirt.
Wilfred Hamakumba and his wife, Irene, have increased the size of their farm and started using herbicides thanks to improved productivity under conservation agriculture. It has also allowed them to begin building a new home.
It’s a conundrum for NGOs, often faith-based, that have been championing conservation agriculture as a means of improving food security. Helping farmers sustainably produce tobacco isn’t what most donors have in mind when they send cheques to help alleviate poverty and hunger.
"I think that in truth, that if you can improve the income of a household, then you will improve their food security," Woodring said. "But in many cases, the organizations don’t see it that way — they design projects which are maize-focused."
Woodring’s work, now completed, reveals interesting patterns.
Weeds are by far the biggest challenge for these farmers. Many have started using pesticides, but with mixed results.
"When they use mulching to control weeds or hand-hoeing to control weeds, then that really limits their adoption of conservation agriculture to the amount of labour they have to put the system into practice," Woodring said.
Consistent with the North American experience, pesticides offer a less labour-intensive alternative to hand-weeding, which makes them exceedingly popular with women, who do most of the weeding.
But many smallholders can’t afford to buy pesticides, and if they do, they often don’t know how to use them safely. We watched as a young woman wearing no protection measured out the insect killer cypermethrin from a bottle of concentrate into a backpack sprayer to mix. When she donned the backpack sprayer and began spraying a field of cowpeas, most of her skin was exposed.
As well, how well these products work depends on rainfall. Farmers can lose their investments — and their crop. That spells hunger.
"If you spray and it doesn’t rain for five days, it won’t work," said Wilfred Hamakumba, who has been practising conservation agriculture on his farm near Choma, Zambia, for 13 years.
He consistently gets yields that are much higher than his neighbours, and he has been increasing the size of his farm. "We will be food-secure and we will sell," he said.
But many remain averse to change. "It pains me to see my neighbours failing when I am getting plenty," he said.
Woodring heard repeatedly from conservation agriculture farmers that their yields increased, which has improved the quality and quantity of the family diet, as well as their income. That has positive implications for child nutrition, the family’s overall health and access to education. It is an investment that pays off in spades.
"I think the potential for CA is somewhat greater than actual adoption," Woodring said as he wrapped up his five-country tour. "It is rising significantly, maybe not exponentially, but I think it is definitely on the rise in every country that I have visited."
Woodring, who has been monitoring the progression of reduced-tillage agriculture across Africa for the past seven years, said the issue isn’t whether conservation agriculture is the right approach, it is how best to make it happen.
"The more we work the soil conventionally, the worse our soils will become, the less productive they become, and at the same time you can see that population explosion continuing to move forward," he said. "With conservation agriculture, your soil improves, it improves dramatically in many cases."
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.