MARGARET CHISANGA, Lusaka
FARMING remains one of the major economic activities for many families in Zambia and has potential to replace mining as a major income earner for the country.However, even with ample farming land stretching over 9 million hectares of cultivatable landscape, only 14 percent of this land is cropped each year, making it difficult for the sector to take top slot in being the food basket of the nation.
According to the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI), there are approximately 1,300,000 farmers in Zambia, with 75 percent of these practising at small-scale level and only 8 percent churning out commercial harvest.
It is this huge margin of small-scale farmers that the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has embraced in projects to improve yields through conservation agriculture (CA).
Conservation agriculture is a set of soil management practices that minimises the disruption of the soil’s structure, composition and natural biodiversity. It has proven potential to improve crop yields, while improving the long-term environmental and financial sustainability of farming.
The organisation has been implementing a Climate Smart Agriculture project in Western Province (Sesheke and Sioma Districts) since 2012.
Recently, WWF recently convened stakeholders to enhance key partner interest, learning and experience sharing among farmers, promoters and regulators of the agricultural sector at national and regional levels.
Stakeholders included Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture, civil society organisations with interest in farming and small-scale farmers from Sesheke and Sioma.
WWF Zambia policy and advocacy coordinator Bwendo Kabanda said in August 2017, WWF Zambia commissioned a ‘Lessons Learnt Study’ and an ‘End of Project Evaluation’ of the project and findings indicated a lot of positive feedback from beneficiary farmers in terms of increased food production, incomes from sales of own farm produce as well as improved natural resources management and environmental stewardship.
“The benefits of conservation farming include being environmentally friendly, improved yields and retaining soil fertility,” Inonge Mundia shared.
She shared that through the WWF project, many small-scale farmers have been able to record increased yields and higher earnings from sales. However, she said there are many more farmers out there who are unaware of its benefits.
Stakeholders agreed that though farming looks easy, there are other issues such as processing, marketing, policy level and government involvement which hinder the expansion of the sector.
In order to address this, WWF and partners embarked on a project initiative in 2016 with the objective to influence political decision-makers to improve the institutional context for sustainable agriculture in Zambia. The objective also set to ensure a shift in public and political discourse towards a consolidation of conservation agricultural practices that effectively contribute to food security and conservation of nationally important biodiversity and habitats and maintenance of ecosystem services.
“It is left to lobby Government officials to ensure that policy implementation in activities that support conservation agriculture are prioritised because everyone, including farmers, is saying that it’s good because it’s long term, it’s environmentally friendly and it’s socially acceptable,” Mr Kabanda said.
ZARI representative Mr Moses Mwale stated that it will require a lot of government involvement to ensure issues such as mono- cropping of maize production, poor crop management and bad land preparation methods which result in depletion of soil fertility, nutrient imbalance and deficiency are discouraged among small-scale farmers.
Making a presentation on conservation agriculture and soil management in Zambia, Mr Mwale said generally, many small-scale farmers have neglected practices including intercropping, rotations and the use of organic materials because they are deemed to be time-consuming.
“ZARI is an institution with the mandate to provide high quality appropriate and cost-effective service to farmers and generating and adapting crop, water, soil and plant protection technologies. It takes a lot of research to ensure that many farmers take an approach that is good with yields and at the same time-able to ensure measures are taken for environmental protection,” he said.
All stakeholders agreed on the need for increased research into practices, projects and extension programmes in the agricultural sector which can bring growth and ultimately development.
With regards to conservation farming, stakeholders agreed that the adoption process has been generally slow, with reasons ranging from the lack of resources to lack of knowledge of the process.
Mr Kabanda said while Government officially highlights the positive role of sustainable, resource -conserving agriculture, in reality the budgetary appropriations devoted to State-aided alternative forms of agriculture and to the extension services have been largely insufficient.
“Measures such as the lack of support from Government in terms of agriculture budget allocation specifically targeting the promotion of CA or research and extension programmes are things we need to discuss,” Mr Kabanda said.
He said the current project envisages improved public support for sustainable, climate adapted production methods to improve food security and resilience of smallholder farmers in Zambia.
“Now that conservation agriculture has become part of the political and public discourse of the Zambian agricultural policy and the agriculture budget, we believe it will provide an impetus for changes in institutional framework conditions for the support of sustainable production methods used by Zambian smallholder farmers,” he said.
MARGARET CHISANGA, Lusaka