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May 09, 2010

Zambian extolls the virtues of conservation farming

by Kieron Humphrey

Elleman Mumba makes an unlikely celebrity. He is not a singer nor a footballer - he is a 54-year-old farmer from southern Zambia.

Yet he has appeared on the front page of a national newspaper and been interviewed for numerous radio and television programmes.

What explains his fame?

Mr Mumba grows maize and groundnuts on his small plot of land in Shimabala, just south of Lusaka. Feeding his family used to be a problem.

"The yield was very little. We were always looking for hand-outs; we had to rely on relief food."

Like many farmers, Mr Mumba had no oxen of his own to plough his field. He had to wait in line to hire some, which meant he often failed to plant as soon as the first rains fell - with disastrous consequences. Researchers say that for each day's delay, the potential yield shrinks by between 1% and 2%.

Then, in 1997, Mr Mumba suddenly found himself in the vanguard of a quiet agricultural revolution. His wife had been given free training in a system called conservation farming, and persuaded him to try it.

Conservation farming is about doing less to get more. Instead of ploughing entire fields, farmers till and plant in evenly spaced basins. Only a tenth of the land area is disturbed. This reduces erosion and run-off - where soil and nutrients are washed away by rain.

"That season I had 68 bags of maize - enough to feed my family and buy four cattle," he says, blazing with pride at the recollection.

Using just a wide-bladed traditional chaka hoe, Mr Mumba had dug a series of shallow rectangular planting basins in his field during the dry season. It was a tough job to break the sun-baked soil, but he persevered, and was ready to sow his seed with the first rains.

Punctual planting was not the only reason for Mr Mumba's bumper crop.

The basins had punched through the layer of compacted earth created under the topsoil by repeated ploughing. Roots and rain no longer struggled to penetrate this "plough pan."

The crop flourished in spite of low rainfall and some of Mr Mumba's neighbours regarded his success with suspicion. "They said I was using juju in my field. I felt very bad, but I knew I wasn't using witchcraft. I told them: 'In CF there's no juju. It's just that you conserve water, so even when the rains are light, you are able to get something.'" Now many of those who called him a witchdoctor have followed him into conservation farming.

It is a growing trend. Across the country there are more than 160,000 farmers using basins or other minimum tillage methods, including large-scale commercial farmers.

For big or small, the principles are the same:

*disturb the soil as little as possible

*use natural processes as well as fertiliser to replenish its nutrients

*leave crop residue in situ rather than burning it off

*rotate crops

Musango (acacia) trees act as an organic fertiliser through leaf shedding

And the benefits?

"I pay for my children to attend school," says Mr Mumba, a father of six, "I can pay for the grandchildren to go to nursery school. So when I die, they will be able to excel on their own."

Mr Mumba also enjoys the reduction in his workload. The basins are always sited in the same place, so digging becomes easier with each successive year. Weeding takes less time because fertiliser has been applied only to the basins and not the whole field.

His crop is as high and healthy as ever this year, but it has cost him less effort. In the future it will cost less money too.

Protruding at regular intervals above Mr Mumba's crop are the thorny branches of young musango trees. Also called winterthorn or ana tree, this unusual acacia sheds its leaves just as the first rains fall, creating a nitrogen- and nutrient-rich carpet.

When mature, Mr Mumba's musangos will act as an organic fertiliser factory, and reduce his expenditure on artificial inputs.

Zambia's Conservation Farming Unit is not just promoting the musango's potential for fertilising the soil.

It says the tree could play an important role in combating deforestation, both through planting programmes and by reducing the need for farmers to slash and burn new areas to access fertile soil.

Dissenters say there is not enough empirical evidence to support the promotion of conservation farming as a magic bullet for sub-Saharan Africa's food shortfall.

But several countries in the region are investigating its potential, hence the stream of visitors to Mr Mumba's door.

They want to see if an average farmer really can produce such good results with just his hands and a hoe.

Giggling at all the attention he is getting, Mr Mumba is pleased to say yes, he can.


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