by Glyn Hunter, Mike Campbell Foundation

The power of one Conservation agriculture

Somewhere amid the chaos in Zimbabwe, a green patch of hope


Agriculture in Africa remains mired in controversy: large-scale commercial versus small-scale; genetically modified seed versus open-pollinated varieties; chemical fertilizers versus conservation agriculture methods and expropriation without compensation. While the arguments rage, food insecurity is rising, exacerbated by climate change.

Despite this, the continent’s population explosion clock is ticking relentlessly. In 1900 the population of Africa was 133 million – about a third of Europe’s population (408 million) at the time; by the year 2000 it was over 800 million and had exceeded Europe’s population. Now it is more than 1 billion and by 2100, it is projected to rise to around 4 billion, more than 6 times that of Europe.*

Although half of the world’s fertile but unused land is in Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of agricultural land relative to total land area of any continent, Africa’s farm yields are the lowest in the world. In view of this, it’s not surprising that the highest proportion of world food aid cereals go to Africa.

What can one man do to make a difference in the face of such overwhelming odds?

For Brian Oldreive, a successful commercial tobacco farmer in Zimbabwe, the seed for change was planted in his mind back in 1978 with the realisation that growing a crop which was in effect poisoning people was in conflict with his Christian ethics. Using traditional tobacco farming methodologies, he changed over to maize, soya and wheat, but was unsuccessful and found himself in serious financial difficulties.

One day, while walking in a wooded area on his farm during a drought, the idea came to him that he should start digging. As he dug, he noticed that a blanket of leaves was covering the earth and that, less than 2.5cm below this, the earth was still moist. Below this, the organic matter was increasingly broken down as it decayed, providing the nutrients for new seeds to grow.

He realised then that it is not necessary for the soil to be turned over, as is the case with conventional ploughing, which leads to destruction of the soil structure, soil degradation and erosion.

From this encounter with the natural order of growth, decay and new growth, Oldreive developed his highly successful Foundations for Farming conservation agriculture /zero tillage training model. The training is now available in other countries, including Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique, as well as in Mexico, India, the USA, Canada, Austria, Holland and the UK.

In the wake of the Zimbabwean farm invasions, which began in 2000 and have left hundreds of thousands of farm workers and their families destitute and facing starvation, Ben Freeth, previously a regional director of the Commercial Farmers’ Union and currently the executive director of the Mike Campbell Foundation, sought solutions to alleviate their plight.

In 2012, in association with Foundations for Farming, Freeth set up a monthly training programme in central Zimbabwe for destitute farm workers and others in their struggling communities. The 5-day live-in courses, sponsored by donors and provided to 12 trainees at a time, follow the highly successful Foundations for Farming model.

The Foundations for Farming head office in Harare provides two highly experienced trainers per course, coordinated by the Mike Campbell Foundation’s national co-ordinator, who is also a trained pastor.

Where possible, training is provided to community leaders as well, notably church leaders who play a vital role in their struggling communities. Their buy-in to conservation agriculture is invaluable because it helps to promote the training and to spread the vital CA message.

If the training is followed faithfully, it enables the trainees to feed their families throughout the year from a small, manageable plot, just one sixteenth of a hectare.

The training focuses on no-till agriculture and comprises: compost production (utilising materials from the surrounding environment), land preparation (including mulching to retain moisture in the soil), liming, composting (instead of using expensive chemical fertilizers which are harmful to the environment), planting, weed control, thinning, top dressing and harvesting. Crop rotation is also taught and encouraged, notably cow peas which put nitrogen back into the soil.

After each course, the coordinator visits the trainees on an ongoing basis to provide mentorship and to monitor their progress. The trainees are also encouraged to pass on the training to between 5 and 10 people within their communities, creating a significant multiplier effect. Only open-pollinated seed is used because it remains true, so the farmers can retain seed from each crop and replant it the following year. Hybrid varieties are unsuitable for the programme because they are expensive to buy and will yield very little if the seed is kept and replanted.

Freeth has also set up a sponsored open-pollinated seed production project and last year was able to provide free seed packs to 8,000 destitute rural families across Zimbabwe.

In addition to promoting the conservation agriculture model, Freeth is committed to the concept of providing individual property rights and title to the land throughout Zimbabwe.

“Security of tenure will encourage title deed owners to look after the land instead of chopping down the trees to sell for firewood, for example, and not replenishing them because the land is communally or government-owned,” said Freeth. “The same applies to overgrazing.”

“Land ownership will also enable farmers to take out bank loans and invest in the land and infrastructure, such as vitally needed irrigation equipment,” he explained. “It will also enable wives to inherit the property instead of being left destitute when their husbands die because the land reverts to another male in the family, as is so often the case.”

“Conservation agriculture and the granting of land title are therefore vital for the advancement of agriculture throughout Africa,” concludes Freeth.

Glyn Hunter,
Mike Campbell Foundation

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