Expanding Conservation Agriculture in East Africa

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SEATTLE — Conservation agriculture in East Africa is a simple, yet transformative process to increase crop yields while preventing environmental degradation. It comprises three practices: minimizing soil disturbance without tilling or plowing the soil, maintaining soil cover by leaving crop residues or a growing ground cover crop and rotating the types of crops. Together, these practices help retain the moisture and nutrients in the soil.

These conservation agriculture practices have both economic and environmental benefits. Conserving water is especially important in the semi-arid environments that many of the targeted farmers live in. The more efficient use of water and nutrients helps increase the farmer’s crop yields. By minimizing nutrient depletion and controlling weeds, conservation agriculture requires less fertilizer and herbicide. The practices used in conservation agriculture also reduce the time and labor required by farmers.

Conservation agriculture in East Africa is especially important, as farmers are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change. The practices implemented will help farmers mitigate the effects of warmer temperatures and a decreased water supply.

Regional Project Targets Smallholder Farmers

With funding from the Canadian government, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) launched a five-year project in 2015 called Scaling Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa. This project can multiply the proven benefits of conservation agriculture and is aiming to reach 50,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

The 11-partner organizations work directly with the farmers to provide training and support for those interested in adopting conservation agriculture principles. The project also works to increase farmers’ access to and knowledge of markets so they can translate their increased produce into increased income. The other aspect of CFGB’s work on scaling up conservation agriculture practice is political; they work with leaders and decision-makers at all levels to advocate for the farmers.

The technical team is based in Nairobi, Kenya and is managed by Mueni Udeozor, the program coordinator. Speaking to The Borgen Project, Udeozor highlighted the viability of scaling up conservation agriculture. The practices they teach are similar to the traditional farming methods used before colonialism. Many of the older farmers were excited to implement the techniques they remembered their parents using. According to Udeozor, one of the greatest successes of this project has been the willingness of farmers to start a test plot, and then expanding the plot size as they see the benefits of conservation agriculture. Many of these small-scale farmers are even stepping up to help spread these practices in their communities.

Obstacles to Expanding Conservation Agriculture in East Africa

However, there are some challenges involved with implementing conservation agriculture. For example, farmers are hesitant to leave crop residue on their fields because it can also be used as a food source for livestock. Another practical challenge is the inaccessibility of the machines required to plant seeds in untilled fields. The imported zero-tillage machinery is too expensive and complex for smallholder farmers. Investing in local tech industries can be a solution to this challenge.

Changing mindsets and habits is one of the biggest challenges faced by organizations trying to implement conservation agriculture in East Africa. For impoverished smallholder farmers, investing in new technology and utilizing new methods can be incredibly risky.

This is why, according to Udeozor, convincing farmers to try conservation agriculture practices on a small plot of land is one of their major successes. Farmers are then able to experience firsthand the increased productivity and conservation of water and nutrients. As farmers see these successes, they gradually increase the size of their test plots.

There are several organizations within East Africa working to increase the number of farmers using conservation agriculture techniques. In order to be effective, Udeozor says CFGB is committed to using these networks and capitalizing on the strengths of like-minded organizations.

Canadian Foodgrains Bank Continues to See Success

CFGB is currently undergoing a midterm analysis to measure the impact of the Scaling Up Conservation Agriculture in East Africa project. So far, 31,605 farmers have participated in training on conservation agriculture techniques. A little over half of these farmers are women, and 24,718 farmers have implemented at least two of the conservation agriculture practices.

The project also aims to provide support for these farmers as they implement more efficient and effective practices. To this end, the project is linked to 960 savings groups made up of 19,707 members. These savings groups help provide financial and social support to members. These groups are especially important to the 14,868 female members because the increased access to credit empowers the women in their households and communities. There are also 150 farmer market aggregation groups in the project sites, which help connect farmers to the markets and vice-versa. On a national level, three network hubs have been established to share information, coordinate policies and facilitate collaboration on issues surrounding conservation agriculture.

Increasing the scale of conservation agriculture in East Africa is having dramatic effects. By providing higher crop yields, these simple practices significantly increase both food security and income for the poor smallholder farmers that this CFGB project works with. As Udeozor explained to The Borgen Project, this means having a consistent, year-round food supply for everyone in the family. Conservation agriculture can reduce poverty in Africa in many ways, as transforming agriculture in Africa improves food security, boosts economic growth and addresses climate change.

– Liesl Hostetter
Photo: Flickr

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