Tag Archives: conservation agriculture

Beyond the silver bullet solution: towards a ‘systems agronomy’ perspective

The previous two blogs (here and here) have discussed the Pfumvudza conservation agriculture programme that has become a high-profile, politicised intervention during the last season. In a very wet year, the results have been interesting. Yields have been good on the small plots, but many problems have been faced. And, because of the good rainfall, yields have been impressive too under conventional farming in larger open fields, especially for those who planted early. The result is a predicted bumper harvest of maize, perhaps around 2.8 million tonnes, one of the highest on record.

For the proponents of Pfumvudza the return of food security after many years of importing food due to drought, this shows how the programme has been a huge success, witness to the commitment of the party-state to the people and development. While there have clearly been important gains, as the previous blogs have emphasised, we have to avoid getting carried away with the Pfumvudza hype.

Beyond the hype of a silver-bullet solution

Just as with the range of other supposed magical, silver-bullet interventions that are supposed to revolutionise agriculture, promoted with similar evangelical zeal – whether under labels of ‘green revolution technologies’, ‘regenerative agriculture’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘agroecology’ – we need to understand the context for the intervention in the wider farming and livelihood system.

As farmers will always explain, particular technologies, techniques and packages are seen as useful additions for particular challenges, but are definitely not panaceas. They work under certain conditions (of rainfall, soil, labour, seed, fertility and so on), but not automatically as the results from across our sites discussed in last week’s blog have shown.

Yet, added to the mix, new practices, such as conservation agriculture, can be part of a complex farming performance, where external inputs, local knowledges and indigenous resources are combined. In this way of thinking, farms must be seen as complex systems and managing them requires skill and knowledge and the adaptive combination of techniques as part of a repertoire. For farmers, as Paul Richards explained long ago, agriculture is always a performance, a carefully managed drama across scenes and sites, within a wider system.

As the previous blogs in this series have shown, Pfumvudza definitely has merits in certain socio-ecological circumstances. Conservation agriculture as a gardening technique applied to home fields it may have merit, if labour can be mobilised and inputs – including mulch – found. But we have to understand the dynamics of farming systems within farms and across years, as home fields/gardens and outfields interact. There are social and gender dynamics here too, as it is often women who tend home fields/gardens, while men focus on the outfields, but this may be upset by focused extension investment in a particular part of the farm.

The need for a complex systems approach

In other words, following the arguments of Ken Giller and colleagues, we need more ‘systems agronomy’ thinking. This means thinking about where different practices fit (land area/soil type, garden vs. outfield); how labour is deployed and by whom (seasonally, between men and women, including the costs of hiring); the levels of mechanisation (beyond a reliance on just garden-based hoe farming on very small plots) and the management of different inputs across the farm (such as through competition over crop residues as mulch and animal feed, the levels of production of manure as livestock herds decline and how focused inorganic fertiliser inputs are applied). And so on.

This is what farming systems research made the case for from the 1970s in response to the failures of the single, magic bullet approach of the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s. The high yielding varieties, fertility inputs and water control technologies only worked in some controlled settings, and a more attuned approach was needed. This extended to more participatory approaches from the 1980s and 90s when farmers became involved in, and helped design, scientific experiments.

But sadly much of this impetus has been lost in the last two decades as a technology transfer mode has returned to agricultural development. This applies not just to the ‘green revolution’ technologies, promoted through such organisations as AGRA, but also the so-called ‘alternative’ technologies of agroecology and regenerative agriculture promoted by NGOs, donors and some UN agencies. Conservation agriculture and Pfumvudza is just one such example.

How should we assess what works from a more holistic, systems perspective? Too often agronomic and even economic efficiency assessments are just on the basis of a single plot, but this is not how farmers must respond. Focused attention on a metre squared is not the same as managing a whole farm, and indeed a wider livelihood system.  The focus on the field plot and the obsession with single packages pushed by extension has long been shown to be inadequate, as argued by Robert Chambers and many others (including me…) in the Farmer First book series over decades (also here and here). The wider approach to ‘sustainable livelihoods’, originally promoted by Robert and Gordon Conway in the early 1990s, added to this argument (see also here from me).

From a technology focus to a systems approach

Zimbabwe’s history of agricultural research and development has followed a similar path. The high point of green revolution technology-led enthusiasm was in the 1950s and 60s when the famous Rhodesian maize varieties such as SR52 were out-performing the American mid-West. The package approach of ED Alvord was the basis for extending successful technologies to the ‘natives’ through demonstration even earlier, from the 1920s, as part of the ‘gospel of the plow’. This technology focus persisted but after Independence, but in the 1980s the Farming Systems Research Unit was established in the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Ministry of Agriculture, which led on adaptive and later participatory research.

Indeed our research team grew out of this unit and has maintained its philosophy even after it was abolished in the restructuring of the 1990s, the result of the collapse in state funding to research resulting from the structural adjustment programme. Since then government agricultural research in Zimbabwe reverted to a more technical focus, but with limited funding has been seriously hampered and it has been the NGOs and the donors that have led, with a cycle of fads and new project efforts that have emerged.

From Alvord onwards, Zimbabwe has frequently succumbed to fads in agricultural production, with promises of silver bullet solutions, and with committed, sometimes highly politicised, evangelists showing the way. The story of Pfumvudza is therefore one part of a longer history. However, just as with previous interventions, understanding how such technologies and practices fit within a wider agricultural and livelihood system is essential.

As the results from this past year show – discussed in this blog series and indeed reflected in much longer-term studies – Pfumvudza and conservation agriculture more generally may be one part of the solution, but only one part. Rather than getting carried away with the hype of a singular solution, a more systems perspective that appreciates the complex performance of farming is urgently needed.  

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Conservation agriculture: latest experiences from Zimbabwe

In the last blog, I introduced the Pfumvudza programme in Zimbabwe, a version of conservation agriculture that has been heavily promoted across the country during the last season. In this blog, I look at what happened, based on reflections from our field sites across the country – from Chikombedzi in Mwenezi in the far south, to Matobo in Matabeleland South to Masvingo and Gutu districts to Mvurwi in the north.

Across our sites, even in the resettlement areas where there are larger land areas, the uptake has been impressive. According to our informants (mostly agricultural extension officers living in the area), it is lowest in the tobacco farming area of Mvurwi (around 50%) and high in the poor sandy soil areas of Gutu/Chatsworth (over 90%) and Wondedzo (about 80%), as well as in the drier areas of Mwenezi and Matobo (80-90%).

But what Pfumvudza actually is in the different sites varies. Across the sites different packages – mostly maize, but also soya and sorghum – were offered. But there was a huge range of different seed varieties delivered. Some proved excellent, others less so. And the timing of the deliveries varied too. Some were available before the early rains, allowing dry planting, others arrived late, missing the plentiful early rains and hitting the mid-season drought that affected many sites. In addition to variations in types of seeds there were different levels of provision of fertiliser (compound D and top dressing), with many farmers complaining that this was inadequate. All these factors had a big effect on the outcomes of the programme.

Comparing Pfumvudza and conventional approach: a very rough assessment

In the last few weeks as crops have matured, the team has done a visual assessment of the likely harvests in the Pfumvudza plots and in other fields. This is very rough-and-ready, and should not be taken as a definitive assessment, but it’s based on long experience of working in the areas, and in most cases with experience as trained extension workers. Within these averages there is of course wide variation, much to do with timing. Those who planted early and benefited from early rains did well, both on their Pfumvudza plots and in their other fields. The results (with all the caveats) are in the table below.

SitePfumvudza (very approximate tonnes/ha)Conventional (very approximate tonnes/ha)
Mvurwi4.86
Gutu Chatsworth3.52.4
Wondedzo Masvingo1.52
Matobo4.22.5
Chikombedzi Masvingo43
Average yield3.63

Except in Mvurwi and Wondedzo, the Pfumvudza plots seem to have yielded more than the conventional agriculture in the open fields, but of course only on very small areas. The yield levels in the main fields this year were actually quite good, including in the usually very dry areas of Matobo and Mwenezi, where average yields are usually below a tonne per hectare. Any assessment must take account of what is happening in home and out fields, hence the comparison above. In good seasons, the use of more extensive outfields is feasible, and many ploughed furiously in December when the rains arrived in earnest. Even though planting late, they did reasonably well.

Of course the inputs supplied may not have all ended up in the Pfumvudza plots; as in past free distributions free inputs are applied carefully across the farm, making any evaluation tricky. In terms of the overall volume of output, outfield crops under conventional systems across several hectares will far exceed those produced in the small 0.06 ha Pfumvudza plots. Even with higher yields per hectare, the plots provide only a small fraction to the total. This of course might have been different in a dry year, when outfield crops may fail completely, and small garden-like plots provide an important production safety net, and so any evaluation must look across years, with the above figures taken in context.

Farmers’ reflections reveal a complex story

So what happened on the ground across our sites? A number of themes emerged in discussion with farmers and the field research team, relating to the effects of soils, rainfall pattern, seed supply, labour and politics:

Soils. Different soil types make a big difference. In sandy soils, there have been complaints of leaching due to heavy rains. This was particularly the case in Wondedzo in Masvingo where sandy soils suffered through the incessant rains this season. By contrast, in some areas where there are heavier soils and farmers complained about pooling of water in the pits and waterlogging. This meant adaptation of the system, including the building of cross furrows and other drainage systems, noticed in particular in Mvurwi, where the Pfumvudza plots fared worse than the conventional farming areas. 

Rainfall. It was an unusually wet season this past year, with good early rains, a gap and then later rains. The season was in three periods, and those who planted early and got inputs in time did well. However those who planted later had poor results. This was a pattern across all our sites. However the high rainfall particularly affected our northern site in Mvurwi, which would normally expect reasonable rains for crop growth. Here waterlogging and even algal growth along with a massive weed burden proved a big problem in the conservation agriculture plots. By contrast, normal drainage and the use of herbicides in other fields proved helpful, resulting in higher yields there. By contrast in the dry south, where drought conditions are more common high rainfall on rich, heavy soils proved a bonanza and both Pfumvudza and conventional plots did spectacularly (at least for these areas). Of course any agronomic system must be able to adapt to different conditions, as there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ year. Mixing different approaches within a farm may be an important way forward, rather than seeing Pfumvudza as ‘the’ solution.

Seeds. It was comments about seed varieties that dominated the discussions with farmers across the sites. The government programme had a challenge in gaining access to seed and too often it resulted in inappropriate seeds being offered to Pfumvudza farmers. For example in Wondedzo and Gutu Chatsworth, farmers complained bitterly about the poorly-performing Syngenta variety supplied for their Pfumvudza plots. The SC513 that they bought locally did much better. In Mvurwi, farmers refused to collect the seed offered under the programme, and much remains rotting in the stores. Instead, they used their own seed, which proved more effective. In Matobo, farmers were happy with the Pioneer varieties that were supplied and this was the same in Mwenezi where Seed Coop varieties were offered. Early planting on high fertility soils in these sites resulted in bumper yields on the Pfumvudza plots, and also good yields elsewhere.

Labour. The digging of pits was a requirement for receiving inputs. So last year resulted in a growth in demand for labour, especially to help older and infirm people. Young men in particular were able to get piece-work employment during the lockdowns of 2020 to dig pits. And some richer farmers also employed labour as it is very hard work digging a full plot for Pfumvudza farming. Those in Mvurwi resettlement areas, where tobacco farming dominates, argued that Pfumvudza is not for commercial agriculture, where you need larger areas and digging pits is impossible (although with the loss of many cattle due to January disease last year, many had to resort to this technique due to a lack of draft power). The local nick-name for conservation agriculture is ‘dig and die’ (diga ufe). Many still refer to the programme in this way, but the term is now used quietly, as today criticising the programme is definitely not encouraged given its political cachet.

Politics. Many farmers complained about the politicisation of the programme. In the past you had to perform what the NGO or development project wanted to get the inputs for conservation agriculture, but now it’s more elaborate given how Pfumvudza has become a party-led, state backed campaign. Many commented that this politicisation means that (as with command agriculture) that patronage politics are played out around the programme, and those not supporting the programme are deemed to be in opposition to the government and are victimised. Others expressed suspicions that the Pfumvudza programme was part of a larger aim of down-sizing farms in the resettlement areas. If it can be proven that good yields are achievable on a small plot, then subdivisions become more possible, they observed. Farmers argued that the programme should be solely under the control of the ministry, and not within the purview of politicians, councillors and party cadres. However, the offer of free inputs is not shunned, although many argued that earlier programmes, such as the Presidential Support Scheme that was not tied to digging pits, were more effective. Many farmers said they would not continue with the practice if there were no free inputs.

Agronomy in context

In sum, while appreciating the programme, farmers complained a lot about the poor seeds, the late delivery and the uneven provision of inputs. They argued strongly that a blanket approach to the whole country controlled centrally – with everything from seeds, to fertility inputs to plant population to the size of the pits – does not make sense.

The programme instead needs to be much better attuned to local circumstances, including learning from how farmers have adapted the system, and not hiding this from extension workers and others for fear of admonishment. One extension worker recalled being tackled by a group of farmers earlier in the season: “You are from government”, they said, “what sort of people are you? You give us rubbish seeds. Who is responsible for this?”. As a front-line worker in a hierarchical, centralised system, he had no answer and had to agree (quietly). The failure to adjust, adapt and attune of course undermines any technological intervention. Learning from failures is always important.

Agronomy is always site specific, making big generalisations about interventions and techniques very problematic, as many reviews of conservation agriculture have pointed out (e.g. here and here). Context matters. There is never a magic bullet for farming. It all depends. This is why a more rounded perspective – beyond the idea of single magic bullet intervention – is needed. This is the theme of the blog next week, which is the final one in this Pfumvudza blog series.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Thanks to the team from across the country for their inputs and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating and compiling

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Can the Pfumvudza conservation agriculture programme deliver food security in Zimbabwe?

It looks like it’s going to be a good harvest this year in Zimbabwe. Early crop assessments suggest that there will be a bumper crop of maize, perhaps the highest since the early 1980s at 2.8 million tonnes, planted across 1.9 million hectares. The season saw heavy rains throughout the country. As a result there is much optimistic talk of national food security for the first time since 2016. This would be exceptionally good news, especially given the dire situation in the wider economy and the challenges of importing food during the pandemic.

Some are claiming that this success is because of the promotion of a high profile conservation agriculture technique (now branded Pfumbvudza/Intwasa in Shona and Ndebele), involving the digging of pits as small planting basins to concentrate water and nutrients. There has been a major push by the state, with high-level political backing. The national drive has been backed by international agencies, including many donors and the UN’s FAO, and the Pfumvudza programme has been touted as the nation’s saviour, aimed at achieving the elusive goal of national food security after years of food imports due to successive droughts.

The president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a big fan, and it has been promoted vigorously by the new minister agriculture, Anxious Masuka, and his enthusiastic Permanent Secretary, John Basera, along with all MPs and local officials. Enlisted as part of a technocratic renewal and revival of the economy, Pfumvudza has taken on a political role with substantial political investment from the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

What is Pfumvudza?

Pfumvudza is not a new innovation. Conservation agriculture has been hyped in particular by the FAO and a number of NGOs and donors, over a number of years, both in Zimbabwe and the region, with decidedly mixed results. So what does Pfumvudza involve?

Originally promoted by Brian Oldrieve of Foundations for Farming in Zimbabwe since his early experiments on Hinton Estate in the 1980s, the approach has taken on an evangelical tone, with the required mulch in the pits described as ‘God’s blanket’ and the practice being promoted as ‘God’s way’. The energetic extension of particular packages of agricultural production combined with religious zeal of course has longer precedents in Zimbabwe. E.D. Alvord, the American missionary, who promoted improved agricultural practices from his position of agriculturalist in the Native Affairs Department from 1926 to 1950, promoted in his book, The Gospel of the Plow.

The Pfumvudza programme has a rather different evangelical zeal, driven by a politics of desperation, as the government tries to get agriculture moving. With the much touted ‘command agriculture’ programme aimed to promote more commercialised agriculture faltering through corruption scandals and uneven results, the government has switched to focusing on small-scale agricultural areas, mostly the communal lands but also A1 resettlement areas, where the majority of farm land lies.

Conservation agriculture is founded on several core principles, including practising minimum soil disturbance or tillage; having permanent soil cover by using organic mulch and using crop rotations and intercropping cover crops with main crops. In Zimbabwe the practice involves the digging of shallow pits using hoes and using mulch to cover the growing plants. The Pfumvudza programme has designed a highly specified package involving the requirement to prepare two 39 x 16 m plots (0.06 ha) for grains (mostly maize, and some sorghum in some parts of the country) and a third plot for soya beans, sunflower or another commercial crop for sale. Pits of a certain depth and spacing are required to be dug and mulched, and seeds along with fertiliser (officially, Compound D and AN top dressing) are supplied by government. The whole operation has been supported by over 5000 extension workers with new motorbikes issued and ambitious targets have been set.

Huge claims have been made about the potentials, with expectations of one tonne of maize per grain plot, allowing one tonne for consumption and one for sale to national grain marketing board. But that’s an expected yield of 15 tonnes per hectare, higher than the famed ‘ten tonne club’ of top commercial farmers, so somewhat unlikely.

However, putting aside the wild claims, even modest improvements on very low yield levels experienced in drought years, resulting in increased yield stability, would be good. So despite the excessive hype we do need to take the programme seriously. Can it deliver?

Does it work, can it deliver?

Past evaluations of conservation agriculture have been rather mixed. Some agencies have been so vested in the approach that they have been alleged to suppress negative results, as I learned from a colleague in Zambia. But a quick Internet search of scientific articles reveals dozens of studies that explore the different dimensions – fertilisation rates, pit sizes, mulching practices and more.

I have not done a systematic review of the results, and couldn’t find one that was up-to-date and Zimbabwe focused (although see here, here and here for good overviews), but most plot-focused studies show (perhaps not surprisingly) that it all depends. It depends particularly on soil type (and so natural fertility and drainage), on the type and timing of fertility inputs, and on rainfall levels, and so the risk of flooding or drying of the pit area. It also depends on the seeds used (of course) and the amount of labour applied. Indeed, just what you’d expect from any agronomic intervention.   

Most studies conclude that per area, yield levels can increase in the small intensively farmed area. Given the amount of labour required, returns to labour are low, and so again it all rather depends whether it is farm area or labour that is the limiting factor. And it also depends on what soil you have and what the season is. And even if yields go up, given the total areas are necessarily small, the studies show that such approaches do not deliver food security at the household let alone national level.

In other words, it’s just like any other farming practice…. there is no magic, with or without divine intervention, in conservation farming. Adding caution to the hype makes much sense. Next week, I will look at what happened in our sites over the past season.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Homefields and outfields: different sites, different response to soil management

There is a long and distinguished history of soils research in Zimbabwe, led by the Department of Research and Specialist Services and the University of Zimbabwe (see a review of some of this in the Zimbabwe chapter of the Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa book (download here). We know an enormous amount about soils of different types and their responsiveness to different combinations of inputs. This is vital information to support the post-settlement agrarian reform programme, but is barely used.

Farmers who gained land in 2000 have often profited from a short window of high soil fertility on land clearance, but now the soils need more intensive management. But there is no available soil testing service, no extension support, and they are having to find their own way, often in challenging circumstances where input supplies are variable (and politicised), and availability of manure and other biomass is limited.

The basic challenges are best illustrated by a dramatic graph based on long-term research at Harare research station. The decline of soil fertility and so yields on land clearance is massive and quick, and the ability to increase responses due to input application is important but marginal.

 

These data are from rich Highveld red soils, and the pattern will be different in the majority of sandy or sandy loam soils elsewhere, where loss of organic matter is often more sudden, and very difficult to reverse. Many soils in the communal areas where cultivation has been continuous for over a century are essentially silica based substrates, with little inherent fertility or organic matter and so very poor structure. This is farming as hydroponics, where water and nutrients must be held in the substrate for the period that plants need it. This requires careful soil water and nutrient conservation efforts, ones that are quite different to those needed in other, richer soils.

This highlights the contrast between ‘outfield’ crop farming (often on very poor, sandy soils) and ‘homefields’ or gardens, where soils are richer, and improved by organic matter additions and careful cultivation. These two systems are quite distinct, and managed separately with different levels of attention and inputs. Sociologically they are distinct too, with homefields and gardens often the domain of women, while outfields being farmed by men (although of course this is not universally the case). There are therefore often intrahousehold disputes over where valued inputs – labour, manure, compost, fertiliser – are placed, reflecting this gendered differentiation of farming.

The garden/homefield vs outfield distinction is important for designing interventions, as there are quite different priorities in each, both technically and socio-economically. This is often forgotten. The rise of ‘conservation agriculture’ as a panacea to Zimbabwe’s agricultural challenges has meant a massive focus on digging pits in fields, supported by numerous NGOs and development agencies. But too often the key distinction has not been acknowledged, and problems emerged. Conservation agriculture (pit digging, with focused application of feritliser) is a gardening technique and highly suitable for small areas – indeed versions of it have long been applied before the development agencies arrived. It makes sense to limit application, focus water and nutrients, and manage individual plants intensively when working in a garden (even I do it in my own allotment in Brighton). But when agencies try to get people to do it in a whole field over a large area it is not surprising that it doesn’t work, and is widely resented (‘dig and die’ is the local term). People may temporarily comply to get the inputs, or as part of social pressure, but in the long term such efforts are not going to have an impact. This is why a differentiated response is essential.

In next week’s blog I will discuss some of the lessons from the extensive scientific and technical work that has been carried out in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, and draw some implications for the design of interventions. 

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Appropriate technologies? Why neither tractors nor conservaton agriculture may be the right solution for Zimbabwean agriculture

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to discuss technology options for Zimbabwean farming with two different groups. They had very different ideas about what was appropriate. And neither seem to have asked farmers themselves. Nor have they taken account of the particular technological challenges of Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure. Both, for different reasons, seemed, to me at least, inappropriate technologies for the vast mass of Zimbabwean settings.

The first was a discussion around ‘Conservation Agriculture’ (CA) in Wondedzo Extension, a villagised A1 scheme in Masvingo district where CA is being promoted by an NGO, Hope Tariro. This low-till approach, involving digging planting pits by hoe in small areas to concentrate moisture and fertility inputs, is being pushed by donors in Zimbabwe in a big way. It is central to programmes led by the FAO, as well as across numerous NGOs. It is supported by the EU and DFID among other donors, and is backstopped by a range of technical support agencies. These include the River of Life Church and the Foundations for Farming, where CA is inspired by ‘callings from God’ and the Sustainable Agriculture Trust, led by a group of former white farmers and supported by substantial EU-FAO funds, as well as CGIAR Centres like CIMMYT and ICRISAT.

I talked to the local extension agent in the area who was preparing for the planting season with his demonstration farmers. He estimated he spent around 60% of his time during the farming season on supporting CA activities in the area. He was politely equivocal about the approach, but he was clear it was diverting his time from other activities. It is an extremely intensive gardening approach, which requires an area to be fenced off and all crop residues returned to the land. Farmers refer to it as ‘dig and die’ due the back breaking work involved, but they are glad of the free seeds (and in some cases fertiliser too). But is this an appropriate technology for the new resettlements?

On very small areas, with substantial labour inputs, yield increases are clearly possible, but this is not an approach which will deliver sustained growth in farm production in the larger arable plots of the new resettlements. Designed for micro garden plots, it may be appropriate for some areas, but not many. In a discussion at the nearby irrigation scheme, we raised the idea of testing out CA there. A woman immediately jumped up and exclaimed: “No! We will not do this! This is our cooperative irrigation. If we have the NGO here, they will make us irrigate with buckets!” There was general agreement: the NGO imposed ideas were fine to get hold of seed and could be done on small areas near the villages, but they should not disrupt their core economic activities on the irrigation scheme. The discussion moved to the problems of CA, and the usual list spilled out. Too much labour, small areas, burning of crops with concentration of fertiliser and so on.

The next opportunity to discuss farm technology came a few days later at the China Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre , recently built by the Chinese Government on the campus of Gwebi College just outside Harare. This is being run by the agricultural machinery company, Menoble, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanisation Sciences. The facility is impressive as is the shiny machinery in the courtyard. The Centre hosts regular training programmes for Zimbabwean farmers and extension officials. But with some exceptions, the machines are only useful for massive farms – of the order of 1000ha or so. The model, it was explained, is the large-scale commercial farms of NE China, where the company has its major market. What about the famous small-scale farms of China?, I asked. No, this is backward farming, not the future, it was argued by one official. Although later I was shown there are some maize and potato planters and harvesters appropriate to 20-30ha plots to show that ‘small-scale’ farming had not been forgotten.

Neither group had, it seems, thought about the demands of the new agrarian structure. Today, 90% of Zimbabwe’s farmers are smallholders, representing 80% of the farmed land. This is a dramatic change from the past. The argument of the donors and NGOs pushing CA is that many of these farms in the communal areas are very small – perhaps only one or two hectares. Here an intensive gardening approach may be appropriate, if the labour is available. But what about the new resettlements? The average holding per household in the A1 schemes is 30-40ha, with cultivated areas in our study sites in Masvingo increasing, now averaging 5-10ha. CA does not make sense in these areas. But nor does most of the Chinese machinery on offer at Gwebi. The Chinese company officials argue that production should occur on large, modern, efficient farms, equipped with the latest machinery (huge cultivators, combine harvesters and planters pulled by 15HP tractors). A familar tale about the supposed superiority of large-scale farming, and the need to transform a backward smallholder sector, forgetting of course how Chinese economic growth was supported by millions of smallholder farms following the reforms.

Neither the western donors and NGOs nor the Chinese seem to have thought hard enough about the contexts into which their technologies are supposed to fit. Nor have they discussed properly with their clients and customers. Of course Zimbabwean farmers are very polite, and will not turn away an NGO, in case its work can be redirected towards something useful. They are happy to take free inputs (worth around USD$40 per household), but, as with the outburst at the irrigation scheme and the derogatory nick-name for CA, they are reluctant to see this as a solution. Equally, extension workers and farmers alike will attend the Chinese training courses and marvel at the big machines, but will they take up the suggested technical options? Even if they could afford them, this is extremely unlikely. Only a small proportion of farmland is now over 1000ha, representing only a few farmers. Is this the target market for Chinese machinery, and could be basis for a long term business plan for Menoble? I doubt it.

So here we have two sets of inappropriate technology being pushed by two very different sets of donors, driven by particular perceptions and assumptions. Technology transfer has come back into fashion in the aid world, but all the critiques that Robert Chambers and others made way back on the problems with this paradigm still apply. In a new agrarian setting, there are some real technological challenges, but these will have to be met together with inputs from farmers and a much better sense of scale requirements and farmer needs and priorities. Perhaps the Chinese, the Brazilians (also offering tractors) and the ‘traditional’ donors could support this – focusing on rehabilitating Zimbabwe’s agricultural R and D capacity.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Conservation agriculture: the problem of donor fads

Conservation agriculture has become all the rage in Zimbabwe. It sounds like a good thing. Who could object to ‘conservation’, you ask? The particular version of conservation agriculture that has emerged in Zimbabwe involves a no-till approach to farming, involving digging shallow pits or planting basins. Intensive mulching should occur to protect the soil, and without tillage by oxen and tractors soil erosion is reduced. Since the pits concentrate water and nutrients higher yields are gained too. Sounds good?

Well, there are some important qualifications. Of course this takes a huge amount of time and effort. And it’s hard work. The programmes in Zimbabwe are nick-named by farmers, ‘Dig and Die’! Beyond the labour costs, for some this shift from extensive cultivation to small-scale gardening is regressive. Surely ‘real’ farming involves ploughing, clearing the land and creating clean fields, they say. And the mulch from crop residues is vital for livestock as a feed in a mixed farming system, livestock keepers argue. Since the famous agriculturalist E.D. Alvord was the chief instructor for ‘native agriculture’ in the 1930s, a mixed farming model, involving tillage had been the ideal. This was the science of ‘civilised’ agriculture. Why, then, have the NGOs, donors and the extension agencies changed their mind?

The answer lies in the complex politics of funding for agriculture in Zimbabwe, and the enthusiastic advocacy of ‘conservation agriculture’ by the FAO in particular. A no-till system has proved very popular in the large-scale agricultural systems of the Brazilian savanna, where reducing the use of herbicides and intrusive tillage makes much sense. But how does this translate to the Zimbabwean setting? Certainly, assessments show increased yields within the small areas where pits are dug. But how about labour and other costs? And what about total output, contrasted with a more extensive system? These answers are less clear, and evaluations from Zimbabwe tell a variety of stories.

However, much of this debate is not fought out around the technical-economic questions of costs, returns, yields and outputs, but in the arena of donor-led funding to NGOs. With a number of important donors (including DFID) backing conservation agriculture, this is an importance source of funding for NGOs who, due to ‘sanctions’, are the ones through whom aid money is channelled. Such NGOs are in the business of surviving in a difficult environment, carving out their project territories and implementing what the donors will pay for. Few have the technical capacity to assess the efficacy of such interventions, and monitoring and evaluation remains week. For some, conservation agriculture has become part of a prosletysing religion, linked to church organisations who see this as part of God’s work. Former white farmers in need of consulting income have been enlisted too, as part of EU support to the farming unions. And inevitably too government agencies are dragged into these programmes, as it is Agritex who has the personel on the ground. And without funds from elsewhere they must comply, as they see this as a route to carrying on some form of extension support. No questions – at least publicly – are asked (although privately many Agritex officers are bemused if not outraged by this recent obsession by the donors with conservation agriculture).

Farmers, as ever, are caught in the middle. In our study areas, we do not have the frenzy of NGO activity that is seen in the communal lands, as most donors do not allow operations in what are seen still as ‘contested lands’. But some do operate, perhaps not knowing that these are A1 schemes! Farmers are of course grateful for the attention. Having been ignored for so long, they are keen to engage with these new NGOs, in the hope of getting support for what they really need. But, in conversation, they are often deeply sceptical about conservation agriculture (hence the variety of nick-names!). As a way of gardening, pits and focused planting and fertiliser application, has long been part of soil and water management, so in many respects it’s not new. But as a way of creating significant output in their new lands, with very large amounts of hard labour and without oxen cultivation, the approach is seen as plain bonkers.

The pragmatic compromise is to accept the projects, but find ways around them. These are well practised techniques of Zimbabwe’s farmers, when top down measures are inappropriate.  Accept, thank the donor gratefully, and do something different. These are in Jim Scott’s terms, the ‘weapons of the weak’.  I have heard of cases where pit digging occurs near the road and the business centre where the NGOs congregate, but not further away. In other places, there are instances where communities come together to help older members so they can comply with the number of pits required to get the inputs. And of course, as with most input schemes, people will not necessarily apply the inputs in the places where they are supposed to, but elsewhere, arguing that concentrating fertilisers in small places can result in the ‘burning’ crops in such dry areas.

Jens Andersson, Ken Giller and colleagues have been having a proper scientific look at conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe, and remain, like farmers, sceptical. Have a look at http://www.pps.wur.nl/UK/CA/ for a short (4 min) video that introduces the scientific debate surrounding Conservation Agriculture for smallholder farmers in Africa, as well as a wider selection of publications. A recent set of assessment in Zimbabwe published in Field Crops Research concluded: “CA does not seem to overcome constraints on low-external-input systems”. Instead, “Good agronomy, and in particular timely planting and weeding, and adequate fertilisation and crop protection appeared central for obtaining high crop productivity rather than tillage and mulching”. In other words, good farming makes the difference. This is something farmers of course already know.

Going beyond the advocacy rhetoric of conservation agriculture, these are important results, which hopefully will be heard by the NGOs and donors. One of the many negative consequences of the withdrawal of aid support and a switch to an ‘emergency’ regime, has been the lack of rigour in assessing different intervention options. Conservation agriculture, while having important benefits in certain settings and for some people, has become a mantra, and a way of shifting funds via NGOs supposedly to benefit poor people. In the process, farmers and the government technical agencies have often been sidelined. They need to be brought back into the picture, and a far more rigorous debate about farming options developed.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized