Tag Archives: conservation agriculture

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

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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

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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.


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