Opportunities and constraints for Conservation Agriculture in Africa

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It is only recently that government services and development organisations in Africa have become interested in Conservation Agriculture (CA), having learnt of its successful application in Latin America. International organisations including the World Bank, FAO, GTZ, RELMA and Sasakawa 2000, started supporting initiatives to introduce CA in Africa in the late 1990s. Early experiences have been positive although CA has yet to be applied in a manner that encompasses all its aspects. But it is very clear that for CA to eventually be adopted in regions of Africa, it needs to provide sustainable solutions to the many urgent problems that African farmers are currently facing. These include soil degradation, loss of soil fertility, frequent droughts, labour shortages, declining yields and the general drudgery associated with humanpowered agricultural production systems. This article discusses some of the opportunities and constraints involved with CA.

Africa’s tentative experiences with CA

Many traditional farming systems in Africa have characteristics closely resembling CA systems. Tillage is often limited to planting in holes, mulching is practised (using weeds, crop residues, grasses or green manure), as is direct planting with a hand hoe and a wide diversity of crops and trees are grown. In many commercial agricultural exploitations, conservation (or reduced) tillage and direct planting, combined with the application of herbicides has been widely practised in Eastern and Southern Africa for some time (Biamah et al 2000). In Zimbabwe for example, about 75% of the commercial farmers practice some form of conservation tillage (but this may now be in the process of changing). One of the first “No Till Clubs” was formed by a group of commercial farmers in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa back in the 1970s (Fowler, 2002). Cover crops have been the subject of research for many years, as have more suitable crop rotations and ways to better integrate crop and livestock production. However, the impact and the practice of these techniques by smallholder farmers in Africa are still very limited.

Labour saving practices needed

Increasingly, labour shortages are seriously affecting the availability of farm labour in Africa. In many countries, the rural population is steadily being reduced through migration to urban centres. This particularly concerns the younger male population, meaning that those with the best potential for heavy physical work are no longer working on the land. The situation is being further aggravated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is so tragically striking many parts of the African continent. As a result, many African households are now headed by women who are experiencing tremendous pressure as they have to not only care for the household and family, but run all the farm operations at the same time.

For these and other reasons, it is now becoming even more essential that farming methods that conserve resources, reduce human labour requirements and significantly improve food security be adopted. CA scores high on all these points, as is described in the previous pages.

November 13th, 2016