By GLORIA SIWISHA
THE agricultural sector is important for Zambia for many reasons.
It is considered to be the backbone of the economy as it provides food and raw material for domestic industry and also employment opportunities to a very large proportion of the population.
According to the Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP), the agricultural sector is crucial for achieving diversification, economic growth and poverty reduction in Zambia.
However, the sector has been with its challenges.
Experts argue that the crops sub-sector in particular faces challenges of low productivity propelled by a number of factors.
Sibajene Mudenda, a researcher at the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) Mt. Makulu Research Station, said while addressing Ministry of Agriculture staff in Eastern Province recently that the factors attributed to the low and declining productivity of smallholder farmers in Zambia are inadequate farming practices; decreasing soil fertility and land degradation, as well as adverse climatic changes.
Others are labour shortage at critical husbandry practices such as land preparation, weeding, harvesting and post-harvesting; weak research and extension linkage, and weak enabling environment to adequately incentivise adoption of sustainable intensification practices.
As an effort at addressing these challenges, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has collaborated with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the Ministry of Agriculture in Zambia to execute the Sustainable Intensification of Smallholder Farming Systems in Zambia (SIFAZ) project from 2019 to 2024.
These partners will work alongside NGOs and private sector players.
SIFAZ is a 12 Million Euros worth project which is funded by the European Union (EU) under the 11th European Development Fund National Indicative Programme (NIP) 2014-2020 for cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Zambia and the European Union.
The project is being implemented in five provinces and 27 districts of Zambia representing all the agro-ecological zones.
Lundazi, Chipata, Vubwi, Chadiza, Katete, Sinda and Petauke districts of Eastern Province are among the 27 implementing districts in Zambia.
The project is targeting to benefit 16,000 smallholder farmers, 8,800 who should be men and 7,200 women.
Its goal is to improve sustainable and climate smart crop production and management practices with a gender sensitive approach.
In order to realise its goal, SIFAZ is using three interlinked strategies.
They include ‘adaptive bio-physical and socio-economic research’ on sustainable intensification practices (SIPs); promotion and scaling-up of SIPs and technical knowledge to smallholder farmers using novel tools, methods, and approaches; and enhancing an enabling environment for sustainable uptake of SIPs by smallholder farmers.
Some of the technologies that are being tested on- farm using ‘adaptive bio-physical and socio-economic research’ include crop mix plant configuration; weed control trials, and crop intensification with gliricidia sepium.
According to FAO, adaptive research simply refers to “the use of research in enhancing productivity or solving problems”.
It is also known as ‘on-farm’ research and is conducted to validate, modify or calibrate a new technology on specific soil, climate, and social economic or environmental characteristics of a given area.
In this type of research, it is argued, farmers play a key role in the research process.
Because this research methodology promotes close interaction between the researcher and the farmers as they work together, trial results are said to be more readily accepted by farmers than when the research is done solely by scientists in controlled environments or research stations.
“SIFAZ tries to improve the farming systems of smallholder farmers; so, what we are introducing here are technologies based on conservation agriculture, based on intercropping or diversification and rotation systems. We also have the use of agro-forestry tree species in our trials,” Dr Christian Thierfielder.
Dr Thierfelder, who is the senior cropping systems agronomist at CIMMYT said during the monitoring of on-farm trials in Lundazi, Chipata and Sinda districts that the reason for using adaptive research is to enhance sustainable intensification of crop production; improve farmers’ productivity and ensure food security in Zambia.
“What we really want to achieve with this project is that farmers are more food secure, they have enough to eat, and they are also gaining in terms of income,” he said.
Other than the use of adaptive research to enhance sustainable farming practices, a greater aspect of the SIFAZ project involves training, mentoring and capacity building of farmer groups.
According to John Chuba who is Senior Agricultural Officer at Chipata District Agricultural Coordinator’s Office, this is aimed at ensuring that farmers are better able to manage their enterprises and engage effectively with value chain actors.
“SIFAZ has key result areas which we must deliver at the end of project cycle. First, we must co-develop with farmers, sustainable intensification practices that should be adaptive to their ecological environments and these technologies should be made available to the farmers for scaling up purposes,” he said, “The other result area is to train and mentor farmers so that they better manage their enterprises and engage with value chain actors.”
For this very reason, Chipata district has designated two agricultural camps for adaptive bio-physical and socio-economic research, while three other camps will have two cooperatives each that would be capacitated to engage in viable businesses.
“Chinjala camp has farmers with mother trials and are doing crop mix plant configuration, while Kanyanja camp is engaged in crop intensification with gliricidia sepium. In the other three camps (Feni, Mnoro and Manjakazi), two cooperatives have been identified in each where necessary interventions will be applied to ensure that they engage ably with value chain actors,” Mr Chuba said.
He said the district had also made significant strides in mainstreaming gender issues in all of its activities.
“The project requires us to have at least 45 percent women participation in all activities and so far I can safely say that we are at above 40 percent especially with regard to the on-farm trials,” Mr Chuba said.
Although this is the first season of project implementation, beneficiaries in Eastern Province are appreciative of the use of adaptive research in attempting to resolve the problems of low productivity among smallholder farmers.
John Banda, a lead farmer of Kanyanja Agricultural Camp in Chipata district said the active involvement of smallholder farmers in research and technology does not only promote ownership of such projects but also enhances adoption of improved technologies.
“Our involvement in research also helps us to select technologies that are adaptive to our environments since we observe with our eyes the technologies which perform well in our environments and those which fail. Usually when scientists develop technologies on-station or controlled environments and pass them to us for scaling up purposes, there’s always a higher chance of those technologies not being so successful when transferred to our locations since crops and their environments are highly complex systems,” he said.
Asked which technology he prefers so far, the lead farmer said he was impressed with the plots that incorporated agroforestry tree species.
“For the next four years, we [farmers] shall be observing the performance of the plots that are using conventional farming methods and those employing conservation farming techniques like minimum tillage, rotations and crop mix configuration so that at the end of it all, we select only those technologies that will perform well in our environments. At the moment, I like plots number 7, 9 and 10 since the maize in these plots grows healthy as it is able to tap into the nutrients provided by the groundnuts, gliricidia and pigeon pea,” he said.
Another farmer Evelyn Mwale of Chinjala camp said smallholder farmers have learned that they need not clear more forests for purposes of field expansion as they could still produce more on a small area if they used conservation farming techniques such as mixed cropping, rotations and reduced row spacing.
“The common practice here when it comes to row spacing is usually 70 to 90 centimetres for the various crops that we grow and because of that we are forced to expand our fields to accommodate more crops. However, SIFAZ has introduced ‘reduced row spacing of 30 centimetres, 35 centimetres, and 45 centimetres. With this kind of plant spacing, a farmer is able to grow a variety of crops on a on a small piece of land and hence yield more,” she said.
Fordson Shawa of Kanyanja camp appealed to other lead farmers to take seriously the research trials as they had the responsibility to develop – on behalf of other smallholder farmers-, technologies that would not only be adaptive to their environments but increase production and productivity, and enhance household nutrition security.
Meanwhile, Violet Phiri of Chinjala camp appealed that the project considers increasing the training sessions of lead farmers as this would increase their knowledge and understanding, and thus deliver successful trials.
“Before establishing these research trials, lead farmers were taken through the technology protocols and what is expected of us as we carry out these researches together with our extension officers. But for the sake of elderly farmers like me, it’s my view that we be trained frequently so that we do not forget vital steps needed to deliver successful trials,” she said.
SIFAZ Project is promoting technologies with respect to prevailing climatic conditions in agro ecological regions IIa, IIb and III.
The expected outcomes of the SIFAZ project are that ‘sustainable intensification practices are co-developed with farmers and made available for scaling up; that farmers are trained, mentored and capacitated to use SIPS, and that they are better able to manage farmer enterprises and engage value chain actors.
The project also hopes to bring about the establishment of an enabling institutional and policy environment for scaling and adoption of SIPS by smallholder farmers.
Since the problem of low productivity is undoubtedly impacting negatively on farmers’ incomes, any effort which is made to correct the situation should be fully supported
By GLORIA SIWISHA