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[NAIROBI] Smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania are benefiting from sustainable intensification practices that increase their capacity to adapt to climate change.

The farmers have improved soil health and increased yields through a food security Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Cropping Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA) project launched in 2010 by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research.

SIMLESA is encouraging adoption of ‘conservation agriculture’ (CA)-based methods such as zero tillage, crop residue retention and production of improved fodder crops.

Diversified farming system

 “A first step towards food and nutrition security is a diversified farming system. In addition to maize, sorghum and different types of pulses, SIMLESA farmers have vegetable crops, fruit trees, and livestock on their farms,” Daniel Rodriguez, associate professor at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, which has provided support to SIMLESA’s research, told SciDev.Net this month (18 May).

“In Kenya, farmers are working closely with scientists to identify higher-yielding and stress-tolerant varieties for high- and low- potential agro-ecological zones.”

Charles Nkonge, SIMLESA-Kenya

The project aims to increase maize-legume productivity and reduce production risk by 30 per cent for 650,000 farming households by 2023.
 
Farmers have also been supported by the project through agriculture knowledge exchange forums known as innovation platforms, to take part in variety selection trials for maize and legume seeds.

Thus, drought-tolerant maize lines and legume and fodder varieties more resilient to climate change and suited to the SIMLESA conservation practices have been selected and scaled out, says Goshime Muluneh, a researcher at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, Ethiopia’s SIMLESA partner organisation.

“The main purpose of including farmers in the variety selection trials was to understand what they needed from the seeds,” says Muluneh. “We were then able to screen and produce seed varieties according to the farmers’ selected criteria.”

Ferdinand Makhanu, a smallholder from Kenya, says because of skills learnt during CA techniques demonstration in 2010 held by the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation on his neighbour’s farm, he adopted spraying herbicide on his 0.8 hectare farm instead of ploughing, dug holes only in seed-planting spots to reduce soil disturbance and retained crop residues to facilitate soil nutrient retention.

With traditional farming practices, Makhanu says, his harvest was limited to six bags of maize, and less than one bag of beans. The CA-based techniques have increased his harvest to 30-35 bags of maize per acre, and he predicts yields increase as crop residues improves the organic matter in the soil.

He no longer hires farm labour to plough, thus cutting labour costs by about 60 per cent. His diversified productions include more nutritive legume crops such as pigeon peas, lablab, velvet beans, soybean and cowpeas.

Through the project, over 40 new farmer-selected maize varieties have been released, which have been found to yield 30-40 per cent more than traditional seeds under drought conditions, and 20-25 per cent more under optimum conditions, says Mulugetta Mekuria, SIMLESA project leader and a senior scientist and regional representative at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Zimbabwe.

Farmer-scientist enterprise

“In Kenya, farmers are working closely with scientists to identify higher-yielding and stress-tolerant varieties for high- and low- potential agro-ecological zones,” says Charles Nkonge, country coordinator for SIMLESA-Kenya. “Farmers have achieved maize and bean yields of 4.5 and 2.5 tonnes per hectare respectively, compared to 1.6 and 0.6 tonnes per hectare before the project.”

In Ethiopia, data gathered from 900 farming households shows that the adoption of CA has increased net maize income by up to 35 per cent. Incomes increased further when such practices were combined with complementary inputs including improved seed varieties.

Goshime Muluneh, a farmer from Ethiopia, says scaling up conservation agriculture is the next crucial step. “The government needs to implement CA practices. If it does not promote conservation agricultural practices, farmers simply won’t get the benefits,” Muluneh explains.

“Industrialising Africa’s CA will potentially cut postharvest losses accounting for up to US$48 billion each year.”

Richard Munang, UNEP Africa Regional Climate Change Programme

According to Richard Munang, coordinator of UN Environment Programme Africa Regional Climate Change Programme, SIMLESA project is an intervention maximising Africa’s farm-level productivity.
 
“It not only builds climate resilience by safeguarding soil health, but it is compatible with the approaches used by smallholder farmers in Africa who produce up to 80 per cent of the food on the continent,” he tells SciDev.Net.

“Industrialising Africa’s CA will potentially cut postharvest losses accounting for up to US$48 billion each year, and potentially reverse the need for imports currently costing the continent US$35 billion each year. This measure will inject over US$80 billion annually worth of enterprises, jobs and incomes into the continental economy.”

Efforts to scale up CA, Munang explains, must be in tandem with efforts to scale decentralised clean energy dedicated to powering agro-value processing, efforts to ensure affordable, market driven financing for farmers, efforts to establish adequate infrastructure systems that link production areas to markets and collection points  towards building sustainable agro-industries.

According to Munang, CA approaches are compatible with those used by African smallholders.
       
Holistic interventions crucial
 
Inclusion of farmers in the variety selection trials is important as end-user feedback is always a critical aspect in ensuring research and development that responds to potential user priorities.
 
To reap maximum benefits, policymakers across various complementary ministries should prioritise harmonising their policies to scale up CA from farm-level production to the entire value chain to build sustainable agro-industries, Munang says.
 
Jonathan Muriuki, Kenya country representative of the World Agroforestry Center, says conservation agriculture has been proven to increase productivity in pilot projects across the world.
 
But CA presents challenges to farmers mainly from weed management and competition for biomass required to be used for soil cover and livestock feed at the same time. Muriuki says continuing scientific investigations are geared towards overcoming these challenges
 
Change of mindsets needed
 
In principle, there are gains in labour savings as well as productivity increases but the main challenge to smallholder farmers is a change of mindsets to adopt reduced till approaches, especially those involving judicious use of herbicides and access to the specialised equipment necessary for production efficiency.
 
“Use of conservation agriculture as well as intercropping of cereals and legumes, even enhanced by inclusion of trees, is a winner for current and future generations,” Muriuki says.
 
Farmers are the main investors in agriculture and expend their land, labour and management skills in agricultural production while informed by specific objectives. Understanding the farmers’ context from their own intellectual contribution ensures breeding and agronomic efforts are better targeted and have a chance at application, which translates to success. “Leaving out farmers in innovation platforms fails to take fine-scale context in scientific investigations,” explains Muriuki.
 
Conservation agriculture is necessary for policymakers, especially because of massive land degradation, climate change and pollution challenges.
 
Scientists, however, need to package conservation agriculture’s evidence in ways that are appealing to policymakers to boost its scale-up, Muriuki adds.

The SIMLESA, says Muriuki, is one of the earliest projects to acknowledge the role of agro-ecological interactions at play in the desirable sustainable agriculture referred to as ecological intensification.
  
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.