Conservation agriculture: Africa builds climate resilience with healthy soils

Across Eastern and Southern Africa, over 235,000 farming households are improving the health of their soils and boosting their climate resilience by adopting conservation agriculture techniques.

Conservation agriculture-based practices are helping smallholder farmers in Africa improve the health of their soil and increase their yields  © Apollo Habtamu, ILRI

Smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania are increasing their capacity to adapt to climate variability through the application of sustainable intensification practices. Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research and launched in 2010, a food security programme known as Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume Cropping Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa (SIMLESA) has been working with farmers to help them apply conservation agriculture practices such as crop residue retention, minimum soil disturbance and intercropping to simultaneously boost yields and protect the environment. Not only are these practices reducing soil degradation, and improving soil moisture levels and carbon capture, they are increasing the yields of maize and legume crops. In the lowlands of Malawi, for instance, under legume rotations, maize yields have increased by up to 40%.

Maize mono-cropping practices have compounded the problem of soil fertility depletion and food and income insecurity in the project regions. In response, SIMLESA, which is implemented by the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center together with the National Agricultural Research Institutes of the participating countries, has encouraged diet and income diversification by promoting the cultivation of multiple crops. “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,” says Daniel Rodriguez, associate professor at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, which has provided support to SIMLESA’s research. Farmers are also encouraged to leave either all or some crop residues on the field, reduce tillage and add legume crops in rotation with cereal crops and forages to build soil health and improve yields.

Through knowledge exchange forums known as agriculture innovation platforms, farmers have also been supported by the programme to take part in participatory variety selection trials for maize and legume seeds. As a result, drought-tolerant maize lines and legume and fodder varieties more resilient to climate change, and better suited to farmers’ conservation practices, have been selected and scaled out by partner seed companies. “The main purpose of including farmers in the variety selection trials was to understand what they needed from the seeds,” says Goshime Muluneh, researcher at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. “We were then able to screen and produce seed varieties according to the farmers’ selected criteria,” he continues.

Over 40 new farmer-selected maize varieties have been released, which have been found to yield 30-40% more than traditional seeds under drought conditions and 20-25% more under optimum conditions. “In SIMLESA-Kenya, farmers working closely with scientists in field experiments have been able to identify higher yielding and stress tolerant varieties for high and low potential agro-ecological zones,” says Charles Nkonge, country coordinator for SIMLESA-Kenya, where farmers have achieved maize and bean yields of 4.5 and 2.5 t/ha respectively, compared to 1.6 and 0.6 t/ha before the programme. These yield increases have also led to enhanced incomes for farmers. For example, in Ethiopia, data gathered from 900 farming households showed that adoption of conservation agriculture practices increased net maize income by up to 35%. Incomes further increased when such practices were used in combination with complementary inputs like improved seed varieties.

For more information visit: SIMLESA


Sophie Reeve

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.