Small-scale farmers are the main producers of food in Zambia – meeting an estimated 80 percent of the country’s food needs. Although the food security situation in the country is generally stable, the capacity of these farmers to increase their productivity is constrained by the high cost of farming inputs, limited agricultural infrastructure and service provision, poor post-harvest storage, and little access to credit for these farmers. At the same time, climate changes and weather variability are increasing the occurrence of droughts and flooding, threatening the mainly rainfed agricultural production. Delayed rainfall and prolonged dry spells in parts of Zambia during the 2011/12 season forced many farmers to replant, risking lower production. In response, FAO’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Unit in Zambia is seeking to increase community resilience to future hazards with actions that aim to facilitate the transition from relief to development.
Promoting and expanding conservation agriculture
Conventional methods of land preparation and cropping practices can contribute to soil degradation and hinder efforts to increase agricultural production beyond subsistence levels in Zambia. FAO is therefore working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to promote the use of conservation agriculture, thereby ensuring the adoption of environmentally sound farming practices, improving production, increasing food supply and reducing hunger.
Through a major programme – the Farmer Support Response Initiative – FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture have been promoting the use of conservation agriculture by over 300 000 farmers. Some 486 Camp Extension Officers and nearly 20 000 lead farmers have already received training on the principles and practices of conservation agriculture – like preparing basins, weeding, crop rotations and the safe use of herbicides. Each of the Camp Extension Officers received motorcycles and USD 200/month to cover operational costs. The lead farmers received bicycles and vouchers worth ZMK 500 000 each to buy seeds and conservation agriculture equipment, which they used to train 15 farmers each on conservation agriculture. The benefits of this approach are already being seen with the 2011 post-harvest survey highlighting that maize yields from fields using conservation agriculture were considerably higher than those under conventional tillage, with farmers harvesting as much as 18 more 50 kg bags of maize per hectare.
However, the expansion of conservation agriculture has been limited by the need for labour. Thus, the programme has begun promoting the use of mechanized conservation agriculture practices by establishing, on a pilot basis, farmer contractors to provide planting ,weeding and post-harvest processing services, who can be paid using the ZMK 500 000 vouchers distributed to the lead farmers. This has been hugely effective in reducing the workload, particularly on women, who are normally responsible for these activities. For example, digging 15 000 basins/hectare using a hoe would involve several weeks of hard labour. This can be replaced by ripping which takes 2 hours or less using a tractor and less than a day using an ox-drawn ripper or ripper-planter.
Building resilience among high-risk communities
FAO-Zambia is also working to strengthen the resilience of communities that are prone to disasters or food insecurity. One example of this in FAO’s recent work with the communities of Kazungula and Sesheke districts in the Zambezi River Basin, considered by many experts to be at extremely high risk from climate change-induced hazards (flooding, drought and outbreaks of human and livestock diseases). Here, lead farmers were identified among vulnerable communities and trained in conservation agriculture, seed multiplication, off-season crop production, weed management, post-harvest storage and processing. The use of early-maturing crop varieties was also promoted to enable farmers to harvest, even when they face erratic rains or prolonged dry spells.