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Conservation Agriculture in Lesotho: when mother knows best

'Me Maphoka Thaba is a rural farmer in the village of Ha Khojane, Mahobong, in the district of Leribe, in northern Lesotho. Still active and energetic at 72, she has faced many problems that are all too common to rural farmers in Lesotho.

© FAO Lesotho / Elisabeth Tsehlo

Years of erratic rain, dry spells and generally adverse weather conditions have wreaked havoc on harvests. Her farmland is a precious resource in a mostly mountainous country (where over 70% of the population depends on less than 10% of arable land). But it is under threat from severe soil erosion and other environmental degradation.

Over a third of Lesotho's population is food insecure, and like many others, 'Me Maphoka was often worried for herself and her three children: "I am taking care of my husband's children, two 17-year old boy and girl twins and a 14-year old daughter." Every year was a challenge. "I have always been anxious because I cannot produce enough food to feed my family for a whole year," she explained. "The neighbors help me when I run short of food."

A decision to change

In 2012, for the first time in her life, 'Me Maphoka decided to change the way she farmed her land. She had heard about conservation agriculture (CA), a new approach to farming being practiced in the neighboring village of Naleli. Impressed by the harvest from those fields, she went to the Mahobong resource center to learn more about CA, and spoke to extension officers there who encouraged her to try it on her farm.

But 'Me Maphoka's son Poello was against the idea and tried to dissuade her. "He asked the neighbours to talk to me, to convince me to stop thinking of CA," she recounted.

Poello, who was studying to be a carpenter, couldn't understand how CA worked. He was especially dubious about its use of "planting basins"—in CA, seeds are not planted along the usual furrow but in small basins or pits that are usually dug with hand hoes.

"I didn't know what CA was," he said. "I could not understand how the seeds would germinate when they were put in the basins."

'Me Maphoka believed that Poello was also worried about her health, and the extra work she would have in digging the basins. "He didn't want me to get sick after working too hard on the field, as he would not be able to help me because he needed to attend school."

Still she persevered; she knew she wanted to try out this new technique. As a kind of compromise and trial, she decided to let her son have his say over one part of her land, to plant and farm it in the conventional way, while she would use CA on the other part.

The Emergency and Resilience Programme

To learn more about CA, 'Me Maphoka enrolled as a beneficiary of the Emergency and Resilience Programme (ERP), run by FAO Lesotho and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS). The ERP is a three year cycle programme designed in response to Lesotho's plummeting agricultural production and the national food security crisis declared in August 2012. It supports vulnerable farming households through a phased combination of inputs, training and extension services for conservation agriculture, home gardening and nutrition. Since its inception in 2012, the ERP has reached over 18 000 vulnerable farming households across all ten of Lesotho's districts.

In particular, farmers learn the three principles of CA: minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations / intercropping. Soil erosion is a major problem in Lesotho, but by adopting CA, farmers not only improve the quality and quantity of their harvests, they also contribute to soil preservation and quality.

'Me Maphoka received maize seed, bean seed, basal and top-dressing fertilizer, and a seed kit for a variety of different vegetables. Along with these inputs, the programme provided her with extensive training on CA, home gardening and nutrition. She worked in a team with other farmer beneficiaries of the ERP in her area. Together they were advised and guided on CA practices by MAFS extension staff and by their lead farmer, Ntate Motseki. The farmers in the team also helped each other in preparing and working the land, and in this way 'Me Maphoka and the others strengthened social ties within the community.

Harvesting results

A year later, the crop spoke for itself. On 'Me Maphoka's side of the land, there were rows and rows of healthy maize. 'Me Maphoka explained that with conventional farming she was usually able to harvest around 60kg of maize, but with CA she expected to harvest over 400kg.

And on Poello's side? The stalks of corn were so scattered and scant that the land seemed almost fallow. Poello himself admitted it: "My crops look poor, whereas my mother's crops look good." More importantly, he was finally convinced of the value of conservation agriculture and excited to use it himself: "Now that I know more about CA, I am willing to improve my knowledge," he said. "And I want to help my mother to practice CA on 100% of the land."

He may not be the only one that 'Me Maphoka has convinced. She remembered how, earlier in the season, people would come and watch her working her land. "Now they can see that I will harvest more and better quality crops," she said proudly; she hoped that they too, would join her in practicing conservation agriculture.