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No time for soccer

Good agricultural practices increase Swazi farmers’ yields and save the environment

Photo: ©FAO/Rodger Bosch
Melford Mhlamga: "You will never see me ploughing again."

21 September 2012,  Mathlanghatja - "I can see the difference," says Melford Mhlamga, standing between two plots of maize plants on his field in south-western Swaziland, holding up a cob from one plot and one from the other side.

Melford, whose powerful physique belies his age of sixty years, says that the better cob comes from the plot where he has been using conservation agriculture, a farming method that enables you to make a profit in a sustainable way.

No tillage, one of the method's principles, means less erosion, he explains. And, you don't need money to hire a tractor. Melford has been using it for three years now. "You will never see me ploughing again."

Recently, Melford made his field available for demonstrations to other farmers, organized by the Swaziland Agricultural Development Project, or SADP, an ambitious initiative of the Swazi government and FAO, supported by the European Union (EU), to tackle rural poverty.

A learning process

SADP promotes conservation agriculture and other good agricultural practices to help smallholder farmers increase their yields. In Swaziland, productivity has been falling for years, owing to the devastation brought on by the aids pandemic and by recent years of drought, coupled with soaring prices of food and agricultural inputs.

But good agricultural practices can achieve more than that, says Monica Murata, the SADP's Production Advisor. In using them, farmers also help preserve the environment. They lessen agriculture's pressure on Swaziland's limited land and water resources, while contributing to mitigate the impact of climate change, often cited as an important factor behind the country's recent droughts.

Another objective of the good agricultural practices promoted by SADP is to familiarise smallholder farmers with high-yielding crops, like sweet potatoes. They offer a viable alternative to mono-cropping, typically of maize, which is characteristic of Swazi agriculture and a major cause of soil degradation.

The same goes for agro-forestry and for mixing crop production with animal husbandry, equally promoted by SADP. Moreover, growing fruit trees and crops together, or keeping animals on your land, enables farmers to grow their own food and make money at the same time.

After training more than 2000 farmers, SADP established over 1 150 demonstration plots in the 2011/12 cropping season, bringing good agricultural practices to more than 11 000 people with on-site demonstrations or through farmer field days. 

"It has been a learning process for all of us," Murata says. She firmly believes that once the farmer sees the benefits, he will take over the practice. The trick is to convince them. "And that will not happen overnight," she says.

Doing your own thing

Melford Mhlamga not only made his field available for demonstrations, he was also involved as a trainer. Some farmers ran away, he says. They told him it's too hard work to dig holes instead of ploughing. Others had thought they might get something out of participating, like seeds or fertilizer. And when they didn't, they pulled out.

Nonetheless, Melford is confident that many farmers will be convinced, though he is skeptical about the younger generation. He feels that they are just not interested in agriculture. Take his own children. They live and work in the city. He used to go to their schools to pay their fees, and now they don't even remember who their father is. They don't even call, let alone visit him here.

For the time being, he still has the power to work. It's not like before, though. In his time, he was a football player, the centerfield. He used to create the opportunities for the striker to score. 

"But I have no time for soccer now," says Melford. He has to spend his time in the field. Not that he minds to take care himself. Actually, he prefers to do his own thing. But, he asks, what if he has no power left? Who will look after him then?