Zambian farmers take matters into their own hands

The amount of rain that falls on the Zambian soil every year varies, it always has. Despite the small variations in the rain pattern, wells, rivers and lakes dry out earlier and earlier every year. Conventional farming methods are causing the soil to lose its ability to absorb rainwater.

About a hundred women and men are gathered for a meeting in a small warehouse next to the health clinic in Mwembeshi. The space in hot and crowded, the participants have squeezed together on the floor, along the walls and on old hospital beds. They are all listening attentively to two unusually tall men at the front of the room. One is Sebastian Scott, an organic farmer and member of Grassroots Trust. The other is Milton Muunyu, chairman of Mwembeshi Natural Conservation Society (MNCS), the farmer’s cooperative that has gathered in the warehouse.

Mwembeshi is part of Shibuyunji district, a district stretching over a 5000 square kilometre area in central Zambia, home to about 60 000 people. Most of them are subsistence farmers. The members have come from near and far, most on foot or by bike. They have come because they have realized they will not survive unless they work together to find new methods of farming.

“In the past, the rivers used to flow all year. Now they are dry three months after the end of the rain season”, says Milton Muunyu.

A group of 41 women and men formed the MNCS in 2009. Their hope was to be able to rebuild their local environment and improve their living conditions if they organised. Eventually 650 traditional leaders joined and consolidation meetings were held all around the district to ensure that all citizens felt included.

“In the beginning people were not very interested in getting involved but it has become obvious to everyone in the district that something has to be done. Today, about half of the districts 60 000 inhabitants are active in the cooperative”, says Milton Muunyu.

“We communicate through WhatsApp. Before we had cell phones we had to use bikes. It took two weeks to reach everyone to call for meetings.”

Grassroots Trust is a local Zambian organisation, working towards sustainable farming. Their view is that issues around natural resources must be dealt with holistically. You cannot solve just one problem, you have to consider all aspects of an issue, social, economic, and environmental to succeed.

“Our most important job is really to help the local community organise better within the context we live in. More and more people in Zambia will need to share the space and resources as our population grows and our natural resources shrink. The question is, how do we best prepare to face that future”, says Sebastian Scott.

Deforestation, ploughing, artificial fertilizers, burning and changed grazing patterns are some of the factors that have led Zambia towards the path of desertification. Conventional farming methods have depleted the thin layer of soil that covers the land, and has caused it to harden so that it can no longer absorb or retain the rain water.

One of the largest threats to the Zambian soil is the habit of burning. Zambians burn the residue on their fields after harvest. The custom also affects those who have decided not to burn as fires spread between fields, that is why cooperation among neighbours is vital.

“If you stop burning your fields but everyone else keeps burning theirs, then what happens? Well, then every cow in all of Shibuyunji will come to your field to eat”, says Sebastian Scott at the meeting.

For 20 years now, Sebastian Scott has tested different farming methods, from all over the world, at his small farm in Kafue. He has tried to find the methods that work best in Zambia. Methods that are viable in consideration to the climate, the social fabric of the country and the economic reality of small scale farmers in Zambia. At the same time, the farming practices need to give good and secure harvests while impacting as little as possible on the environment. He has found them now, but his methods are not really new, just forgotten.

“The fact is, there was a well-functioning structure around natural resources in the traditional society. They had rules for everything, forestry, hunting, farming. When the Europeans arrived, all they saw was poverty and misery but the people here were not poor, they had enormous wealth. They just didn´t capitalize on their resources, so I think a lot was lost in the European interpretation of the conditions of life here”, says Rolf Shenton.

He has a background in commercial, large-scale farming and is one of the founders of Grassroots Trust. The organisation tries to reintroduce these structures around the natural resources, but with science and modern knowledge as an added bonus.

Traditionally, Zambians would live in larger clusters and all of the village live-stock would graze together in big herds. The grazing would follow a pattern where the cattle would be led away from the rivers and streams during rain-season and then brought closer and closer the dryer it got.

“The grasslands would have time to recover before the herds came back to the same spot, and this method also worked as protection from disease”, says Rolf Shenton.

Nowadays villages are smaller, they often consist of just one family. The animals graze in small groups on small patches of land that never gets a chance to recover. During the meeting in Mwembeshi, Rolf Shenton suggest that the members let their live-stock graze together.

Lunch is served in the shade of a big mango tree between the clinic and the warehouse. The members are served beef-stew and nshima, a thick maize porridge which is served with almost every Zambian meal. When the meeting starts again Sebastian Scott talks about sustainable farming. He doesn´t use the term organic farming at the meeting in Mwembeshi. Talk about better health and global climate change don’t mean much here where most live from hand to mouth. Instead he refers to economy and the locally visible climate effects as arguments for sustainable farming practices in the district. The term he uses is low-input farming. It is simply cheaper to grow organically than conventionally as the farmers don´t have to spend money on fertilizer, pesticides or renting a tractor or bull to pull the plough.

During the last three years, the prize on artificial fertilizer has tripled in Zambia. Many farmers simply let their fields lie fallow as they can´t afford to buy inputs for conventional farming. At the same time, knowledge about the old, sustainable methods have been forgotten.

“Does anyone here know how I prepare to sow my maize?” Sebastian asks.

The meeting delegates have no answer.

“How did you do it then, before you had the plough?”

The members discuss among themselves until someone remembers the stick they used to make the planting holes.

“Precisely, that is what I use. With a dibble stick I can make planting holes that are exactly the right depth, at exactly the right distance and without disturbing the soil more than absolutely necessary.”

A dibble stick is made from a branch and a piece of rubber is places around the stick. The rubber is moved up or down, depending of the depth of the hole each seed variety needs.

Sebastian Scott bought his farm in Kafue at the age of 21. He grows dry-land maize on three hectares, bananas on one and vegetables on one. He works together with two other Zambians, Victor Kasankoma and Iveny Chinyenga. His chicken, cows and pigs provide eggs and meat but also fertilizer. The pigs and the chicken live in large, mobile cages that are moved around the farm every day. They eat the weeds, loosen up the soil and fertilize it, all in one go.

Together with the maize Sebastian grows different companion crops. Pigeon pea and velvet beans are the ones he has found works best in Zambian conditions. When the maize and the beans have been harvested the live-stock is let out on the fields to feast on the residue. The bean and pea plants are resistant to drought so the cows get to eat green fodder all through the dry season.

“When I was a teen my dad brought me to Luangwa National Park. When I saw the dry, depleted fields outside the fence and the lush greenery inside, it became apparent to me that we have to follow natures example”, says Sebastian.

“The first seven years at the farm, we made fuck-up after fuck-up but eventually we started to find systems that work.”

Now he harvests eight tonnes of maize per hectare on his farm, without irrigation, artificial fertilizer or chemical pesticides. An average Zambian subsistence farmer will harvest about one and a half tonnes per hectare with conventional methods, at a much higher input-cost.

Grassroots Trust say they never try to convince anyone to go cold turkey on conventional farming. The economy of most Zambian small scale farmers don´t allow for that kind of experimentation. One year of lost harvest would be disastrous to most families.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, what matters is where you are heading. If you stop ploughing and burning, start planting nitrogen fixers, decrease the use of fertilizer and start collecting and using the spilling from your animals, then you can stop using artificial fertilizers in a couple of years”, says Sebastian Scott.

Logging is another big problem in Zambia today. Forests are diminishing fast. Coal needed for household use is one reason, illegal logging for timber production on a large scale is an even bigger culprit. Just like in Sweden, governmental departments are responsible for the protection of land and other natural resources. Wardens patrol the districts but the areas are vast and hard to monitor.

“We are the ones who live among the trees and we have 60 000 pair of eyes. We are everywhere. The forestry department has only three wardens in the whole district”, says Milton Muunyu.

The MNCS wants to see the responsibility of the natural resources in the area transferred to those who live there. And with the responsibility also the benefits of valuable resources such as berries, fruit, wildlife and timber. For years, the cooperative has negotiated with the district authorities over the control of resources and finally, things are starting to happen. The Zambian government is currently sketching on a new act that will grant local communities more control over their common resources.

The cooperative has also started adopting companion and cover cropping methods and they promote fuel efficient rocket stoves among their members to reduce the use of coal. They try to regenerate forests in the district by pruning the shrubs that grow from felled trees. This way the stubs grow back as new trees instead of bushes.

“The Grassroots Trust help us find sustainable methods and we try to incorporate these methods and make them part of our lifestyle. Sebastian and Rolf have walked along side us since we started the cooperative. They are Zambian themselves and can relate to how it works on a grassroots level here, in a way foreign organisations cannot”, says Milton Muunyu.

“Many international organisations work out of a variety of assumptions and with a predefined plan and budget, decided upon before they arrive in an area. In addition, they often take on a limited approach to a specific problem that they have identified from the outside, without analysing or considering the entire issue. We never have a set plan when we establish contact with an area. We are reactive”, says Rolf Shenton.

Two years after the meeting in the warehouse in Mwembeshi, Milton Muunyu says they have managed to decrease the habit of burning by 50 percent in Shibuyunji district.

“It became clear to all our neighbours what happened to or our cows and goats when we stopped burning our fields, when there was grass for the animals to graze all year round.”

Grassroots Trust continue lobbying for sustainable farming. The organisation has no money and works with all available means. Through radio and TV, by participating in seminars and by working with other, more affluent organisations.

“In Eastern province USAID are testing our methods with a couple of hundred small scale farmers right now. If they are happy with the results we can reach 300 000 people through their network”, says Sebastian Scott.

“We try to share our ideas with as many people as possible, which organisation manages to implement them in the end is not important”, continues Rolf Shenton.

Shibuyunji is still one of the poorest districts in Zambia but the future is starting to look a bit brighter for the members of MNCS.

“I feel hopeful now, the joint efforts of our cooperative are starting to yield results. Personally, I have managed to double my maize crop. Instead of selling the maize at low price, I use it as animal feed and have started to raise chicken where there is a much better profit. Now I am going to buy cattle”, says Milton Muunyu.

This story was published in the Swedish magazine Syre  (paper and online) in June 2018. This is a translation.