When doing business in Africa, the how is as important as the what. Never has this core value been tested more than with our work in the Simalaha region of southern Zambia, where, since 2017, we’ve sought to establish a culture of regenerative farming amongst local subsistence farmers.
Committing to a process rather than a short-term, outcome-oriented approach means growth is incremental. It means good relationships are as valuable as any other business metric. It means that the smaller targets along the way to the big goal tend to shift – often. It means progress is hard to measure.
Building farms in remote, far-flung landscapes, forging good relationships with the locals is as essential as any basic infrastructure.
“What we’re doing is essentially integrating ourselves into a landscape with existing people, history, dynamics and relationships,” says Ceferino Cenizo, project manager of the Simalaha Incubator Farm Company. “As with any lasting initiative one embarks upon, incorporating and responding to feedback from the landscape and stakeholders already operating in that landscape is invaluable.”
In early 2020, we established the Simalaha Incubator Farm Company (IFC) in cooperation with the local community and with support from the Peace Parks Foundation. The idea was to bring a farming-for-profit model to a region almost entirely void of economic opportunity. (Read all about it here.) Farmers here had been facing challenges as old as time and as fresh as climate change, and were locked into a way of doing things that was increasingly depleting the soil and taxing the surrounding landscape. They didn’t have the luxury to explore new ways of doing agriculture. This system was sustaining them – if just barely. Farmers of the Simalaha needed to see that regenerative-oriented methods could be productive and profitable.
Establishing a relationship with the community means meeting them where they’re at.
But to make any of this work, we first had to establish a relationship of trust with the local community. In the beginning, this is a delicate foundation upon which everything delicately rests. There are many facets to this project that require an extra level of cooperation and commitment: we have had to secure land from an area governed by local tribes; we are working across political borders, and through a language barrier; and in the last year and a half, we’ve had the added handicap of Covid restrictions. And, layered beneath all this, as in any African landscape, there is a healthy distrust of new initiatives by external organisations.
Surveying the land and pegging boundaries.
Mapping the land
It has been a slow march forward to where we are now in the Simalaha. We have defined a contiguous ninety-one hectares of land for the project, and a two hectare sub-section where we will trial our crops. In many ways it’s not at all an ideal plot of land: it’s been severely deforested, allowing secondary regrowth of pioneer species like thorn trees to start to dominate. This makes it perfect for regenerative farming.
“It’s important to understand that this is not one uniform piece of land,” says Cenizo, “the geology and soil characteristics change dramatically from one end of the plot to the other.” We’ve discovered, for instance, that the bottom section of land has soil with a high sodium content and poor drainage, where the top is a lighter, sandier soil. Knowing this affects everything from our crop combinations and cultivation methods, to the kind of irrigation system we’ll need.
Soil analysis requires scrutinising a number of factors: soil structure, composition, drainage and chemical composition.
Soil profiling is essential to understanding the nuances of our farm, and determining where to begin. To test our crop selections we need the most arable sections that require the fewest remediations; only after detailed soil analysis have we defined a ten-hectare subsection for initial production. Because this is a diversified farm that will incorporate a variety of horticultural vegetable crops with different growing cycles as well as agroforestry strips, we need to start planting where we have as many factors as possible in our favour, and design the farm around this.
In the process of erecting infrastructure on a bare piece of land, we take nothing for granted. We are operating in a remote wilderness where human settlements coexist with wildlife: it is entirely unserviced by electricity or running water.
Before we can begin to cultivate our land, we need an infrastructure to enable and support it.
Securing this plot means erecting infrastructure from scratch, including powered irrigation and electric fencing.
Unlike the subsistence farms in the area, the size of this farm will require an adequate irrigation system. We need to power this system. Electricity is essential to a commercial farm operation: to run the pump house that pumps the water, to power the cooling rooms where harvested crops are stored, and to keep the lights on in the office. And because our farm sits within a wildlife corridor, we’ll need to install electric fencing to deter large browsers like elephants and buffalo from raiding our fields.
Creating an infrastructure system for the farm is a technical and administrative process that depends on the cooperation of local services, utilities and government. With the added challenge of Covid, we’ve had numerous setbacks and delays to our timeline. We hope the farm will be equipped by October 2021, if all goes well.
But we know from all our landscape projects that being patient and flexible is as essential as an understanding of agriculture. “Literally, as unknowns became knowns, and as obstacles and dead-ends appeared, we had to adjust to each new reality,” says Cenizo. “We have had to be exceptionally innovative and make-do, because throughout the value chain there have been curveballs: from the soil samples that were stalled at the border, the government agencies that closed due to Covid, the heavy rains that made the land inaccessible, to the chiefdom successions, and changes in our markets.”
Breaking new ground
In the first year of production, we’ll begin by planting mixed horticulture and agroforestry on just two hectares of land. This will allow us to fine-tune our methods and selection, testing whether our five initiating crops of onion, cabbage, tomato, green maize, rape seed are well suited. We’ll also trial a few seasonal crops like watermelon, eggplant, chilli and summer squash, experimenting with high-value selections.
In the first years of cultivation we’ll focus on two and ten hectare sections to equip our farm, refine our crop combinations, and train the farmers. Then we’ll gradually expand, using the lessons we’ve learned on the small-scale.
This will also be the stage where we recruit and train our farmers on regenerative methods. And while most of them will come with some experience, this is a knowledge-intensive form of farming that, although it needs far fewer external inputs than conventional farming (like synthetic fertiliser), requires a commitment to constant learning. But for the first time these farmers will have the support of a team, as invested in their success as they are.
It is no small undertaking to erect a commercial farm in the middle of a wilderness. We’re doing something in the Simalaha that has never been done before. And because regenerative agriculture works in concert with a dynamic environment – rather than controlling all the variables – we’ve learned to expect the unexpected.
When they arise, we’ll respond with more adaptation, more flexibility.
“It can be slow and cumbersome at times, but the more patient, open and accepting of changes at the beginning we are, the more resilient and supported the project is later on,” says Cenizo. He reminds us that whenever we get discouraged by delays and setbacks, we consider the fact that we’re doing something extremely complex. Peace Parks Foundation, along with myriad partners – of which Grounded is one – is building an inclusive, nature-based economy in the Simalaha that we hope will sustain generations of people.
We’re not interested in so-called progress that is quickly attainable, but unsustainable. Regenerative agriculture is about quality. It can be scalable, but not before it delivers quality. We want holistic regeneration of livelihoods and landscapes. And measure by measure, we’ll get there.
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