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Thinking big and starting small with regenerative farmers in Zambia

Working with the principles of regenerative agriculture and learning to fail small in one of Africa’s most vital and vulnerable landscapes.

By Thekla Teunis and Gijs Boers, edited by Hailey Gaunt

8 December 2020

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The people of the Simalaha live within one of Earth’s most fragile ecosystems, putting them on the forefront of global climate change.
Photo credit: Gareth Hubbard

Eighty kilometres from Livingstone—the historic town perched on the verge of Victoria Falls in Zambia’s southwest corner―is the Simalaha Community Conservancy, a community perched on another kind of verge.

The region embodies the web of challenges facing rural Africa today: human/wildlife conflict, habitat destruction, climate change, access to resources, and the dearth of economic opportunities.

The Conservancy comprises 180,000 ha of communal land within a key wilderness area that connects one of the world’s biggest cross-border conservation systems and spans five African Nations: The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). This is an ambitious design of The Peace Parks Foundation, an organisation that unites governments to protect wildlife whose territories and resource-needs know no geo-political boundaries.

The Simalaha is also home to some 5,000 households, who have witnessed the erosion of local natural resources and wildlife over the past few generations and, recently, been forced to the front lines of the battle against climate change.

Birds eye view of the Zambezi River

The Zambezi River system is a perennial resource for both wildlife and human settlements.
Photo credit: Gareth Hubbard

Despite efforts to diversify their livelihoods, these communities still farm very simply, a reality made increasingly problematic by accelerated environmental change.

Although the Foundation’s chief aim is to create cross-border corridors for wildlife, their work frequently calls them to reckon with the reality of human settlements. As agriculture is a core land-use in rural areas―and often the main driver for environmental degradation, fragmentation, and human-wildlife conflict―Peace Parks knew how crucial it was to incorporate sustainable agriculture into a rehabilitation plan for the Simalaha.

Enter Grounded.

Someone holding uprooted groundnuts

Groundnuts enrich the soil with crucial nitrogen and have a high threshold for heat, which make them perfect for the Simalaha.
Photo credit: Gareth Hubbard

A search for agricultural development in balance with nature

A typical farmer in this area works in two ways: they plant vegetables close to their homestead, which are fenced in to keep out grazing animals, and they keep a separate plot for growing maize. Maize is not endemic to the region and not ideal in this environment, but because the Zambian government has been subsidising it for decades, nearly everyone grows it and it’s considered a staple food.

But farming maize comes at a cost. It depletes the soil, compelling farmers to seek fresh plots for cultivation every few years; this cycle not only drives deforestation in the area, but also puts strain on farmers, who are forced to tend to scattered plots further and further from their homes.

Peace Parks had introduced what they call conservation farming methods—composting, and intercropping maize with other crops that could re-fertilize soils—hoping this would allow farmers to use the same field for much longer, get higher yields at home, and remove their reliance on the forest land. Doing this would also help relieve pressure on wildlife, whose natural habitats are threatened by expanding farms.

Not every farmer adopted the methods, however, and some felt the new method was too much effort—much harder than simply sowing seeds and waiting for rain. That most farmers tended to be of an older generation and recipients of remittances, were also factors in their hesitation. Most had grown accustomed to the cycle of leaving their fields fallow after three years, and were more concerned about the time required in the new farming practices than the issue of fallow land. It is important to note that, in the Simalaha, where available land is in abundance, most farmers consider their time to be their most precious and limiting resource.

It is important to note that, in the Simalaha, where available land is in abundance, most farmers consider their time to be their most precious and limiting resource.

Looking beyond the landscape

To reach farmers at scale and persuade them to switch from their (perhaps rusty but still working) old way of doing things, to conservation farming, we knew we needed to offer them better incentives. We had to create better income streams through conservation farming.

Peanuts are a clever crop to include in rotation with maize: they are nitrogen-fixers, great at bringing nutrients back into the soil, and farmers there have experience growing them. We figured we could find a way to create better markets for regeneratively grown peanuts, thus increasing income for farmers and rewarding them for their efforts. They became an integral part of the conservation farming programme.

Implementing the programme was trickier than we imagined. To start, extreme weather handicapped the project—floods in 2017, followed by severe drought in 2018—causing enormous crop losses. Although we had some successes, with hundreds of diverse farmers scattered over 180, 000 ha of inaccessible land, and many more variables to contend with, we quickly discovered that this wasn’t a recipe for holistic transformation in the Conservancy. The reasons are many and multilayered (which we’ll attempt to explore in depth in a later blog post), but, essentially, it boils down to this: All farmers in the Simalaha face similar challenges, but not all have the same aspirations. Most farm out of necessity, rather than choice, and in many cases, their income is supplemented by family members working in the cities. They farm to produce their own food, which makes sense when it takes a day to get to the closest shop. Considering the transport costs of accessing the market—to either buy or sell a kilogram of maize—it’s cheaper for most people to produce maize themselves.

The majority of farmers in this area have no intention of growing more than they already do, or of marketing their produce at a large scale. Any outside efforts to help them succeed need to be cautious of applying Western definitions of ‘help’ and ‘success’, as many of the farmers are satisfied if they can feed their families and make a small income.

What it really takes to grow

It’s not as if there are no ambitious farmers in the Simalaha. For the 5% – 15% of producers who see farming as a business, and have the ambition to scale, the challenge is to create the right conditions to thrive. They need more than the little support they had been offered in the way of seedlings and training, in order to grow a healthy crop of peanuts for a better mark-up.

For the 5% – 15% of producers who see farming as a business, and have the ambition to scale, the challenge is to create the right conditions to thrive.

To make farming work as a business in this area, just like anywhere, you need to get it right. You need a good location, relatively close to a road with access to water, and it helps if you have some tools and equipment. Because the margins are so slim, it takes a long time for an individual farmer to take that leap.

A farmer irrigates his crop with a hosepipe powered by a treadle pump

A farmer irrigates his crops with a hosepipe powered by a treadle pump.

Julius, a farmer in the region, illustrated why it’s so challenging. At the start of the season, he plants okra, which grows very quickly. With the money he makes from selling these vegetables, he can buy some diesel. With the diesel, he can use the generator to pump water from the river into a tank. With that water, he can use a hose pipe to water some of his fields where he plants maize, sorghum, peanuts and vegetables. After the year’s harvest, he can buy another piece of PVC pipe, which eventually creates a flood-irrigation system—self-built, collected over a couple of harvests. This will allow him to scale since it’s less work than irrigating by hand.

A radical shift

Inspired by farmers like Julius, we knew we had to change our approach. Rather than a broad-stroke solution indiscriminately targeting diverse farmers with diverse ambitions, we would focus on a few ambitious producers and give them a real chance of success. The Simalaha Incubator Farm Company (IFC) was born at the beginning of 2020.

Instead of managing hundreds of small-scale farmers and a scattered patchwork of plots, the Simalaha IFC is choosing five to ten farm families and working with five hectares of contiguous land. Each farming family will manage a section with Grounded’s support, and a dedicated team in the field.

A centralised location means greater ease of access to roads and water, and a more consistent environment where high potential producers can thrive. Aggregation also means it is more efficient to establish irrigation systems, and get equipment on a farm. If we can get this right, we’ll be in a better position to include some of the other 5,000 families in the region, who have the ambition to scale.

The tricky science of crop selection

No, it’s not rocket science (it might be easier if it was) but it does require deep insight into a range of factors.

Climate and soil suitability

We dug down a meter and a half to examine the topsoil and the subsoil, and collected samples for lab analysis. Knowing the nutrient and chemical make-up of the soil, and its structural composition—the soil profile—gives us information that will help us pair it with the species best-suited to live in it. It is also the starting point for creating a regenerative farm management plan, a plan that will revitalise the soils using the right mix of crops and farming practices.

Producers and farming method

But soil profile isn’t the only factor influencing the crops we choose. We could theoretically have the perfect seed and soil match, and the absolute wrong farming method. We partner with farmers who have already shown they can grow the selected crops, and we select higher-value crops that require attention. Here smaller, dedicated farmers can excel, while producing relatively large volumes.

Through our experience with peanuts, we learned the importance of adding higher-value species into the mix―something to help carry the costs of the infrastructure and transport required to get harvests to buyers, and still bring a good return for the farmers. But it’s not just about getting the goods to market, it’s also about getting them to the right market.

Markets

The business boils down to two questions: Can we grow it, and can we sell it? In the early stages the product portfolio will mainly consist of crops we can sell to Zambian local markets and to regional markets. Bordering Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, the Simalaha is well-positioned for access by traders, who travel here from as far as Angola and the DRC as well. These markets are growing and flexible. It’s possible to sell a lower quality product at a lower price, which is a good buffer, since it’s impossible to produce 100% premium-grade produce in any farming system. It might not sound fancy or ambitious, but often this way is as profitable as exporting to Western markets.

Crop selection

For now, we’ll be planting vegetables that farmers are relatively familiar with growing, and which are undersupplied in local and regional markets. Too much change too quickly can create unnecessary instability, so while we introduce new species, like ginger and turmeric, garlic and chili, we’ll be sure to keep some familiar crops, like tomatoes, potatoes and okra, consistent with what the farmers have been growing for years. The crops can either be sold fresh in local markets or exported after local processing; this allows for produce of a range of quality, and makes for a more resilient company.

Failing Small

We know that the best laid plans are no substitute for good old-fashioned experimentation. That’s why it’s essential to trial different crops on just a few hectares of land, taking note of the microclimate and the local pests, seeing what does best in the ground—all while proving the advantages of regenerative farming to people in the area. It might not be sexy, but it’s a recipe that wins in the long run: fail small, take those lessons and amplify what works.

It might not be sexy, but it’s a recipe that wins in the long run: fail small, take those lessons and amplify what works.

Group portrait of a smiling group of farmers and their children

Working with a select group of the most dedicated farmers and their families, focuses our energies on the highest potential.
Photo credit: Gareth Hubbard

Small-holder farmers, big-picture thinking

The Simalaha demonstrates perfectly, how vital it is to rural development in Africa that we broaden our thinking. Too often we limit farmers who happen to be working as smallholders today to this ultimate fate. We should be supporting the most ambitious in their transition towards larger scale farming―supporting them to run their farm as a business, rather than a necessity.

It’s not only about food security: transforming a country’s agriculture sector can create jobs, raise incomes, reduce malnutrition, and kick-start the economy on a path to middle-income growth. We think big transformation is possible in Zambia, and we’re investing in a few farmers to try to make this happen.

Although the strategy for the Simalaha has changed, Grounded is still working in partnership with The Peace Parks Foundation, who continue to support sustainability and community resilience in the region.

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