By Timo Shihepo
The Namibian Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry (MAWF) is fostering the uptake of Conservation Agriculture (CA) through the implementation of a national Conservation Agriculture programme. The programme supports the NDP 5 target of 50 percent of farmers adopting conservation agriculture by 2022. The German Cooperation, through the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH” is supporting the government in this endeavour, with a focus on the north-eastern regions Kavango West/East and Zambezi.
Conservation Agriculture is a set of agronomic practices that minimize the disruption of the soil’s structure, composition and natural biodiversity (see box). Conservation Agriculture has proven potential to improve crop yields, while improving the long-term environmental and financial sustainability of farming.
There is a need for Namibia to adopt climate adapted practices like Conservation Agriculture. Due to climate change, temperatures will rise, evaporation will increase and rainfall will decrease.
According to latest projections, conventional agricultural practices will become more and more difficult across the country. By 2050, conventional farming might become infeasible in most parts of the country, except in the wetter north-eastern regions of Namibia (Zambezi, Kavango East).
What is Conservation Agriculture?
Conservation agriculture is based on three principles - minimum soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover and crop rotation or intercropping.
The main difference to conventional agriculture is the fact that soils are no longer ploughed. Instead, rippers open up the untilled soil for seeding. Alternatively, a direct seeder can be used to place seeds in the untilled soil.
Conservation agriculture can be practised manually or mechanically.
The manual potholing method, where a hoe is used to dig planting basins is labour intensive and therefore only suitable for small areas.
There are several variations of the mechanised form of Conservation Agriculture, either animal-drawn or tractor-drawn. In Namibia, the ripper-furrowing method is quite popular, where furrows with a depth of approximately 30 cm are created that break through the compacted soil (“hard pan”).
Though this method still disturbs the soil at least in the first year, it allows for water harvesting, which is important in most areas of Namibia with relatively low rainfall.
Good agricultural practices like fertilizing soils, pest control amongst others form part of conservation agriculture.
Speaking to The Southern Times, GIZ’s team leader for Adaptation of Agriculture to Climate Change, Dr Alexander Schoening, said rainfall patterns will most likely also change, and lead for example to longer dry spells during the cropping season.
“Therefore, we need to modify the way we do agriculture. Conservation agriculture has proven to reduce erosion, use water more efficiently by reducing evaporation, and to build up soil fertility due to the organic material on the soil.
In case of direct seeding, it also reduces the work load as no soil tilling is needed anymore,” he said.
Most soil in Namibia, particularly in the communal areas, has low fertility levels and achieves low yields.
Dr Schoening says even without climate change, conservation agriculture has the potential to make soils fertile again and contribute to food security.
MAWF/GIZ results show that farmers could achieve 70 percent higher yields on their conservation agriculture plots as compared to conventional agriculture.
Since the effects of conservation agriculture will only become visible after 3-5 years, this yield increase is most probably due to good agricultural practices like the correct fertilizer application. As one of several MAWF development partners, GIZ is focusing on the north-eastern regions of Kavango West, Kavango East and Zambezi. It supports the extension services by providing training and advice to smallholder farmers.
“In order to reach many farmers in a short period of time, we work with a lead farmer approach.
Lead farmers are supported with establishing demonstration fields, which they use to train other farmers in their communities and villages.
Currently, we have around 200 lead farmers, many of them from the Namibian National Farmers Union (NNFU).
Soils of all farmers are tested to provide site-specific fertilizer recommendations,” said Schoening.
Conservation agriculture has proven to work in neighbouring countries but it is relatively new in Namibia and needs to be adapted to the local conditions.
Therefore, the German Cooperation supports on-station and on-farm research, implemented by the University of Namibia (UNAM) and the Namibian University of Science and Technology (NUST).
Scientific backstopping is provided by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
Currently, there are on-station trials at Mashare (Kavango East) and Liselo (Zambezi).
At the same time, aspects of conservation agriculture are tested under real conditions at 42 farmers’ fields .
“These and demonstrations in the agricultural development centres are used also for demonstrations and field days.” Dr Schoening said.
But despite progress, there are still challenges that need to be addressed with regard to conservation agriculture in Namibia.
According to Schoening, the main challenge for farmers is to abandon the plough and embark on a completely new method.
“Farmers are encouraged to exercise patience especially in the beginning stages as it can be cumbersome to deal with the challenge posed by weeds,” he said “Nevertheless, it is crucial for farmers to adapt to changing climatic conditions, and conservation agriculture is a promising method which, at the same time, can help to improve farmers’ livelihoods.”