ONDANGWA – “The only way to put food on your table is to apply Conservation Agriculture,” says Haliana Thomas in Oshigambo, Oshikoto region. Other farmers across northern Namibia agree.
Helena Nangolo, a Conservation Agriculture (or “CA”) farmer located just north of Ondangwa in Oshana region, says that despite erratic rainfall and drought, her crops are doing very well, and she has some advice for other farmers in Namibia’s northern regions: “I encourage all farmers to switch to CA methods as it would mean food security.”
Conservation Agriculture uses “rip furrowing” or “hand-hoe basin” methods (rather than disc harrowing and moldboard plowing) for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits and food security while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment. CA is characterized by three linked principles: (1) minimum soil disturbance; (2) permanent organic soil cover; and (3) crop rotations.
CA is becoming increasingly popular among subsistence farmers in Namibia’s northern regions as drought conditions have worsened in recent years. Yet, farmers who practice CA find that their farms are flourishing.
Key to CA farming in northern Namibia is the “rip furrow” method, which utilises a rip furrow implement fitted with wings in order to crack open the hard plow-pan. This allows for deep root development and creates soil ridges that effectively guide rainwater straight to the plants in the furrows.
Haliana says, “I have practiced the rip furrowing method since 2011. Every tiny shower immediately makes a difference to my field due to the soil ridges.” As a result, “I still have one and a half eshisha (silo) of mahangu left over from last year,” Haliana explains.
The positive results in Helena’s and Haliana’s fields – despite ongoing drought – are not surprising, however. Correctly rip furrowed fields can give rise to an effective increase of 75% of the rainwater that seeps into the planting lines, thus enabling strong plant growth even in times of limited rainfall or drought.
While Haliana and Helena have used tractor power to bring their fields under CA cultivation, no expensive machines are needed to practice CA and achieve positive CA results.
Alfred Tumelo, a maize farmer from Sachona constituency in the Zambezi region, started practicing the CA hand-hoe basin method in 2006, achieving excellent results without the use of tractors or expensive equipment. In 2014, he prepared his fields using an oxen-drawn rip furrower designed for CA. Alfred explains that “even though we experienced a severe drought, I had a very good harvest just like any other year from the parts of my field under Conservation Agriculture.”
Alfred supports his family with the yields from his farm and markets the surplus to a miller in Katima Mulilo. He explains: “I will continue practicing CA because of the good yields and the improvement of soil fertility. CA is an adaptation measure against poor rainfall and climate change. I have surplus to sell year after year, which is a much needed income.” Alfred actively encourages other farmers to switch to CA as well.
These three farmers attribute their success to CA training, good field preparation and proper planning.
Each of the three profiled farmers – Haliana, Helena and Alfred – are Lead Farmers participating in the Namibia Conservation Agriculture Project (NCAP), which is financed through the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Haliana explains: “As NCAP Lead Farmers we train our neighbours in CA theory and production planning, as well as conducting practical demonstrations in sowing, weeding and thinning.” To that effect, Helena advises, “farmers must be trained and follow the advice from trainers.”
In terms of field preparation and planning, these farmers attribute a large part of their success to crop rotation, soil cover and early land preparation.
For example, each farmer planted large portions of their fields with omakunde (cowpea), which they use for household consumption, marketing and to improve the soil’s nitrogen content. In the next crop season, they will rotate crops and plant mahangu or maize where they planted omakunde this season. They do this in order to improve the soil using the plant’s natural nitrogen-fixing benefits. Omakunde is also an effective green soil cover, and its residues are left in the field to form a vital mulch layer, which helps to prevent the loss of water in the fields.
Soil cover, such as omakunde, also suffocates weeds. This means that weeding requires less time and effort. Indeed, Haliana states, “When applying CA, weeding is easy, meaning you put less physical labour into farming.”
Similarly, for Alfred, “Early land preparation and sowing is key to success.” He prepared his field in early November and sowed with the first rain. With the onset of this year’s drought – the Zambezi region’s most severe drought in 45 years – Alfred’s crops were already well developed and benefitting from the retained soil moisture in the ground. He began harvesting in February.
Now, thanks to Kongalend Financial Services and Agribank, many more farmers than ever before will be able to make the switch to CA. Both institutions are currently providing affordable loan packages in an effort to increase the number of tractors with rippers available to farmers in the country’s northern regions. NCAP field coordinators are connecting farmers with rip furrow service providers.
It is not only farmers encouraging their neighbours to switch to CA farming, however. “Shifting to CA methods is the way to go in crop farming,” says Dr. Simon Angombe of UNAM, who holds a PhD in Agricultural Ecology and specializes in soil science.
“Most crucially, CA is about conserving soil moisture, which is happening when soil cover is applied and when the hard plow-pan is cracked open, thus allowing for moisture retention and deep root development.”
Dr. Angombe explains that “CA is also very economical. Instead of putting cash and hard labour into a large unproductive field under conventional methods, in particular elderly farmers, could apply CA and concentrate on a smaller piece of land and make it very productive. Thus, they could leave the rest of the land for grazing, for instance.
CA is safeguarding food security even in the face of drought. There are many CA farmers out there in the villages in the communal land areas from Omusati to Zambezi. I encourage other farmers to visit them – they are there and they have a story to tell. We must embark on raising awareness on CA and facilitate for the majority of farmers to take up the methods.”
NCAP is implemented by NCBA CLUSA International in partnership with Creative Entrepreneurs Solutions and the Namibia National Farmers Union. The project is training 10,800 farmers in CA methods across Namibia’s northern regions.