More than 200 000 farmers and farming households in the Northern Communal Areas (NCAs) produce rain-fed crops on an estimated half a million hectares of land (the Annual Agricultural Surveys, 1996-2003). However, the majority of farmers use outdated, low-productive traditional methods such as mould board ploughing or disc harrowing in combination with non-rotational (no nitrogen fixing legumes) mono-cropping. Soils are thus being steadily degraded causing low yields. A study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in 2009 concluded that mahangu yields in the NCAs are as low as 230 kg per hectare, which is thought to be the lowest in the world. In the Maize Triangle, yields from around 8 200 hectares per annum on average under rain-fed production are also very low, even in a normal year and “another season of erratic and sporadic rainfall like last season will mean the end of the road for most producers in the Triangle.
As Farmers Forum has previously reported, the secret to high yielding rain-fed crop farming is about how farmers treat the soil. If soil is pulverised by disc harrows, it leads to compaction, which hampers root development. Pulverised soil is also highly vulnerable to wind erosion and run-off. Currently more than half a million Namibians are in acute need of food aid due to crop failure in the 2014/2015 season, and Namibia must import around 210 000 tonnes of cereals according to figures released by government. However, farmers who correctly used the NSCA method during the current drought reported good yields and, in many cases, even some surplus to own requirements for sale.
NSCA owes its origins to the Conservation Tillage Project (CONTILL), which commenced operations in 2005 with a three season programme of fully participatory on- farm trials of various applications of the innovative Ripper Furrowing methodology. These were strictly conducted to a Project Research Protocol drawn up by the Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry (then the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development, MAWRD) and the results fully recorded and presented to an appointed Steering Committee. The next three season phase consisted of on-farm demonstrations combined with further development of the system. By 2010, mahangu yields had increased from 200 to 300 kg/ha to the highest level recorded by CONTILL of 3 063 kg per hectare in Omusati.
The NSCA method is based on the ripper furrowing practice where ripping breaks the hard sub-surface plough pan, thus allowing deep root development whilst simultaneously forming in-field water harvesting furrows, which increases the furrow base moisture (where the crop is established) by up to 75%. Constant traffic (where the same lines are followed every season for concentrated fertility buildup and to avoid compaction in the plant row) is also employed. Crop rotation is also part of NSCA. There is now an industrial demand for cowpea for canning.
The NSCA method holds the potential to increase mahangu yields with up to a minimum of 1 670 kg average per hectare on NCA farms. Farmers have access to communal agricultural land through lease-holds and by the farmers being assisted to switch from conventional farming methods to NSCA, this would translate into a massive increase in cereal food production, not only for household food security, but also for the national staple food reserves and the market.