Practically all ox farmers in Zambia plough their fields at the onset of the rains like their fathers and grandfathers before them. Even the many thousands of farmers who have lost their oxen from Corridor and other cattle diseases wait until they can hire or borrow animals from their neighbours to plough. Ploughing is a tradition so farmers accept it without question. If you asked any Zambian farmer that you found ploughing his fields why he was doing so, he would assume that you were extremely ignorant.
However, if you went to Brazil, or Argentina, or America, where over 40 million hectares of land are cropped without ploughing and asked why ploughs were not used, you would also be considered extremely ignorant.
In Zambia, the plough was introduced in about 1900 and since then its design has not changed at all. If, by performing a miracle you brought a farmer from those days back to life today, he would be confronted by all sorts of things he wouldn’t recognise: modern vehicles and tractors, knapsack sprayers, fer tilisers, chemicals, computers, radios, fridges and mobile phones. He would be extremely confused and nervous until suddenly recognising something from his distant past, he would smile and feel comforted – ‘Ah yes, this is a plough’.
Indeed, if you brought these English peasants back to life from 1005 years ago, the only farm equipment they would recognise would also be the plough. And if you explained to these farmers that the world was in fact round and not flat, and that they would not fall off its edge at Shangombo, they would wish to reverse your miracle so they could take you back to their time and burn you at the stake for witchery! Old conventions die hard.
Conservation agriculture in Africa
(Also known as No-Till or Zero Till in USA)
Conservation agriculture has great potential in Africa because it can control erosion, produce stable yields, and reduce labour needs.
The story of conservation agriculture in Africa is not new. Across wide areas of Africa, conservation agriculture principles used to be normal practice, before ploughs were introduced.
Farmers would cultivate by hand, often with hoes, rotating crops and fallowing fields for several years. Rising populations and ploughs changed all that. European settlers and colonial regimes introduced ploughs, and they quickly came to dominate farming because they enabled farmers to open up more land quickly and cheaply. But just as in the United States, the plough has gradually eroded Africa's soils. Fertility and yields have fallen, and many countries now face critical food shortages. But not all Africa's farmland was put to the plough, or to the deep-till hoe, and pockets of conservation-friendly farming still remain.
Conservation agriculture emerged in several different places around the same time in Africa. The most dramatic story comes from Zimbabwe and Zambia, where conservation agriculture came to the rescue of the land. Starting on one large-scale commercial estate in Zimbabwe, a combination of zero-tillage and direct planting into deep straw mulch meant a slow but sure recovery for de- graded land. A moderate use of herbicides was needed to kill weeds. By the mid 1990s, nearly 4000 hectares were under conservation agriculture - all on large-scale farms. Efforts are presently being made to transfer this success to some of the many new small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe.
In Zambia around the same time, a dedicated extension unit, supported by donor funds, spread the message. Here, small-scale farmers found that conservation agriculture worked on their farms too. Currently more than 100,000 small-scale farmers in Zambia have converted to conservation agriculture.
Large-scale farmers in Kenya, South Africa and Namibia also use conservation agriculture practices. In South Africa, no-till farmers' clubs similar to those in South America have been set up. Initiatives by government research and extension agencies, donors and the private sector promote conservation agriculture for smallholder farmers in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and other countries. Various institutions conduct research on or promote conservation agriculture.
The most important researchers and promoters of conservation agriculture in Africa are farmers themselves. Every farmer is a researcher, who experiments every season on his or her farm. Farmers who find something that works are likely to repeat it the next season, and to tell their friends about it.