Activating Small-Holder Farmers for Personal and Environmental Change

How One Agricultural Training Ground is Changing Traditional Farming Methods Across Zambia

Mr. Cipolo worked at an airport in Lusaka, Zambia for most of his adult career. In 1994, at the age of 50, he was suddenly laid off. He applied to other jobs in the city but no one wanted to hire him because of his age. Yet he still needed a full-time income to support his family. He tried farming, but after balancing his books at the end of first year, he found he was losing money.

The year left him skeptical about a future in agriculture until a friend told him about a Swedish corporation offering scholarships for a two-week training at Kasisi Agricultural Training Center. Following the training, Mr. Cipolo, a man previously disenchanted with the profession, became devoted to new conservation practices. He went on to share what he had learned with his family and his community, including the village’s traditional leader. Encouraged by the integration of forestry and agriculture, the leader granted Mr. Cipolo land, completely barren of trees, to farm and use in a more sustainable manner.

Farmer by Farmer
As a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the LIFE (Linking Income, Food, and the Environment) program in Zambia, I work primarily with rural farmers. My assignment is to promote conservation farming, agroforestry, and crop diversity to encourage environmental and economic sustainability and enable subsistence farmers to eat a healthy variety of foods. In the communities where I work, farming is a strong element of the cultural identity, although techniques are not always aligned with the best practices of conservation.

One such practice is called ‘citemene’—preparing the soil for planting. Throughout a season, farmers will clear the trees from a plot of land, piling the timber and debris at the center of the denuded site. The grasses are then lit ablaze under a controlled burn to clear the remaining vegetation. This allows the ash to de-acidify the soil. However, the process takes a heavy toll on the soil’s microorganisms and biomaterial, diminishing its fertility in the long term.

After just two-to-three years of productivity, farmers must move to another plot with nutrient-rich soil. Citemene causes widespread deforestation as well as incidental damage to homes from mismanaged “controlled burns.” Practices such as these are difficult to change after generations of adherence.

Conservation farming involves techniques such as minimal tilling, using natural pesticides and fertilizers, digging basins for water retention, and companion planting crops. Visible results from conservation farming can be difficult to achieve in the first year. It takes dedication to explore new methods that will secure a worthwhile return in the long-run. In my training to become a PCV, I learned about Kasisi Farms, an organization that has had a remarkable degree of success influencing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of traditional Zambian farmers.

Kasisi Farms and Training Center offers small-holder farmers opportunities to learn about conservation farming, agroforestry, agri-business, value addition, and business management, thereby increasing their ability to improve their livelihoods. The site is a functional production unit with demonstration plots that permit farmers to gain hands-on experience and see for themselves how conservation farming practices are profitable. With the demonstration plots, Kasisi creates the connection that many PCVs struggle to achieve simply by articulating a theory of change.

Farmers who do not yet own land or are just starting, like Mr. Cipolo, can apply for Kasisi’s cooperative farming program. In this program, they receive conservation farming training along with a quarter hectare of land to cultivate. Participants contribute a nominal sum for rent to Kasisi that includes water, additional access to farming equipment, and market access to grocery stores. This is a boon for farmers who are just starting and need to build the capital to get their own productions off the ground while also learning about farming practices that will make them successfully independent.

Since the organization’s beginning in 1974, over 10,000 farmers have gone through their training. Such sustained success is attributable to long-standing partnerships among stakeholders with shared and complementary interests. The Zambian Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, in its interest to promote conservation-farming practices, has provided financial support. International government aid organizations like the Peace Corps have supported it with long-term volunteer engagement. Other institutions have provided grants to farmers, much like the one Mr. Cipolo received. Now there is also market demand from local grocery stores looking to buy organic produce. Finally, the dedicated folks at Kasisi Training Center, who provide the knowledge, have been critical to the success.

Together these diverse partners are changing what farming looks like in Zambia. For example, Kasisi teaches about the principles of agroforestry, planting trees amongst crops. When Mr. Cipolo shared his story with me and the other volunteers, he proudly spoke of all the trees we could see on his land. He had planted them all. Previously, over-harvesting for poles and fuelwood, a common threat to old-growth forests throughout Zambia, had left the property bare. The village chief, responsible for distributing land, gave Mr. Cipolo his land because of Mr. Cipolo’s advocacy for reforestation. Now much of the forest has returned, and with it, prosperity and an important lesson for his community.

Since 1997, when Mr. Cipolo (standing front and center above) started his farm, the operation has grown considerably. From his initial cultivation of cereal crops and legumes, he now has horses and cows, various orchards, permaculture gardens, and value added food and beauty products sold in Lusaka under the African Butterfly label (in reference to Zambia’s butterfly shape). Mr. Cipolo’s experience demonstrates that with the right access to training, old agricultural practices can be adapted for the benefit of farmers, their communities, and the environment that sustains them.

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