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Conservation farming knowledge base, a challenge for Zambian women
By Musonda Chikwanda, Intern, Clinton Climate Initiative, Clinton Foundation
Musonda Chikwanda received her BA degree in Environmental Education at the University of Zambia. Musonda’s research interests focuses on increasing knowledge base on environmental issues such as Conservation, Climate Change, deforestation and pollution in developing countries. Musonda is currently an intern with the Clinton Climate Initiative, an initiative of the Clinton Foundation, in New York City.
Zambia is increasingly known as a success story for conservation farming. While estimates vary, more than 100,000 Zambian farmers practice conservation farming either full-time or to mitigate risk during dry seasons.
A key advantage of conservation farming is that it allows farmers to commence land preparation earlier than conventional practices, thus facilitating early planting. This provides a better environment and moisture retention for the emerging crop, resulting in more reliable yields. Women are more likely to use conservation agriculture techniques to grow vegetables and other crops that are eaten by the family. Men use conservation farming for cash crop production – usually maize – with the women providing labor for hoeing and weeding. One of the advantages of conservation farming is that because the soil retains its moisture, women can plant their crops before the rain comes which frees them up to help cultivate the family’s maize crop – their primary source of income.
While the potential yield and soil health benefits of conservation farming are substantial, conservation farming is more labor intensive than conventional agriculture which relies on ploughing and herbicides to control weeds. When using conservation farming practices such as no-till or minimum-tillage, fields will produce many more weeds and this weeding is usually done by women. This creates a labor force challenge for women and girls, as weeding through hoeing will fall to them in order to avoid crop failure. In some instances girls, in order to help provide income to the entire family, have to miss classes to help out with the weeding of the family’s cash crop.
While time-saving tools and equipment exist, as well as access to herbicide and training in its use, women are often not aware of these tools or how to use them. The reason cited is the difference in the source of their knowledge about conservation farming. In Zambia, most agriculture extension programs for conservation are targeted to male dominated cash crop production. As a result, men tend to have a deeper understanding of conservation farming. Men tend to learn first and more easily get information and supplies for conservation farming from the village chief, agriculture vendors and extension agents. Even with this information, not all farmers have the capacity to implement the complex set of practices that make up conservation farming.
Women usually rely on NGO agents and agricultural researchers to provide them information and resources to be able to adopt these conservation measures. Some organizations have provided conservation farming manuals, but these also have limitations. For example, the manuals require women farmers to perform six weedings in a year or three weedings per cropping season, which is double compared to the conventional plough-based system. For women farmers this is a substantial additional labor burden, and reduced tillage systems relying purely on manual techniques for weed control are not an attractive option for smallholders.
Herbicide application at planting time makes weeding easier in conservation farming systems. With use of non-selective herbicides, all weeds can be removed in a single operation. If weed control is achieved with herbicides, the labor requirement is reduced. Use of pre- and post-plant herbicides in no till in Ghana required only 15% of the time required for seedbed preparation and weed control with a hand hoe.
Conservation farming is critical for Zambia’s agricultural future. A review of conservation farming outcomes in Zambia by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms a correlation between conservation farming techniques and increased yields for small-scale farmers, particularly in dryland areas, and calls for an expansion of conservation agriculture in Zambia. But it is important to do so in a way that does not add to the labor burden on women and girls. Increasing women’s access to knowledge about best practices and tools for conservation farming, through public and private extension services, needs to be a priority.
 Fowler, R., and J. Rockstrom. 2001. Conservation tillage for sustainable agriculture: An agrarian revolution gathers momentum in Africa. Soil & Tillage Research. 61:93-107.
 Kaczan, D., A. Aslihan, and L. Lipper. 2013. Climate-Smart Agriculture? A review of current practice in agroforestry and conservation agriculture in Malawi and Zambia. ESA Working Paper No. 13-07. FAO.