• Home
  • IFAD website
  • Subscribe to posts
  • Subscribe to comments

*Originally published here on the CCAFS blog

As year 2015 has been earmarked as the International Year of Soils to highlight the urgent need for better soil management, many are promoting conservation agriculture (CA) as a key solution for African farmers. Yet, a slow adoption in sub Saharan Africa raises questions on the effectiveness of CA and the true value of such cropping practices for smallholder farmers. A new CCAFS report, based on collaboration with IFAD and CIRAD, gives some answers.

Will CA help respond to the urgent need to preserve our soils?

Out of over 930 million people living in sub Saharan Africa (SSA), about two thirds depend on rain fed smallholder agriculture for their livelihoods. Fragile soils, growing aridity and unsustainable practices like overgrazing, soil-depleting crop cultivation and firewood collection are rampantly degrading over two thirds of African land [UN Economic Commission for Africa]. Fighting this land degradation has recently yet again been listed in the development priorities by representatives of the Least Developed Countries in Cotonou. In SSA countries like Uganda, research shows that better land management practices are linked to reduced rural poverty.

Conservation agriculture (CA), which was initially developed as a response to the US Dust Bowl in the 1930s, is one of the approaches increasingly promoted on smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to tackle this land degradation and improve soil health. Proof of its popularity, the First African Congress on CA took place in March in Zambia, where CA is already practiced on more than 5% of cultivated lands.

CA combines three cropping practices to help reduce erosion and water run-off, increase soil fertility and ultimately the crop yields. These consist of minimum or no-tillage to reduce soil disturbance; permanent soil cover, using crop residues as mulch; and crop rotations or intercropping, especially with nitrogen-fixing legumes.
Many experiments across the globe have shown the very positive impact CA can have on crop yields and livelihoods. In the Kulunda Steppe in Siberia, where half of the 42 million hectares of cropland are degraded, farmers were suffering from decades of declining yields. Scientists in this region began experimenting with CA three years ago and have already seen yields rise by around 20 to 25%. These encouraging results suggest CA could offer a relatively inexpensive solution to prevent the next Dust Bowl in the Russian Steppes.

But, to what extent could small farmers in SSA benefit from CA, and in which conditions? To help set the story straight, a CCAFS report  has just been published following the analysis of 41 studies identified as comparing CA with conventional tillage based practices in various agro-ecologies and climate conditions of SSA. This meta-analysis of existing data helps us better understand what conditions result in positive crop responses to CA practices as well as identify the factors that limit the adoption and impact of CA and potential solutions to address these.

Yes, CA can bring long term benefits for farmers if all three components are practiced

A key finding was that by combining no tillage with mulching, a farmer will yield on average 300 kg more per hectare in the first three years and even more thereafter, compared to conventional practices. However harvests will be lower in the long run if he practices only no tillage without soil cover and crop rotation.
Another finding is the importance of the use of fertilizer as a condition of success for CA farmers. Farmers yielded about 400 kg more per hectare through practicing CA when nitrogen fertilizer application was higher than 100kg per hectare. Given that the majority of SSA farmers apply much less fertilizer, on average around 8kg per hectare, this calls for the appropriate use of small quantities of fertilizer such as fertilizer microdosing, to benefit fully from CA’s potential.

CA could improve farmer livelihoods and resilience

Scientists attribute the positive yield impact (up to 300 kg more per hectare) of the combination of no-tillage, mulch and crop rotation to several benefits of crop rotation such as better soil structure, less pests and the biological nitrogen fixation which occurs when legumes are used as a rotational crop.   

The impact of CA will vary depending on seasonal rainfall. Overall, the meta-analysis shows greater yield gains in rainfall above 1,000mm than in drier conditions. However, some studies claim the opposite as heavy rains on mulched soils often induce aeration problems and waterlogging.

CA has been praised as a good climate change mitigation and adaptation technique. In particular, it has beenpromoted as a technology to cope with more erratic rainfall, due to the effects mulching seems to have on soil-water-balance. But this may be overstated.

“The results of this study do not show clear evidence of this potential,” said Marc Corbeels, a researcher at CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) who led the study. “On average, yield benefits from CA were relatively low under dry climates in SSA: 140 kg per hectare,” he explained.
Long-term experiments on no till have shown that up to 10 tons of additional carbon could be sequestered in soil. However a recent CIMMYT study of the carbon sequestration potential of no tillage practices concludes that its impact on mitigation has been overstated.

Still, CA advocates crop rotation as well as no tillage and the positive impact of crop rotation in climate change adaptation is widely accepted. Many long-term field studies have directly compared continuous maize cultivation with a legume based rotation. A replicated controlled experiment in Canada found legume based rotation provided an additional 20 tons of soil organic carbon per hectare after 35 years. Rotation with legumes also adds organic nitrogen to the soil and breaks the lifecycle of pest and diseases, reducing the need for “carbon costly” chemical fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, further contributing to climate change mitigation
Another CA benefit of promoting legumes in crop rotation or intercropping is nutrition. Research in Malawi found that families intercropping pigeonpea in their maize fields were more likely to get enough calories even during dry years than families practicing maize monoculture.

But CA may not fit for all: understanding adoption constraints

Despite its success in some regions, CA is not being widely adopted in SSA. Among the adoption issues identified is that the use of crop residues as mulch/soil cover competes directly with other very important uses such as fodder to feed animals in mixed crop-livestock farms. Poor families also often use maize, sorghum or millet stalks as cooking fuel.

"It is important that the study highlights adoption constraints like these so we can identify potential solutions to ensure CA is being practiced where it is most suitable for the smallholder farmer," adds Stephen Twomlow, a Climate and Environmental Specialist from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) which helped fund the study.

The greater benefit may vary depending on the farm. A crop residues trade-off analysis in West Africa found that while some farmers may get better returns by using crop residues for fodder, others benefit more from its use for mulching and nutrient recycling.

Some agronomists point out that CA may not suit all soils. The analysis suggests that CA works better on loamy soils compared to sandy and clay soils. Poorly drained soils are in general inappropriate as mulch can cause waterlogging and crop diseases.

Despite crop rotation benefits, farmers resist introducing legume rotation in continuous crop monocropping (eg maize monoculture in Malawi) due to the lack of legume markets for sales. Unless there is a ready market for the grain, smallholder farmers in SSA tend to grow grain legumes on a small proportion of their farm land, just for subsistence, and certainly not enough to provide a rotation across the farm. This highlights the need for policies, infrastructure and new markets to encourage better adoption of legume rotation practices. A successful example of this is in Ethiopia where policies supporting better seed access, training and markets have led farmers to dramatically increase chickpea cultivation alongside teff.

Sustainable farming practices like CA has a crucial role to play in SSA, where there will be 1.5 billion mouths to feed by 2050, in a drier and more fragile environment with increasingly scarce resources. Providing tailored advice for each region is key and despite evident benefits in many situations, CA may not be the solution for all.

Download the report

Meta-analysis of crop responses to conservation agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa by Marc Corbeels (CIRAD), Raymond Kofi Sakyi (Georg-August-Universität), Ronald Franz Kühne (Georg-August-Universität) and Anthony Whitbread (Georg-August-Universität).

The research was undertaken with funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

By Faumuina Felolini Tafunai

IFAD’s Sakiusa Tubuna says people need to go back to
 how their forefathers farmed and look at crops that fare
better with the effects of climate change
Traditional organic farming promotes soil health allowing farmers to continue using the same area rather than clearing land and contributing to deforestation, according to a top UN agriculturalist.

Sakiusa Tubuna is the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) sub-regional co-ordinator, based in Suva. He says that traditional farming uses processes like mulching that help maintain healthy soils, which means farmers are less likely to clear additional land for farming.

“We encourage traditional mixed farming systems instead of mono cropping which can lead to soil erosion. We also encourage the use of technologies and better methods so that farmers can produce smaller volume but high-value crops.”

Tubuna says people need to go back to how their forefathers farmed and look at crops that fare better with the effects of climate change.

“Coconut tree varieties like Fiji Tall and Samoa Tall don’t yield as many coconuts as some other varieties but they are able to withstand cyclones much better and cope with sea spray.”

Tubuna is part of an IFAD contingent participating in the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in Samoa.

IFAD is a specialized agency of the United Nations, established as an international financial institution in 1977.

Since its creation it has invested a USD476 million in 23 Small Island Developing States. This has benefited over 5 million people living in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean and Pacific region.

At the conference, IFAD is hosting the ‘More than cocoa and coconuts: investing in rural people developing agriculture ‘side event on 2 September.

The side event will show how IFAD forges partnership with different groups, including case studies from Cicia Island in Fiji, Sao Tome and Principe, and Grenada.

The following day it has co-sponsored a Government of Tonga side event that looks at partnerships between civil societies and government, and a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) side event on food security in the context of climate change. It has also set up a field trip to visit local farms including Women in Business Development demonstration farm at Nu’u and the Samoa Farmers Association Tahitian Lime export process at Atele.

On September 4, it is co-sponsoring the Organics Islands side event that looks at how organic agriculture can be used as a tool for sustainable agricultural development.

Related blogpost: Spotting deforestation from the space

By Antonella Piccolella 

August 28, Apia, Samoa. Today young people from the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific gathered together at the To’oa Salamasina Hall, Sogi, Apia for the second and last day of the Youth Forum as part of the preparatory activities for the Third International Conference for Small Island Developing States.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is committed to enhancing opportunities for rural youth in small island developing states and has supported the participation in the Forum of Aulola Silua Toomeilangi ‘AKE, a young M&E coordinator for the Tonga Rural Innovation Project, implemented by MORDI Tonga Trust.

Aulola Silua Toomeilangi ‘AKE attending the Youth Forum,
Apia, Samoa. Photo: IFAD/Antonella Piccolella
Aulola is enthusiastic about her participation in the Youth Forum. On the first day of the Forum she took part in an advocacy and lobbying workshop where she noted that “rural youth is often left out of the discussion.” She highlighted the importance of context. Rural youth have different needs in comparison to urban youth - due to their remoteness. “Urban and rural youth have different opportunities and different resources. For example, rural youth often do not have access to quality education and this discourages them.” This is the core issue. Aulola believes that “it is not possible to talk about entrepreneurship and employment opportunities without giving access to quality education.”

Participants at the Youth Forum, Apia, Samoa.
Photo: IFAD/Antonella Piccolella 
The MORDI project staff have completed community development plans together with men’s and women’s groups as well as youth groups. In this process Aulola noted that the lack of access to technology (i.e. computers) and ICT skills was a key hurdle for the rural youth in Tonga. The main take away message for Aulola is that “we need to work more with youth and integrate their needs in Tonga, also through the MORDI project that provides a framework for doing so." Because of the way it is structured MORDI offers opportunities for bringing in a bottom-up perspective. Often work on youth-related issues is very top down and the Regional Youth Councils only work with national representatives.

The thing that Aulola loved the most about taking part in the Youth Forum was the South-South learning experience. She was really interested in an initiative from the AIMS region and she will be in touch via e-mail with the AIMS representative. “The best was that we did not stay within the Pacific circuit but were able to interact with people from the different countries”.

Can I Cash in and Cash out here?

Posted by Jessica Thomas Friday, August 22, 2014 4 comments

What is better than cash you may ask? Electronic payments of course! Easy question, easy answer, anything else you need to know?

Actually, there is a lot more to it than that and that's why the Rural Finance Thematic Group and the Better than Cash Alliance held a seminar at IFAD on 21 August.
"Empowering people through electronic payments" . Tidhar Wald, from BTC walked the participants through an interesting presentation on why the alliance is convincing Governments, the development community and the private sector to shift their payments from cash to electronic – paving the way to expand financial inclusion and help people in poverty grow assets. Digitizing payments can create lasting benefits for people, communities and economies such as: cost savings, transparency, security, financial inclusion and access to new markets. Today, more than half the adult population – 2.5 billion – are excluded from the formal financial sector.

It seems that there is no question as to the efficiency that this shift would lead to, in fact,  a stimulating discussion took place on the pros and cons of this shift and how challenging it will really be to replace a cash economy  – 'cash is the way people think' …'a cash element will always remain' …'we have a long way to go to make services available to the local people ' these were just some of the comments made.

Andean tribal people, Cusco Region, Peru, beneficiaries of a financial graduation programme by the government.
©IFAD/Michal Hamp


Although there are challenges, there are benefits too... Governments can save up to 75% when making payments electronically rather than in cash, on what? Corruption, theft, insurance costs, less middlemen – all these and other factors drastically increase savings as the costs incurred with cash no longer exist.

Mainly BTC aims to see donors committing to implement electronic payment solutions instead of cash. Another aim is for improved economic security for millions of low-income and poor people, enabling them to use bank or electronic accounts to build savings and assets via innovative payment technologies.

IFAD has been invited to become a member of the Better than Cash Alliance and the process to reach a decision has started. Current partners of the Alliance are:  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MasterCard, Citi, The Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Visa Inc., and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) as the Secretariat of the Alliance.

In fact, IFAD is already using electronic payments so what would our actual role be? To showcase IFAD’s leadership in its process to accelerate digitization of payments and jointly promote greater use of secure, sound electronic payments in the world.

Did you know? Another reason not to use cash - cash is unhygenic and 94% of all paper bills are contaminated - with drugs and dangerous germs!

By Vivienne Likhanga

“Communities must be part and parcel of natural resources management (NRM) for it to succeed” Mr. Paul Njuguna, Land and Environment Coordinator.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in partnership with Procasur Africa, CARE  (relief agency) in Kenya and the Cgiar Research Program on Climate Change & Food Security (CCAFS), organized a learning route titled “Natural Resource Management and Climate Change Adaptation best practices: The Experience in Kenya,” that took place between the 7th and the 13th of July 2014. Seventeen participants from various IFAD-supported projects, implementing partners and civil society organizations in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Lesotho and Kenya all met together on an 8-day journey across the districts and rural communities of Kenya.

A Learning Route is an experience that transforms its participants, leading them to become agents of change in their own organizations. It is a capacity-building procedure with a proven track record of successfully combining local knowledge and experiences. The Learning Route is based on the idea that successful solutions to existing problems are already present within rural areas, and that those solutions might be adapted and spread to other contexts. This journey gets participants to understand these changes through peer learning, discussing directly with rural communities who are the promoters of the identified best practices and successful innovations.

Everyone was excited to hit the road on the learning route bus and visit these three cases:
1.       Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project (UTaNRMP): The IFAD project addresses the key link between poverty and natural resources degradation from an Integrated Participatory Approach involving local communities. The project intervention focuses on livelihood improvement activities, which result in better management of the environment.
2.       The Cgiar Research Program on Climate Change & Food Security (CCAFS), and Dryland Agriculture in Wote, Makueni County:  This project has dedicated learning sites aimed at understanding the interactions, synergies and trade-offs between climate change and agriculture in ASAL areas. The intervention is based on an integrated approach and shows how community resilience to climate change is greatly increased through localizing weather information and disseminating this in a timely manner to farmers so that they can make informed decisions on what to plant and when.
3.       The Community of Balich and the Adaptation Learning Programme (ALP), developed by CARE Kenya in the Garissa region: Through a community-based adaptation process, ALP has been working in partnership with the local communities in Garissa since 2011 to support the development and implementation of their own responses to climate change and adaptation strategies.

After visiting the field, participants of the Learning Route worked on how to take home the lessons learned during the training. Top on the list was the need for the involvement of local communities in climate change adaptation strategies. This would help to alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods through new income generation activities.

Ms. Beth Mburu, a PHD Researcher on Climate Change Adaptation and food Security indirectly working with smallholders farmers previously engaged with IFAD said; “The learning route was very rich! My main take home lesson is on Community empowerment. We have to engage the community in the development and implementation of climate change adaptation solutions, so that when the project lifetime ends there’s an element that will keep the project together. Sharing information at local levels in a manner that is understandable in the local context in a timely manner is important for decision making. Linking community members who are influential in the community also leads to success in the uptake of projects. At the same time, other partners must come on board too to ensure the success and sustainability of climate smart strategies.” (For more on her interview, we invite you to please watch this short 4 minute video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biNj3e3ofSY)

During the learning route the participants developed their ideas into a concrete Action Plan, which will outline how they intend to bring new products, services or processes into their projects and organizations. The best three Action Plans will be prized with a starting capital of USD 2,500.

For more details on the learning route training and additional reading on the specifics of the Learning Route, we invite you to visit our website at the following link: http://africa.procasur.org/en/learning-routes/upcoming-learning-routes/113-113.

Other Useful links:

1.       Presentations (on SlideShare application)

·         Please click here for another blog on the learning route

2.       YouTube Videos:

For further information, please contact:

Ariel Halpern: ahalpern@procasur.org, phone: +56-02-3416367
ValentinaSauve:  vsauve@procasur.org, phone: +254 (0) 706046742
Vivienne Likhanga: vlikhanga@procasur.org, phone: +254(020) 2716036

by Susan Beccio

 A coastline household in Kurumpanai village, Tamil Nadu, India.  This village was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami. ©IFAD/Susan Beccio

This week I visited some of the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, India that were heavily effected by the tsunami ten years ago. Although the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is not a relief organisation, through it's work in investing in poor rural communities, the fund provides plenty of relief to poor households. The Post-Tsunami Sustainable Livelihoods Programme for the Coastal Communities of Tamil Nadu (PTSLP) is no exception. The project has been working with people living along the coast and surrounding areas to enhance their livelihoods since 2007.  

Leaders of the Kurumpanai fishermen’s group talk about the tsunami at the fishing society headquarters in Kurumpanai village.  ©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Though the people from this area had never experienced a tsunami before, "they knew something different was happening with the sea, so they ran to the mountains," said the leaders of the Kurumpanai fishermen's group in unison. Many fishermen in the village lost their nets and boats and none of the fishermen in the area were able to work for the next five months.

Fishermen repair their nets in Kanyakumari village. ©IFAD/Susan Beccio

The project provided loans to fishing groups to buy improved boats. Fishermen received fishing nets, ice boxes and cutting knives. Construction of boatyards, landing docks and wholesale fish markets was undertaken. Cement reefs were installed offshore to act as a buffer and protect the shoreline from erratic sea levels.

The new wholesale fish market building is near completion in Kurumpanai village.  
©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Traditionally, when fishermen arrive with their catch, they sell it directly to retail buyers - right on the beach. Today, the fishing groups practise a more orderly and transparent system of auctioning fish on the landing dock. Women retailers play an active part in bidding for fish and can even estimate their profits for the day. 

Auctioneer hawks fish to retail buyers in Kanyakumari village.  
©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Women, who buy fish wholesale and sell in the local market, were trained in fish handling - though not all of the practises have been easily adopted.  "Though women know better, they still mix fresh fish with sand because then people think it is fresh, if they put ice, people think the fish is frozen," says Maria Roni, 56, secretary of the Kayakumari fish society.

Women sell fish at the Erulapapuram market, 3 kilometers from the coastline in Nagercoil. 
©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Beyond fish and fishing, the project has also helped the most vulnerable members of the coastal communities develop skills and start small businesses to generate household income.This subject will be for another blogpost.