Namibia: Conservation Agriculture Failing to Sprout

22 September 2020

Conservation agriculture, which is world-renowned for enhancing production while protecting and conserving the natural environment, has been struggling to gain steam in Namibia, a newly released report has found.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform defines conservation agriculture (CA) as an approach to managing agro-ecosystems for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits and food security while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment.

A briefing paper by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) titled "Conservation agriculture - Time to reap rewards", which was released last month states that conservation agriculture has struggled to take hold in the country even after a decade and a half of promotion and support programmes.

According to the report, local CA projects face implementation and funding issues in addition to a range of technical and social barriers. Moreover, Namibia's experience with CA is not isolated, as the Southern African region, in general, has struggled to adopt and advance this agricultural method.

The report further noted that contrary to longstanding government statements and policies, which on paper endorse CA and overall agricultural development - the government has consistently underfunded the agricultural sector.

The latest figures available for CA cultivation for Namibia stem from 2013/14 and are sourced from a FAO agriculture database. According to this information, the country had 340 hectares of arable land under CA cultivation.

On average, annual production of crops takes place on around 305,000 hectares of cultivated land - indicating that CA is hardly practised among Namibia's farmers. Namibia also fares poorly when compared to other Southern African countries that have adopted CA.

There have however been some positive CA programme implementation examples such as the Conservation Tillage Project Namibia (CONTILL), which ran from 2005 to 2011, the paper found.

Implemented in 2008, a UNDP/GEF administered small grants programme which focused on community-based adaption with regards to climate change, reportedly achieved considerable success with CA. The smallholders that had adopted the CA method under the programme were able to boost their households' food security and resilience to adverse climatic impacts.

The report quotes a study done on the programme, which stated: "Latest findings show that 4,660 kg of pearl millet per hectare have been harvested when using the CA technique in an existing drought context, compared to 300 kg per hectare under the current nationally-promoted disc harrowing approach in a non-drought context."

The study states that CA is comprised of three key principles namely: minimum soil disturbance; permanent, organic soil cover and diversification of crop species grown and crop rotation.

"The two first principles concern the tillage or the preparation of land for agricultural cultivation. The last principle involves the management of both crop types planted and in a specific order to preserve soil health and nutrients to boost sustained productivity."

While Namibia has made significant strides in socio-economic development since independence, the country still faces a myriad of challenges. For many people living in rural areas agriculture remains crucial to securing their livelihood.

Urbanisation and overall development has decreased the country's reliance on farming activities over the past decades. However, agriculture remains important in terms of employment, particularly in the informal sector.

Hence most farming in Namibia is 'subsistence based' - meaning that the production of crops and raising livestock is for one's own consumption. Such farming is often seen as small-scale, using low-technology methods, requiring low skill levels, and being labour intensive. It is commonly practised by the poorer segments of society.

A significant minority of citizens often suffer from food insecurity whereby they are not able to produce or access adequate, nutritious and affordable foodstuffs. For example, multi-year droughts over the past ten years have resulted in hundreds of thousands of citizens becoming food insecure.

"Women active in subsistence farming are especially negatively impacted by natural disasters such as drought. Hence, regional studies indicate that women's health, education and equity suffers disproportionately and can be long-lasting," the briefing paper states.

According to the report, improving food security for Namibian citizens such as vulnerable and disadvantaged subsistence farmers is therefore crucial to alleviating hunger and improving other development outcomes.

"CA is seen as beneficial to food security in a number of ways. Foremost is the argument that the method leads to a more stable or even a marked increase in crop yields. In addition, CA can lend itself to reducing the costs of production for farmers, reduces the use of water and nutrients and is more resilient to stresses such as detrimental weather conditions.

"It can thus be argued that the widespread adoption of CA by Namibian farmers could result in an improvement in food security for many citizens," notes the report.

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