By Maimbolwa Mulikelela-
ATTAINING food security to avert hunger and poverty through sustainable agricultural systems is key to stimulating growth in countries like Zambia.
To achieve this, farmers should adopt conservation farming methods that allow them to reduce costs, increase their yields, improve nutrition and minimise the chances of crop failure in drought years.
Available data shows that agriculture practices such as conservation farming have led to an increase in profits for smallholder farmers and, in turn improve the fertility of their land.
We believe that many thousands of rural families can genuinely benefit from conservation farming if fully supported.
It is for this reason the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) is working with a number of communities in Eastern, Central and Muchinga provinces to promote conservation agriculture.
About 225,929 farmers in Eastern, Central and Muchinga provinces in 2020 were reported to have signed a conservation pledge and joined a local cooperative.
Presently, COMACO is working with about 81 cooperatives, of which they provide farmers services across the three provinces.
According to the COMACO 2020 annual report, about 22 cooperative organisations are on track to be self-financed with their own business plans.
As a result, annual household income in these communities rose by 2.3 per cent, while food security stood at 1.4 per cent.
Therefore, COMACO’s impact on conservation is through its influence of new skills and premium markets on farmers’ livelihoods that help shape environmental outcomes.
This influence extends to community leaders and their role in moulding community norms for safeguarding local resources.
Thus, COMACO has partnered with Global Evergreening Alliance (GEA) to restore 30 million trees in Central and Muchinga provinces at a cost of US$1 million.
The project will contribute to the management of over 600,000 hectares of community protected forests, enabling the transformation of rural farming communities into viable cooperative organisations.
COMACO communications manager George Sichanga indicates that farmers will become financially self-reliant and are required to develop their own local conservation plans over a period of five years.
The project is positioned within the broader restore Africa programme coordinated by GEA with other local partners operating in Zambia.
“COMACO has since started conducting community sensitisation meeting in Mpika using video shows to enhance sensitisation of the programme and reach up to 19,400 farmers in the district,” he says.
The sensitisation shows are intended to help farmers in communities learn of how other parts of the country have benefited from adopting sustainable agriculture practices.
“The sensitisation programme is also targeting to raise awareness among the traditional leaders, whom COMACO recognises as key in implementing its programmes to improve living standards in the communities,” he says.
It should be pointed out that Zambia’s rural landscape suffers from weak environmental governance, which has allowed prevailing market forces to promote agricultural systems that are over-reliant on maize, harmful to the soil, dependent on chemicals and susceptible to climate variability.
“The long term downside costs are largely borne by small scale farmers with significant consequences to the environment, such as the loss of up to 250,000 to 300,000 hectares of forest annually, increasingly degraded soils with reduced productivity and threatened biodiversity,” Mr Sichinga says.
Commenting on the GEA project, COMACO west project manager David Chandalala says project is targeting to reach not less than 62,500 farmers in Serenje, Mpika and Isoka.
“And for us to achieve those results, we have these cooperatives that we are working with. They have their farmers and have the extension system which is now spearheading the activities to enroll the farmers, train the farmers and also ensure that farmers adopt the conservation method of farming,” Mr Chandalala says.
COMACO is working with government through the departments of Agriculture and Forestry to spearhead conservation efforts in the chiefdoms.
“What we are doing is to support government’s efforts in uplifting the standards of the communities.
“When we have a community that is food secure we know that this community will have very little in harming the environment through charcoal manufacturing and other bad vices like harvesting of timber because they know that they are focused on farming,” Mr Chandalala says.
In the 2020 marketing season, COMACO procured more than seven million kilogramme (Kg) of produce from the three provinces they operate from.
The organisation bought 7,725,848 kg of produce from about 43,148 small scale farmers in Central, Eastern and Muchinga provinces.
The 2020 annual report shows that COMACO was able to buy groundnuts, soya beans, cowpeas, beans, maize, rice, honey, mangoes, wild mushrooms and wild caterpillar from the farmers in the above provinces.
In addition, COMACO procured about 2.2 Kg of paddy rice from 9,400 small-scale farmers in Serenje, Chinsali and Isoka districts.
Mr Chandalala explains that they were currently working with 32,000 farmers in the above districts of which he says about 52 per cent were female and the rest were male.
Apart from procuring paddy rice, he says COMACO bought 452,000 kg of soya beans, over 200,000 kg of beans from the farmers in the 2020/21 season.
“Our core mandate as COMACO is to help the communities champion the conservation approach, the need to conserve their soils, natural resources, trees as well as wildlife.
“Our activities border around conservation and we have also incorporated agroforestry in the conservation farming practices and we are promoting the planting of trees in the five chiefdoms,” Mr Chandalala states.
He indicates that they have a good working relationship with the chiefs and traditional leaders, who are helping in promoting conservation farming.
“We are also working with the line Ministries, the department of agriculture, forestry, department of National Parks and wildlife,” Mr Chandalala says.
COMACO’s approach in the community is to work with cooperatives that have pledged to conserve nature and it is encouraging that cooperatives have farmers that are interested in taking up the conservation role.
However, COMACO in 2020 invested in six warehouses, adding 5,000 tonnes of storage space for the three hectare property expansion at its Chipata hub.
“They also invested in six trucks for hauling crops and delivering products.
We also have invested in new food safety lab equipment.
“We renovated the honey processing plant and installed new equipments as well as added new processing lines for soy pieces and cowpea snacks,” the report states.
It indicates that the monthly production capacity increased by 300 tonnes of finished products.
The capacity of both honey and peanut butter increased by 75 per cent, while that of yummy soy went up by 40 per cent, rice by 20 per cent and mangos by 30 per cent during the period under review.
The report indicates the turnover in local currency rose to between 30 and 50 per cent year-on-year.
It states that exports declined from 35 per cent in 2019 to 15 per cent of the total sales in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic related disruption.
Further, the COMACO’s own Green market shops added 20 per cent to the total sales.
Therefore, it can be seen from statistics above that conservation farming if well promoted can help avert hunger and poverty in Zambia.