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Livestock key to breaking Zambia’s poverty trap

Malende has been a focus of CIMMYT’s major research programs since 2005, where cropping systems based on the practices of conservation agriculture have been introduced.

Malende is a small village near the town of Monze in southern Zambia, a region that has been a focus of CIMMYT’s major research programs since 2005 and where cropping systems based on the principles and practices of conservation agriculture have been introduced.

Farmers in Malende are typical of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa; they farm relatively small areas, their soils are often degraded and they suffer serious effects of climate variability such as increased heat stress, erratic rainfall and intra-seasonal droughts. Subsistence farming is predominant, as farmers lack access to functional markets for both inputs and produce. Most farmers in Malende rely on manual or animal traction and lack access to alternative farm power, which limits their landholdings to around five hectares.

CIMMYT has been working with partners to implement climate-resilient technologies such as direct seeding, mulching and diversified crop rotation to increase farmer productivity and environmental resilience. A survey conducted during the implementation of an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) project classified Zambian farmers involved in different farming operations by their household characteristics, i.e., land size, cattle and income. To validate the study of farmer typologies, CIMMYT, in collaboration with Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, interviewed a smallholder farmer who owned no cattle and a farmer who owned more than 15 head in March 2015.

Jacob Sibanje farms a total of five hectares. His family consists of five adults and five children, all of whom work on the farm. He has practiced conservation agriculture for many years, produces consistently stable yields, and has started rotating maize with groundnuts, cassava, cowpeas and sweet potatoes.

When asked how his farm operations are doing, Sibanje answered, “I am struggling!” Despite progress achieved through conservation agriculture, the high price of farm inputs (specifically fertilizer and herbicides) and the lack of formal markets for his produce erode his profits annually. This means he has to take on off-farm work to get by. Sibanje’s maize harvest is solely for home consumption, and his situation is unstable, since he has to rent livestock to cultivate his land.

Lyson Sakala cultivates six hectares and supports his family of three adults and two children. Unlike Sibanje, Sakala’s approach is clearly market oriented. He practices conservation agriculture on three hectares, where he rotates maize with soybeans, cowpea and sunflower both for the local market and home consumption. The other three hectares are used as pastureland for livestock.

Sakala feeds all crop residues to his animals and applies manure mainly to the grazing area. He produces 15 liters of milk daily; seven are for home consumption and the rest are sold. Cattle are also a source of cash in case of a family emergency. Sakala can count on selling two to four cows every year for an average price of US $197 per cow. Combined milk and meat revenue allows him to purchase fertilizers at a much higher price than his fellow farmers in Malende. As Sakala’s profits increased, he started employing two farm helpers, and is now able to send all his children to school. He also obtains fodder from his neighboring farmers as supplementary feed during the dry winter season in exchange for renting animals during planting time.

How can Sibanje achieve the same success as Sakala?

CIMMYT used farm typologies based on diverse socio-economic and agricultural criteria to define different livelihood strategies in southern Zambia, and owning livestock was identified as one way of breaking the poverty trap many farmers like Sibanje are stuck in. CIMMYT is also demonstrating the added value of manure, defining the trade-offs between leaving residue on the soil and feeding it to cattle; we also identified the agroecological and socioeconomic conditions where crop-livestock integration can bring positive solutions to farmers.

When he was re-visited in June, Sibanje had already bought four heifers with the current season’s produce. He also plans to modify his farm operations to create a mixed crop-livestock system with the goal of maximizing the whole system instead of only one component, which will generate positive trade-offs.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The choice of mixed farming is not always a sign of improvement of the situation in which people may find themselves.” However, Sibanje and Sakala show that though all smallholders may not become market-oriented livestock farmers, they should at least own enough cattle to avoid having to rent animals for plowing and to have manure and reduce their dependency on expensive mineral fertilizers.