Gaston Mukuwa, a farmer from Katoba in the Lusaka Province’s Chongwe district lost everything in a fire 3 years ago. Broke and desparate, he turned to conservation agriculture to dig himself out of the pit.
He had to rebuild not only his home, but also the 5 hectare farm he inherited from his father, Andrew Mukuwa. Today his farm is standing stronger than ever.
Gaston’s father farmed using traditional methods and he recalls good harvests the family realised in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “We were wealthy farmers those days,” says Gaston.
Over the years, they however switched to more modern farming methods. Strip and burn practices were used for field preparation. Tons of fertiliser was ploughed into the soil and while it initially improved their yields, Gaston says his fields were “finished” by 2010.
The same soil that sustained his family for generations, could no longer produce a viable crop without fertiliser. He knew it wasn’t sustainable, but didn’t know what to do or how to solve his conundrum.
In 2014, he met the well-known authority on conservation agriculture in Zambia Sebastian Scott from the Grassroots Trust.
“I asked him what happened to the fertility of our soil. My father used to consistently harvest more than 5 tons of maize per hectare and now I was battling to get 2 tons per hectare. It was like I was farming in a never-ending drought. Or so I thought. When the drought did come, my harvest dropped to below 1 ton per hectare.”
A LESSON IN SOIL SCIENCE
While Gaston put down a lot of fertiliser every year, he never knew exactly what the state of his soil was. Sebastian recommended he had his soil analysed and from that he recommended he introduce animal manure to his fertigation programme and put down as much organic matter as ground cover as possible.
So, the first year Gaston halved his fertiliser order and supplemented it with manure of cattle and goats he collected and stored over the past season. He did the same the second year, but just as things started looking better for the Mukuwa family, disaster struck.
A wildfire swept over his farm, destroying his grazing, his house and grain store. “I had just finished harvesting and sold most of my maize the previous day. There was still about 300 bags in the store room.”
The money from the maize sale and the 300 remaining bags were destroyed and Gaston and his family no longer had a roof over their head. He was financially and emotionally beaten when Sebastian’s colleague from the Grassroots Trust, Rolf Shenton drove past and saw the dismal figure under a tree the next day.
Rolf pulled over and had a long, serious talk to Gaston, who was ready to go to the city to find a job. He got up and started ripping the soil with a ripper he borrowed from his neighbours and preparing to plant the next season.
“We didn’t have a house and we didn’t have money to build one. We slept under that tree,” says Gaston, motioning to a tree next to the new house he has built.
He couldn’t afford any fertiliser, so that year it had to be only manure. Fortunately, he still had his animals, but once the fields were ready to be planted he sold some of his cattle to buy seed and to pay for his children’s school fees.
A NEW LIFE FROM NEW METHODS
His perseverance paid off. The following year the harvest paid for seed and school fees. It is now almost 3 years since that terrible day, and Gaston has managed to build a new house, he can afford to send his 2 eldest daughters to one of the best schools in Luangwa, as well as pay the local school fees for his 5 younger children.
He has, since the fire, not gone back to using fertiliser. He uses only manure and while he harvests about 7.5 tons of maize per hectare, he notes that his input costs are negligible compared to his days of “modern” farming. He has, however expanded his plantings and now has to buy chicken manure from his neighbour. He pays about K10 for a 50 kg bag.
Gaston, however, says it is not so much the substituting of fertiliser with manure that has made him more profitable, it is the conservation tillage practices that Sebastian taught him. He no longer burns his plant rests after the harvest, but leaves it on the field to form a protective layer that traps moisture and prevents rainwater from flushing the topsoil down into the rivers.
These days he also intercrops his maize with pigeon peas, which effectively gives him two crops from the same field per season. Being a legume, the pigeon peas fix nitrogen. He also rotates his maize plantings with soya beans and sorghum. Last year, he planted 2 hectares of maize, 2 hectares of soya beans and 1 hectare of sorghum.
He harvested 70 x 50 kg bags of soya this year, of which he kept 10 for feed for his pigs and sold the rest. “Due to the poor maize price, I made more money off 2 hectares of soya than off 2 hectares of maize, so this year I am planting 4 hectares of soya.”
Gaston is fortunate to have secured a contract for soya beans, which sheltered him from the low maize price of 2017. He normally sells his maize to millers in Lusaka.
He also sells live pigs from his 7 sows when they reach about 60 kg at between K600 and K800 per animal. Live goats he sells at K200 to K300 per animal from his breeding herd of 24 females. He, however, lost most of his cattle herd to disease.
Gaston has now planted a quarter hectare of bamboo for the construction industry. The seedlings were given to him for free by a local non-governmental organisation, Albida, which is trying to introduce bamboo as a crop that could play a role in combatting climate change.
The idea is that bamboo will become a viable and cheap alternative to natural forest wood that is currently used for construction, charcoal and tomato poles. Bamboo grows fast and can be harvested regularly. For farmers like Gaston, it can provide another source of revenue while it contributes to conservation, something he learned to appreciate in a very hard way.