SA farmer Cosmas Xaba investigates options in conservation agriculture

Cosmas Dumezweni Xaba (50) is a family man with a wife, 7 children and 1 grandchild. He retired from the mines in 2008 to come and farm, growing crops and rearing livestock. He strongly believes in doing things for the well-being of his family. He is a pastor at a local church and is also quite influential in local agricultural community development programmes.

Xaba owns 10 cattle and 53 sheep, and uses 3 hectares to grow most of his food, which include spinach, potatoes, beans as well as maize. He sells access produce locally and provides temporary employment to support the efforts of his family members.

He is supported in these efforts by a number of stakeholders including the Department of Agriculture, Kwanalu and Lima Rural Development Foundation, an NGO that supports smallholders with advice and through a revolving loan fund, which supports his maize, broiler and potato production efforts.

His work with Kwanalu led to his cooperative being awarded a 1-row animal-drawn knapic planter through the DRDLR LandCare programme. His crop production and selling enterprises has allowed him to buy a bakkie that he is now using to deliver orders around the area. In the 2015/’16 season, for example, he had a turnover of R8 050 from his potatoes.

The need for financial capital for Xaba’s enterprises is significant, which led him to join a village level savings group initiated by Mahlathini Development Foundation and Strategic Action (a micro-finance collaboration). The group was established in March 2017 and will be used as a financial institution for his enterprises. He recently took a loan from the group in attempts to source a maize thresher that will help him to reduce hours of work shelling maize manually.

Left, an electric maize thresher lent from the ARC with a hut full of maize in the background. Right, harvested maize waiting to be threshed. Photo: Supplied

He is currently the chairperson of a farmer association through Kwanalu and a local facilitator for the Grain SA Farmer Innovation Programme (FIP) for smallholders implemented in Madzikane in collaboration with Kwanalu.

Xaba has been exposed to practices such as minimum tillage, improved seeds and a range of agro-chemicals through collaborative work with Pannar. He has tried minimum tillage for a couple of years and has witnessed increased land production potential and efficient use of inputs, saving both labor and money.

However, he was not familiar with the other conservation agriculture (CA) principles and practices, such as increased diversity (e.g. through intercropping) and permanent organic soil cover. He was eager to try this out with various planting methods and implements to compare it with his normal monocropping practice.


Xaba’s 400 m² plot was planted on 22 November 2016 using Sahara yellow maize seed, gadra beans and cowpea seed varieties, planted as tramline intercrops; thus 2 rows maize, 2 rows legume. The learning group members worked together to lay out the plot, add lime and fertiliser and plant the basins and rows.

This process was then continued for the other members of the group when they planted their own trials. Crop germination was not great, due to crows eating planted seeds. Subsequent growth was, however, good.

Xaba’s trial planting, 22 November 2016. Photo: Supplied

On 1 of February 2017 the learning group gathered again at Xaba’s field for a second round of planting trials. They wanted to experiment with late season planting of beans to compare that with early season planting and with planting of cover crops.

They planted the following three trial plots: 1) monocrop beans, 2) intercropping beans and a summer cover crop mix (sunflower, sunn hemp and millet) and 3) summer cover crops (scc) only.

Xaba’s maize and bean intercrop. Photo: Supplied


Late season bean planting: Xaba is using a hand pushed Haraka planter for the scc seed (on the left) while the ladies are planting beans using hand hoes (on the right of the picture). The maize in the background of the picture belongs to another cooperative member. Photo: Supplied


A view of the bean and scc intercrop plot around 6 weeks after planting, and on the right, the scc plot maturing towards the end of the season. Photo: Supplied


Xaba realised a somewhat low maize yield of 1.3 t/ha for his first year CA trial plot which has been planted with hand-held planters. Damage by crows after planting was substantial on this plot.

His maize CA plot planted with a tractor-drawn 2-row no-till planter had good germination and yielded 3.6 t/ha. He sold his surplus maize locally in the village.


Agriculture has an important role to play in rural livelihoods for food security and income generation, but many challenges still exist despite the presence of support organisations. Stakeholder platforms for collaborative efforts and shared learning have a better chance at strengthening the smallholder farmer sector.

Communities should be at the centre of dialogue and decisions taken as they continue to research new options to strengthen their rural livelihoods.

The Grain SA FIP will continue to involve more smallholders after witnessing the positive outcomes of crops grown under CA. Awareness events, such as farmers’ days, are a great medium for sharing and informing people about CA and its benefits.

Innovative farmers, such as Xaba, supported by learning groups and concerted collaborative efforts from interested and caring stakeholders in communities, have a big role to play in improving smallholder agriculture.

Also read:
Conservation agriculture builds a better life for Phumelele Hlongwane

  • This article was written by Phumzile Ngcobo and Erna Kruger from the Mahlathini Development Foundation.

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