Conservation agriculture builds a better life for Phumelele Hlongwane

Phumelele Thembisile Hlongwane is a mother of 6 from Ezibomvini village in the Bergville area of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province. She is one of about 400 smallholder farmers experimenting with conservation agriculture as part of Grain SA’s Smallholder Farmer Innovation Programme with the Mahlathini Development Foundation.

Phumelele says her passion stems from agriculture’s ability to enable her to be self-reliant, and in her case the key is diversification. She has a vegetable garden in her homestead planted to a wide variety of crops including brassicas, cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes and green peppers.

She also owns 3 cattle, 6 goats, 2 pigs and a flock of indigenous chickens and plants her fields to field crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, dry beans and soy.

Maka Ndoza, as she is affectionately known, joined the Grain SA CA project in 2014 and is now the community facilitator of her Ezibomvini learning group. She is a member of the village savings and loan association, along with other members of her learning group.

Here they save and take small loans for inputs and other livelihood necessities. She is also one of the pioneers of the programme’s local farmer centre model, which she runs jointly with her sister-in-law Zodwa Zikode, who is also a member of the learning group.


Phumelele shares that the primary aim of the farmer centre is to be able to provide production inputs to farmers in quantities and at costs they can afford. The farmer centre providing seed, fertiliser and chemicals has really come into good use as, according to her, the rates of agriculture activity in her community have improved because quantities sold at the farmer centre start from as little as 1 kg up to entire bags of seed or fertiliser.

“Many people in the village had stopped planting because they could not afford inputs,” she said. The returns derived from the farmer centre are not large and are also quite seasonal. To date they have made a profit of around R300 to R600 per month from sales, most of which has been re-invested to continue to buy stock.

Offerings form the local farmer centre also includes some local produce, to augment the sale of inputs in the slow periods. Photo: Supplied

The small table below indicates sales and shows also the seasonality of these.

While her vegetable garden yields some income for her, this is periodic because she only sells surplus, leaving her predominant source of income to social grants for 5 of her 6 children. Field crops are also primarily for household consumption.

Phumelele’s vegetable garden (November 2016). Photo: Supplied


The layout of Phumelele’s plots for the 2016/’17 season are shown below. She is practicing crop rotation as well as intercropping and planting of cover crop mixes – both summer (sunflower, millet, sunn hemp) and winter (saia oats, fodder rye and fodder radish).


In the 2015/’16 season, Phumelele outperformed almost all of the other smallholder farmers in the group and managed to get rather impressive yields at a time when most other farmers’ crops failed.

She experimented with a number of different crop combinations in her CA plots. Her maize control was also a CA plot, but with use of her own fertiliser and seed options.

Her experimental plots included:
• Intercropping of maize with beans
• Intercropping of maize with cowpea
• Planting cover crops in between rows of maize (relay cropping)
• Intercropping maize with lablab
• Planting a single crop of maize (control)
• Planting a single crop of lablab (Dolichos) beans and
• Intercropping of maize with lablab beans

Phumelele followed with a rotation schedule of the same experiments in the 2016/’17 season.

Left to right: Phumelele standing in front of her maize and bean intercrop plot, taken on 17 Jan 2017. Her lablab plot and a SCC plot where she grew sunflower separately and millet and sunn hemp together. Photo: Supplied

The table below shows yield comparisons for Phumelele’s experimental plots.

The small table below indicates yield averages over the last two seasons.

Phumelele’s production is very impressive, with yields on a par with or somewhat better than commercial yields in the area.


Two run-off plots were set up for Phumelele – 1 in her trial plot and 1 in the conventional maize control plot. Measurements were taken by her. Run-off data was collected for those rainfall events where run-off could be correlated to rainfall dates.

Not all data was useable as there were times when she forgot to take readings after 1 rainfall event and thus run off was conflated over a number of rainfall events. Or the bucket was left for quite a while and then emptied at a point that did not correlate with a rainfall event. These readings were not included.

A view of the run-off plot set up in Phumelele’s CA trial plot planted to maize early in the production season (December 2016). Photo: Supplied

In general, there was more run-off in the conventional tillage plot compared to the CA trial plot. The runoff average for the control plot was 3.1 mm per rainfall event and that for the CA plot averaged 1.1 mm. Results are shown in the table below.

The percentage of rainfall converted into run-off, ranges between 11.36% and 38.46% under conventional tillage, while it ranges between 6.82% and 17.86 % in the CA plot. Again, the average percentage of rainfall converted to run-off is almost double on the conventional tillage plot at 20.1%, while that for the CA plot was 11.7%.

This shows that conservation agriculture significantly reduces run-off in a short period (2 to 3 years) even without the increased soil cover usually associated with CA systems. In addition, the run-off collected from the CA plots were a lot “cleaner” with less silt and soil than for the conventionally tilled control plot. The 2 photographs below are indicative.

Run-off collected in the bucket for the CA plot is clear while that for the conventionally tilled plot is full of silt. These photographs were taken in mid-December 2016, on the same day, after a small rainfall event. Photo: Supplied

The presence of such programmes in rural communities not only contributes toward the introduction of practices for improved productivity and resilience, as well as increased food security, but also contributes to a large extent to community building and social agency.

Phumelele’s story is a good example of a local person who is willing to work hard so that she not only feeds her family and makes an income for herself, but also plays a role in mentoring other women in her village to say that “poverty should never be an excuse if you are able to work. Whatever little you may have can go a long way if one is willing to learn and work with others”.

Her greatest wish is that her children also learn that one can make a living for themselves from farming.

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

share this