Climate-proofing livelihoods: Alternative agricultural approaches in Zambia

The Farmers of Simalele village in the Kalomo district, located in the Southern Province of Zambia, have directly experienced the effects of climate change during the past few years. “I noticed it was getting much hotter, and we were getting less rain. This started around 2010 when we had the first big drought,” said Chuumputa Muponda, a 48-year old lead farmer in the community who supports a family of six children.

Once the shallow water wells dry out, his family — usually one of his eldest daughters — is ought to travel long distances down to the river in the search for water. The water scarcity limits the number of animals he can raise and takes away from the valuable time dedicate to farm activities. Muponda also noticed that disease is beginning to spread. People were falling sick more frequently and he would often need to take additional time off to take his family to the nearest health clinic, many miles away.

The hard conditions in this area have motivated some to leave. “A few neighboring farming families moved away to other areas like Mumba,” he said.

Adapting to climate change and reducing emissions

The stresses from a changing climate prompted Muponda to consider innovations for his farming techniques. One such approach is conservation agriculture, a strategy he had learned about from the Conservation Agriculture (CASO) project under the EU implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. By introducing sustainable land management practices that include minimal soil disturbance (no tillage), permanent ground cover and crop rotation farmers manage to improve soil health and agricultural yield while also increasing carbon sequestration. The protective soil cover also lowers needs for irrigation and fertilizers.

While shifting to more sustainable agriculture practices, Muponda decided to switch from farming tobacco — the primary crop in his region— to maize, which is less destructive for the environment. One of the biggest improvements was that new equipment not only improved soil quality but also maximized efficiency. “Before [the adoption of the conservation agriculture approach], it took me two days to reap one hectare. Now, I can do this job within one day,” Muponda said. He owns 21 hectares of land, this translates to reducing his reaping time by three weeks.

Improved soil health and limited use of herbicides helped him multiply the yield by a factor of four, from 50 bags to 218 bags of maize per ½ hectare. These efforts are supported by a Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA), designed to reduce emissions. Developed with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it aims to scale up the conservation agriculture approach and promote the adoption of low emission, high nutrient efficiency fertilizers.

Over the years, Mupondo has skillfully combined these inputs and others, from a variety of programmes, including livestock distribution and bush and tree maintenance. Now, he acts as a mentor — a source of inspiration and knowledge for farmers. He has developed a farming network to share experiences, discuss challenges, and introduce others to the benefits of a conservation agriculture approach.

Sustainable land — Improve livelihood

Improved and sustainable land management has generated significant benefits for Muponda and his family. As he built up savings from the increased yields, Muponda expanded his livestock, which now includes cows, goats, chickens and a couple of pigs. This, in turn, has allowed him to hire a workforce to help with animal herding while his children are at school. Muponda is now able to afford school boarding fees for three of his children, and non-boarding fees for the other three. And, he even bought a used Peugeot to drive to the village markets and health facilities.

In terms of quality of life, the family has seen significant improvements. Starting with small infrastructure improvements as a solar panel helped undertake bigger projects. The solar panel does not just help turn the lights on in the cottage, but also charges the cell phone, allowing them to call markets and determine prices for crops.

A year ago, Muponda and his wife Grace started building a modest four-bedroom house. Similar to the small cottage, they will install solar panels on the roof to generate enough energy also to power a refrigerator, which will allow the family to store food until market prices are the most profitable.

Muponda is also looking into biogas for additional energy generation and installing a rain harvesting system to satisfy household and garden needs. In their vegetable garden, they grow tomatoes, ochre and melon, providing the family with additional nutritional value. Grace and the daughters are helping with planting, reaping and harvesting and look after the animals when Muponda goes to the market.

Next Steps

For Chuumputa Muponda it is painfully clear that the climate is changing. “We just had our second rain this year,” he said. Besides installing a water harvesting scheme, he thinks he must also diversify the crops in the future, to plant drought-resistant crop varieties.

One of his dreams, after finishing the house, would be to buy a tractor to save time and increase his land to 50 hectares. He also senses an entrepreneurial opportunity, where he could offer neighboring farmers his reaping services and earn an extra income. Muponda vows to not follow suit with other farmers in the region who have been forced to begin the risky journey to find new farmland. His solution begins with conservation agriculture, leading a change in Zambia from the countryside in Kalomo.

Zambia, with support from the UNDP Low Emission Capacity Building Programme / NDC Support Programme, developed an emission reduction plan, also known as a Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA), which builds on the tried-and-tested conservation agriculture approach. The objective of this field visit was to learn first-hand from the farmers about the benefits, and challenges, of this agricultural approach. The visit was accompanied by representatives of the University of Zambia, representatives from the Ministry of Lands and Mining, and Agriculture, and UNDP-Zambia. The NAMA was developed with the generous support of the European Union and the German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

The period from now until 2020 is critical to the success of the Paris Agreement. For UNDP, UN partners and the wider international community, the mission is clear: to push for countries, communities and the private sector to scale up ambition. By 2020, we want to see accelerated action on the climate targets — the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — of the Paris Agreement. Read more on: Climate 2020 — All In

Text and Photos by UNDP/Katharina Davis and UNDP Zambia