How To Dodge A Drought Zambia-style

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© Boyd, R4 participant, next to his crops. Photo: WFP/ Evin Joyce

22 September 2016

In Zambia, smallholder farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture and constantly face challenges such as erratic rainfall, fragile soil and poor access to markets. Climate change places an additional burden on farmers’ food security by increasing the frequency and intensity of shocks including drought and flooding. That is why WFP is helping farmers build their resilience to such shocks through the Rural Resilience Initiative (R4), an integrated risk management strategy which aims to strengthen farmers’ food and income security in an uncertain world.

By Evin Joyce and Arianna Tabegna


Boyd Mungalu, R4 participant in Pemba district in southern Zambia, says that he will remember last year’s agricultural season for the “dry spells” that caused most of his maize crop to wither and die before it could reach waist height. Boyd is one of the millions smallholder farmers across southern Zambia, and tens of million across southern Africa, whose crop production has been challenged by a late onset of rainfall, punctuated by extended dry spells due to the El Niño event. 
Boyd explains that in a good season his maize harvest, the country’s staple crop, can fill up 136 bags. During this agricultural season, the yield was enough only for 25 bags.

Yet, he says with a smile: “It was a good year for me though, my cowpeas performed very well”. Indeed, thanks to the R4 initiative that introduced him to conservation agriculture, he focused on crop diversification and on the cultivation of drought-resistant crops such as cowpeas and sunflower, which gave him an abundant harvest.


Mainner Chabota, another R4 participant, tells us that while in 2014 she planted 40 kg of maize seeds and 5kg of cowpea seeds, last year she applied conservation agriculture techniques learned through the R4-FAO’s Conservation Agriculture Scaling Up project (CASU) partnership, and she switched the quantity of crops planted. She decreased maize to 15 kg and increased cowpeas to 40 kg. Despite her maize crop wilted at an early stage, the cowpeas kept growing.

“R4 has given us a good lesson. Now I need more knowledge on how to garden and how to sell my produce once it has grown.”

Facing El Niño with the right crops

The latest El Niño was one of the strongest on record and caused the worst drought in southern Africa in the past 35 years. Despite this, Boyd and Mainner managed to mitigate its impacts by successfully applying conservation agriculture techniques and focusing their agricultural production on crops that better resist to droughts, such as cowpeas. This allowed them to meet their subsistence needs, and Mainner even gained a surplus for sale. This was possible thanks to the R4 initiative, which combines weather-index insurance with conservation agriculture techniques by partnering with FAO’s Conservation Agriculture Scaling Up project (CASU). Such integrated approach to climate risk management improved farmers’ natural resource management, reducing their risks to climatic shocks. 

Conservation agriculture is a climate smart agriculture technique that promotes crop rotation, minimum soil tillage and permanent soil cover to restore fertility and improve productivity. The adoption of conservation agriculture promotes resilience by steadily decreasing vulnerability to climate variability and shocks over time. 

A model to build resilience

The Rural Resilience Initiative (R4) is a strategic partnership with Oxfam America that aims to strengthen farmers’ food and income security in face of increasing climate risks through four risk management strategies. R4 combines improved resource management (risk reduction), insurance (risk transfer), livelihoods diversification and microcredit (prudent risk taking) and savings (risk reserves). 

In Zambia, the R4 model has been adapted to address the specific local challenges. The Initiative targets poor and food insecure smallholder households that, provided with a set of interventions - including agricultural inputs, improved agricultural practices, as well as financial services - are able to raise their productivity to meet their subsistence needs and gain from surplus sale. 

Once farmers start practising conservation agriculture, they can access a package of risk management services, namely: 
- Weather index insurance to safeguard their investment in conservation agriculture through critical phases in the crops growing period; 
- Credit and savings, to invest in their land, as well as in other income-generating activities;
- Enhanced linkages to markets to provide farmers with the opportunity to sell their products at a fair price. 

To learn more about R4 click here.