KAPOKA, 5 April 2011 (IRIN) - A village a few hundred metres from Lake Tanganyika, which holds nearly one-sixth of the world's available fresh water, has turned its back on fishing in favour of farming.
In just over two years Kapoka, with around 8,000 people in 1,000 or so households, has forsaken a traditional fishing culture that engaged three-quarters of its economically active inhabitants for generations. They had always cultivated a few crops - cassava, rice, sweet potatoes - now, 90 percent are farming.
Why the switch? "The fish are finished and there is money in farming," David Ngandu, who used to be a fisherman, told IRIN.
The Lake Tanganyika Integrated Management Project (IMP) - sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility, an independent fund - wants to alleviate pressure on Lake Tanganyika by reducing overfishing and erosion, which has led to increased sedimentation and pollution, and instead encourage sustainable farming practices.
Zambia's local implementing partner for the IMP is the ministry of tourism and environment, with assistance from the ministries of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
A UNDP document, Safeguarding Africa's Freshwater Jewel: Lake Tanganyika, notes that the continent's largest body of fresh water is a "closed basin, it takes 7,000 years for water to get flushed through evaporation, making pollution permanent in relation to human life times."
The lake's waters are shared by Zambia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania, with the hub of commercial fishing located in the north Zambian town of Mpulungu. All four countries are part of the IMP, established in 2008 with a US$13 million budget for the pilot phase, which runs until mid-2012.
Zambia receives $2.4 million, plus an additional $400,000 from UNDP, even though its territorial claim on the lake is 6 percent, Burundi's is 8 percent, the DRC controls 45 percent and Tanzania 41 percent.
The lake's biodiversity has few peers - more than 1,500 species of fish, invertebrates and plants - "50 of which are endemic, without close relatives outside the basin due to the very long history of isolated evolutionary processes at work," the UNDP document noted.
The fishing industry brought infrastructural development to Mpulungu, which lies about 10km south of Kapoka. It has an electricity supply - although erratic at times - an established commercial fish-packaging industry and roads that take the produce to large markets, including the Zambian capital, Lusaka, about 1,000km away.
Kapoka's community members acknowledge the greatest threat to their increasing agricultural bounty is the poor to non-existent road network, which means produce has to be transported to the nearest markets on foot, by canoe, or pack mule.
They have first hand experience of the effects of poor infrastructure on their produce. Hundred-year-old mango trees provide shade for villagers in the hot and humid lake basin, and in season the fruit carpets the ground more than 30cm deep. Some is eaten, but most is buried to produce compost because the market is too distant through the lack of road systems.
Near the village, Joseph Kalonga, a former fisherman, produced a first harvest in 2009/10 that was so impressive he became a role model for other maize farmers. He said he delivered 5,000kg of maize from one hectare, filling 100 bags with 50kg of maize each, which were sold for 65,000 Zambian kwacha ($14) per bag, a total of revenue of about $1,400. Zambia's average per capita income is $900 a year.
Kalonga has planted three hectares of maize for the 2010/11 season and his plants are standing tall and healthy. If this harvest is as successful as the previous one, he could reap $4,200 - more than four times the country's average per capita income.
"With fishing it is catch today, sell, and then tomorrow there is no plan but fishing. The money from maize gives a plan to plant next year, and plant a bigger area," he said. "Fishing is about catching fish; with farming you can buy fish and still have money for other things."
Parents are teaching their children about agriculture rather than fishing, and the diversity of crops produced by the villagers was in recognition of "climate change - we understand that if sometimes it just rains all the time, than maize will suffer, so we have to grow different crops," another former fisherman, Justin Mwimanzi, told IRIN.
Individual households decide which crops to grow, so the fields around Kapoka have been planted with sugar cane, okra, eggplant, sorghum and beans, as well as the traditional cassava, rice and sweet potatoes. Fallow fields have been planted with soil-improving crops such as Tephrosia Vogelii, an indigenous woody herb that improves soil structure. Its leaves can also be used to make insecticides.
The close proximity of the lake is good for paddy rice, but raised beds are dug against the drainage line for other crops close to the water's edge, so the roots do not become waterlogged, yet run-off into the lake is reduced.
Another villager, Alan Sinkala, has opted for tomatoes, okra and eggplants, all cash crops. A quarter-hectare produces four tomato harvests per year - about 10,000kg - but the two wet-season crops yield the biggest dividends.
Simon Chisulo, the agricultural department's crop husbandry officer, believes "the economy of the country starts with the household economy." He told IRIN that growing tomatoes in the wet season was very demanding because the hot and humid conditions in the lake basin encouraged diseases.
In the wet season, tomatoes fetch about 2,000 kwacha ($0.42) per kg, compared to $0.17 in the dry season. The annual tomato crop brings Sinkala about $3,000, two-thirds of it from his wet-season crop, despite the costs of fungicides.
Chisulo said not all farmers had adopted the new techniques, such as greater spacing and digging raised beds to ensure roots were above the water table, but the bigger yields of those who had done so provided the best incentive.
A 3.5km gravity irrigation channel, starting from the Izi Falls, situated on a nearby stream, is being built to feed "dry lands" higher up the basin. It will allow the Kapoka community to produce two crops of maize a year.
Pilot plots illustrating various growing techniques include crop rotation and inter-cropping, soil improvement crops and anti-erosion methods like terracing and planting vertiver grass, which has roots up to two metres long that bind the soil, slowing the movement of runoff water along the boundaries of fields. Chisulo said new techniques were being introduced each year, rather than all at once.
Vyatala farm, about 17km south of Mpulungu, has opted for organic farming techniques. "The idea is to reduce the amount of fertilizer required to add to the soil. The [input] subsidies will not continue forever, as you cannot be sure what the next government will do," Chisulo said.
Economic benefits of new crops
Upland rice, a hybrid requiring damp soil rather than a paddy, with turnaround of about 100 days from seed to harvest, is yielding about 60 bags with 50kg each from a one-hectare pilot plot.
Rice is in demand in Zambia and the other states on Lake Tanganyika, where it is taken by boat to the market and fetches at least 200,000 kwacha ($42) per 50kg bag. "It takes about three hours for a hundred bags of rice to be sold at Mpulungu's market," Chisulo said.
The 12 family members on Vyatala farm increased maize production on the same area of land from 150 bags of 50kg each in the 2008/09 season, to 200 bags in 2009/10 and are expecting a harvest of 250 bags in the 2010/11 season. They also started growing upland rice in 2011.
Soil-improving crops such as velvet beans (Mucuna pruriens), hemp and Tephrosia vulgarii are promoted. Simon Simwinga, 30, one of Vyatala's family members, told IRIN that the leaves of Tephrosia vulgarii used to be dried and crushed and then sprinkled into rivers to kill fish, but this had stopped.
The proximity of Lake Tanganyika, the world's second largest fresh water lake by volume, has influenced the diet of communities, and livestock rearing for meat is not widely practiced.
Four fish ponds have been built on the 43ha Vyatala farm, using a 10 million kwacha ($2,100) loan from the IMP, which has a US$300,000 revolving fund to provide loans for sustainable farming projects. It took 19 months to build the ponds by hand, which have been stocked with the Lake Tanganyika spotted bream, which is sourced from a fish laboratory in Kasama, about 200km south of Mpulungu.
The nutrient-rich water from the fish ponds is also used to irrigate fields.
The fish are harvested every three months and sell for between 15,000 kwacha ($3) and 20,000 kwacha ($4) per kilogram. There is a ready market for them in the local community, which is used to relying on fish from the lake.