Learning Conservation Agriculture the Innovation Systems way
Kruger E1, Ngcobo P1, Dlamini M.C1 and Smith H.J2
1 Mahlathini Development Foundation (MDF), Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Corresponding author: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Grain SA, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
Keywords: innovation systems, smallholder farming, soil health, productivity, social agency, value chain
Severe environmental degradation, low farm profitability, poverty and the increased vulnerability
caused by variability in weather and climate change in current smallholder production systems have
brought farming in this sector almost to a standstill (Smith, et al., 2017). This calls for a paradigm
shift focussing on mainstreaming sustainable agriculture systems in South Africa.
Sustainable agriculture systems, such as Conservation Agriculture (CA), are social constructs or
innovation processes which function as on-farm, farmer-centred Innovation Systems (IS’s),
embracing all the actors involved within the value chain. It is not just a model or production
package to be used but is a system of continuous learning (Smith, 2014).
CA is an approach for managing agro-ecosystems to improve and sustain productivity, increase
profits and food security, while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment. It
provides potential solutions to a wide-ranging number of challenges, including economic viability,
ecological sustainability and the social acceptability of farming. The success of CA under diverse
agro-ecological conditions is now being documented in South Africa, mainly for large scale
commercial farms (Blignaut et al., 2015;Smith et al., 2017;Swanepoel et al, 2017). There is
however, still very little information available either for implementation of CA in smallholder
farming systems or appropriate extension systems. This paper describes the use of an Innovation
Systems (IS) approach in promotion and adoption of CA in smallholder farming systems in the
KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.
Methods and Materials
For the past five years, Grain SA and Mahlathini Development Foundation have been implementing
a Smallholder Farmer Innovation Programme for promotion and adoption of CA. This IS process
combines elements and learnings from previous implementation experiences (Smith et al., 2010)
and uses a combination of a number of different approaches, processes and tools, including
Participatory Innovation Development (PID) (Kruger and Gilles, 2014) and Farmer Field School
(FFS) (Braun and Duveskog, 2011) approaches that enable participants to share, act, observe,
reflect, plan and learn, creating a culture of learning that allows people to be innovative and
interactive in managing natural resources in a sustainable manner.
Participants of this process are farmers from a locality or village who are organised into learning
groups. A number of farmers in each group volunteer to undertake on-farm experimentation, which
creates an environment where the whole group learns throughout the season by observations and
reflections of the trials’ implementation and results. They compare various CA treatments with their
standard practices, which are planted as control plots. This provides an opportunity to explore all
aspects of the cropping system. The whole value chain is considered including; input supply,
production aspects, harvesting and storage, processing and marketing. The learning groups also
form the launching point for management of group owned tools and equipment, collaborative work
sharing, Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) who undertake bulk buying of inputs and
setting up of local small businesses within the value chain including farmer centres, threshers and
The farmer level trials are usually 100, 400 or 1000m2 (small areas to reduce risk). Farmers are
trained practically in the implementation of CA; pre- planting spraying (use of knapsack sprayers)
and field preparation, use of herbicides, layout of plots and planting in basins and rows using a
range of no-till tools (hand planters, animal drawn planters and or two row tractor drawn planters;
depending on farmers’ choice). Aspects such as top dressing, weeding and pest control are covered
during the season as well.
The first- year trial layout is pre-determined through the programme to include close spacing, inter
cropping and different varieties of maize (choice of traditional, open pollinated or hybrid seed) and
legumes (sugar beans, cowpeas). From the 2nd year onwards farmers start to add their own elements
to the experimentation depending on their learning, questions and preferences. Cover crops (both
summer and winter) and crop rotation options are introduced. Researcher managed trials are also set
up, to work alongside the more enthusiastic and committed participants and to explore issues such
as soil health, carbon sequestration, soil fertility, water productivity, moisture retention, run-off and
specific aspects of the CA system – such as seeding and seeding rates of cover crops for example.
As a minimum, 2-4 learning sessions are held yearly for each learning group, building in
complexity and content every year. Review and planning sessions are held yearly for each learning
group. Local farmers days are organised, jointly with the learning groups. CA forums and
innovation platforms are promoted where all stakeholders, involving government, agribusiness and
civil society in a region join these forums to share, discuss and plan together.
In this way more than 3 000 community members have been exposed to CA practice in their areas
and external stakeholder involvement have included: Department of Agriculture and Rural
Development (DARD), Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR),
Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), The
University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), Environmental Learning Resource Centre (ELRC) – Rhodes
University, Cedara Agricultural College, the LandCare Programme, Local and District
Municipalities, KwaZulu Natal Agricultural Union (KwaNalu), the KZN No Till Club, Lima Rural
Development Foundation, Zimele, the Institute of Natural Resources, the Farmer Support Group,
Growing Nations, TWK Agricultural Cooperative, AGT Foods, FarmSave, Afritrac and Eden
Equip, as examples.
Each year new farmers are brought on board using a horizontal scaling model. After 3 years farmers
are graduated from the learning process, but continue in the learning groups and with their own
Results and Discussion
Results can be presented within three categories, namely, social agency, value chain development
and increased productivity (Table 1).
The SFIP has expanded in the five years of operation from working with 28 participants across two
villages in Bergville, to working with 465 farmer level experimentation participants across four
areas (Bergville, Midlands, Southern KZN and Northern EC), in 36 villages, with 18 Village
Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), 18 Local Facilitators and 1 farmer centre.
Smallholder participants have increased their household food provisioning of maize and beans
substantially. Initially most households had food only for 0-3 months of the year; now 53% of
participants have food for 7-12 months of the year. Local sale of produce has increased from 0-
10%. VSLA participation has increased form 5% to79% of participants and of these 28% are saving
for inputs. All participants feel CA is cheaper than conventional farming, 78% feel that this practice
has reduced their labour requirement and 39% feel that CA has reduced their weeding requirement.
In addition to the implementation of intercropping, crop rotation and summer and winter cover
crops outlined in Table 1, yield results have been summarised for the 4 seasons for maize and bean
production (Table 2). Average yields for maize have increased systematically over the time period
(from 3,74 t/ha to 5,03 t/ha for the Bergville area and from 0,95 t/ha to 2,52 t/ha for the other
participating areas). The maximum yields have increased also and present maximum yields of 11,7
t/ha in Bergville and 5,2 t/ha for Southern KZN and EC reflect well the commercial yield potential
for maize production in these areas (Kruger et al, 2017).
Effects of soil health
Soil health indicators have been monitored for 20 participants using a range of indicators, of which
most are part of the Haney Soil Health Test (Gunderson, Accessed: 2018/05/20). Trends over a
three- year period indicate that the Organic Carbon and Nitrogen content of the soil has increased
for all 4 participants from the Bergville area, monitored over this time frame and C:N ratios have
decreased for one participant only (i.e. Ms Phumelele Hlongwane), as she has most coherently
implemented the diverse cropping and crop rotation process (including legumes).
Soil health scores have increased significantly between 2016 to 2017 (Table 3). These results
indicate that the combination of crop rotation with crop diversity (intercropping and cover crops,
including legumes) provides the best option of increasing soil health over the short term.
In conclusion, the IS systems approach in smallholder farming is building substantial capacity
among smallholders in KZN and the EC to implement CA in their farming system and thereby
greatly increasing their level of food security, social agency and soil health.
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Table 1: Innovation System indicators for CA implementation in KZN and EC, 2013-2017
Table 2: Yield and income values for CA trails between 2013-2017
EC, SKZN, Midlands
Area planted (trials) -
Average yield maize
Min and max yield
Actual amount of
maize (per person)
R 1 600
R 4 500
Average yield beans
Table 3: Soil health test results over three seasons for 4 participants across three villages in the
CO2 - C(ppm)
No of female farmers
Saving for inputs
Intercropping –maize and
Reduced labour in CA
Intercropping maize and
legumes (cowpeas, lab-lab,
VSLAs – (% of
Reduced weeding in CA
Crop rotation (3 seasons)
Months of food
provided through CA;
Use of planters
Animal drawn planters
Tractor drawn planters
Cover crops; summer mix –
sunflower, millet, sunn hemp,
Sale of crops locally;
(maize, beans, cowpeas,
Local financing of
Cover crops; winter mix relay
cropping – Saia oats, fodder
sorghum, fodder radish
Fodder; provisioning of
livestock through cut and