Significant innovationsandprogress for
smallholder farmers inConservation
Erna Kruger, Director, Mahlathini Development Foundation
Hendrik Smith, Conservation Agriculture Facilitator, Grain SA.
CA is increasing yields, improving livelihoods and improving soil health for around 360
smallholder farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape
One of the main aims of the Conservation Agriculture (CA) Farmer Innovation Programme (FIP),
which is implemented by Grain SA and funded by The Maize Trust, is tounderstand, improve and
facilitate the implementation of CAin smallholder farming systems in South Africa. Through this
process the programme expects to achieve significant improvements in natural resource status and
quality allowing sustained crop production intensification.
The farmer-centered innovation systems research process underpinning the programme is based on
working intensively with farmer learning groups and local facilitators to scale out CA in andbetween
selected villages and study areas.
Within the learning groups, farmer innovators volunteer to set up and manage farmer-managed
adaptive trials in their backyards or fields. These plots become the ‘learning venues’ for the whole
learning group. Farmer Field School (FFS) and action research methodologies are used within the
group to focus the learning on the actual features and changes in the field throughout the season,
such as growth and development of the crops and soil health. The new CA practices are tested against
the ‘normal’ practice in the area as the controls. During frequent learning events or workshops,
farmers observe, analyse and assess what is happening in the trials, and discuss appropriate
decisions and management practicesin view of continuous adaptation. Short information provision
and training sessions (e.g. on special topics) are included in these workshops.
Building of social and financial capital are enhanced by also supporting the formation of local level
micro savings and loan associations (MSLA) and by supporting the development of localised farmer
centers. The latter facilitates bulk buying of inputs, setting up of localised milling and marketing
The adaptive trials are also used as a focus point for the broader community to engage through local
learning events and farmers’days. Stakeholdersand the broader economic, agricultural and
environmental communities are drawninto these processes and events. Through this, Innovation
Platforms (IPs) are developed to improve cooperation and synergy between programmes, and
development of appropriate and farmer-led processes for economic inclusion. These IPs also provide
a good opportunity to focus further research on the ‘needs’ emerging through the process.
The trials are undertaken on a small portion of the smallholders’ plot and range in size between 100,
400 and 1000 m2depending on their scale of farming. Accommodation is made for hand planting,
animal traction and tractor drawn planting options, including the provision of appropriate
implements. Participants also pay a subsidy towards the input requirements for their trials.
In addition, research plots, managed jointly by field staff and farmers are set up to glean information
on more technical aspects such as infiltration, water holding capacity, soil organic matter and soil
Left to right: A typical maize and cowpea intercropped plot. Canopy cover is dense due to close spacing. A
summer cover crop plot with sunflower, millet and sunnhemp and a farmers’ awareness day in Madzikane
(southern KZN) where people are inspecting the CA trial.
The basic protocol for planting farmer-led CA trials in the first season includes: Intercropping with
narrow maize tramlines (2 rows,50cmrow width) and legumes (20 cm between rows x 10cmin the
rows), use of a variety of open pollinated andhybrid seed, rotations between maize andlegumes,
weed control through a combination of pre-planting spraying with herbicide and manual weeding
during the planting seasonand pest control using generic pyrethroid based formulations, sprayed
once at planting and once at top dressing stage. In the following seasons, depending on the farmer
level analysis, they undertake a number of different experimental options including:
•Different varieties maize (white, yellow, open pollinated, hybrid)
•Different varieties and types of legumes
•Manure and fertilizer combinations
•Targeted fertility regimes and pest control measures
•Intercropping vs crop rotation options
•Summer and winter cover crops
Right: Mr Dlamini from Eqeleni,
different traditional and open
pollinated varieties of maize.
By the 4thiteration or season of experimentation, the farmers choose theirown experimentation
Above: No-till planting options employed by farmer participants ranging from tractor drawn planter,
animal traction to hand held planters, such as the Haraka and MBLI planters
Over the 4 years that this programme has been active the number of participants and areas involved
have systematically increased, as have yields, soil health and livelihoods. The table below indicates
the expansion (scaling out) from 7 villages in 2013 to 25 villages in 2016. Trial participants have
increased from 52 to 266 and average yields for maize have almost doubled.
Table1:Asummaryof farmerexperimentationresultsfortwostudyareas from2013to 2016
Smallholder Trial summaries - 4 seasons
Eastern Cape, Southern KZN
No of villages
No of trial
(trials) - ha
Min and max
Actual amount of
R 1 600
R 4 500
In 2017 a total of 360 farmer-led trials will be established allowing fora further out-scaling of CA
through this innovation systems process. In the face of land degradation and poverty, this process
has already proven to yield enormous potential to provide much needed solutions and opportunities
for livelihoods around crop production systems. In the next two articles on CA and smallholders, two
case studies will be presented on farmers who havesuccessfully adapted their cropping systems with
CA principles leading to much higher levels of sustainability and resilience.