Learning Conservation Agriculture the Innovation Systems way
Mathebula T1, Kruger E1, Dlamini M.C1 and Smith H.J2
1 Mahlathini Development Foundation (MDF), Pietermaritzburg 3201, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Corresponding author: info@mahlathini.org
2 Grain SA, Alenti Office Park, Block C, 457 Witherite Road, The Willows, Pretoria 004, South
Africa. Email: hendrik.smith@grainsa.co.za
Sub-theme: Land Care Partnerships Restoring Agricultural Health for Lasting Food Security
Conservation Agriculture (CA) promotesthe implementation of sound practices such as minimum
soil disturbance, intercropping, crop rotation, incorporation of cover crops and reduced use of
fertilisers andchemicalsin order to improve soil health and achieve optimum yields. It isbased on
the principles of minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop diversification. Within the
Smallholder Farmer Innovation Programme (SFIP), CA is implemented through farmer-led
experimentation with a focus on adaptiveresearch into CA practices that are suitable for smallholder
The Innovation Systems Approachis used in implementation with a focus on farmer led
experimentation,where planting and monitoring is done by thefarmers themselves. As a way to
promote integrated learning and sharing, learning groups consisting of 8 to 12 members are
established with interested members. The members consist of both males and females who reside
in the same village and are already growing field crops. Farmer field schools are conducted in each
village inorder to determine how CA can be incorporated into existing farming systems. Thefield
schools are divided into subthemes, namely introduction to conservation agriculture, planting and
spraying, crop growth monitoring and at the end of the season reviewworkshops are conducted to
evaluate the results obtained during that season. Each participant plants a CA experiment alongside
their normal plots, which is the control.
At planting, seed varieties are chosen based on the bioclimatic conditions as well as farmers’
preferences. The programme cycle runs for three years and in year one, participants plant maize
intercropped with legumes, which is done mostly by hand or using animal drawn planters. In the
second year new varieties and planting options are introduced including cover crops and different
types of planters such as the Haraka, Knapick and two-row tractor drawn planters.From thethird
year onwards, farmers design their own trials based on their observations and learnings.
Summer and winter cover crops are planted to increase biomass, provide an optimum environment
for soil microbes and recycle soil nutrients and thus increase soil health. Soil health is one of the
most essential components of CA and is at the heart of any CA production system. In Bergville, soil
health indicatorshave been monitored for 20 participants, using various indicators, themost
important being the Haney Soil Health Test (Gunderson, Accessed: 2018/05/20). Visual Soil
Assessments (VSA) have been carried out in order to assess soil colour, texture and infiltration and
soil samples are collected on a yearly basis in order to assess soil fertility in each area.
Expansion of the programme is predominantly throughhorizontal scaling. It spreads primarily
through word of mouth and innovation platforms such as research and farmers’ days are the main
vehicles for expansion. Inthis way participation has increased from28 to 465farmer level
experimentation participants across 36villages, with 18 Village Savings and Loan Associations
(VSLAs), 18 Local Facilitators and 1farmer centre. Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA’s)
are established with the aim to support and empower local learning groups to save towards
production costs.
Linkages with other stakeholders are also important in the innovation platforms. Theseinclude for
example DARD extensionofficers, LandCare, Local and District Municipalities, NGOs and
Monitoring is done during the cropping cycle to assess growth, yields are measured and changes in
soil fertilityand soil health assessed for the longer term participants. In addition social indicators
such as improved livelihoods and incomes are tracked.
Results and Discussion
Soil health can be improved through the incorporation of leguminous crops and the retention ofcrop
residues, as they contribute to soil organic matter (SOM) and carbon storage,improve water
retention, enhance nutrient recycling and most importantly, reduce soil loss. Results from Bergville,
Southern KZN and Eastern Cape show that participants who consistently intercrop with leguminous
crops and retain crop residues in their fields have managed to improve their soil health and obtained
reasonable yields even under unfavourable conditions. Trends over a three year period indicate that
the organic Carbonand Nitrogen content has increased for all participants and C: N ratioshave
decreased for those participants who most coherentlyimplement intercropping and crop rotation.
The findings also indicate that intercropping with legumes and cover crops increases soil fertilityand
soil health faster than mono cropping.
Table 1 shows the yields over a five year period for CA trials in Bergville, Eastern Cape and Southern
KZN. Average maize yields have increased over the time period where the present maximum yields
are 12.2 t/ha in Bergville and 6.7 t/ha in Eastern Cape and Southern KZN for the 2017-2018growing
season compared to 4.3 t/ha and 1.7 t/ha in 2013-2014. Natal Midlands is a new area under the CA
program and ended the season with an average yield of 2.04 t/ha.
Savings and loans are primarily used for consumption smoothing and household needs. The number
of CA participants joining VSLA’s is increasing and 28% of them are saving for inputs. Most members
are women and unemployed and depend on social and pension grants in order to survive. A total of
83% of CA participants are women of which 79% form part of VSLA’s.Twelve groups were monitored
in June 2017 and June 2018 and primary findings are that the cumulative number of shareshave
increased from R 278 500 in 2017 to R 403 964in 2018 which suggests that overall savings have
increased. Figure 1 below gives a summary of the overall findings.
2017 2018
Sum of Shares BoughtR65,400.00 R59,600.00
Sum of Cumulative No of SharesR278,500.00 R403,964.00
Sum of Loans RepaidR60,410.00 R53,240.00
Sum of New loansR62,910.00 R65,900.00
Amount (R)
Savings and Loans Records
Table 1: CA Trial Yields for Bergville, EC and SKZN
Figure 1: Summary of Savings and Loans for 2017/18
Over time, smallholder farmers have been able to increase their household food provision
significantly through the CA trials from 1-3 months of available grain at the beginning of the program
to 10-12 monthsof available grain in 2017-2018. Currently, 10% of the participants sell locally as
well as provide for their families whereas none of them were selling at the start of the program.
Table 2 shows the summary of all the innovation system indicators.
Table 2: Innovation System Indicators for the CA SFIP for 2016/17
At the moment, 10% ofparticipantsare producing enough to be able to sell locally as well as provide
food fortheir families. None of the participants were selling produce at the start of the programme.
Affordability and reduction in labour are important considerations in uptake of CA. Around 78% of
participants feel that their labour requirements have been reduced for land preparation and planting
and around 39% feel their labour for weeding has reduced. A number of the indicators look at the
implementation of thediversified cropping principle in CA. Results indicate that 92% of participants
are inter cropping, 20% are using crop rotation, 31% are planting cover crops, 5% are providing
fodder for their livestock and 15% are saving their own seed. This indicates astrong uptake of the
diversification principle, given that prior to this programme95% of participants were producing maize
only in their field plots.
Social agency
Value chain
No of female farmers
Saving for inputs
maize and beans
Learning groups (No)
Reduced labour in
CA plots
Intercropping maize
and legumes
(cowpeas, lab-lab,
velvet bean
VSLAs - % of
participants involved
Reduced weeding
in CA plots
Crop rotation
Months of food
through small CA
Use of planters
Hand hoes
Hand planters
Animal drawn
Tractor drawn
Cover crops;
summer mix
sunflower, millet,
sun hemp, sorghum
Sale of crops locally
(maize, beans,
cowpeas, sunflowers)
Local financing of
Cover crops; winter
mix relay cropping
Saia oats, fodder
sorghum, fodder
Innovation platforms;
including external
Farmer centres
provisioning of
livestock through
cut and carry
Seed saving