Food Security and Nutrition Network

Conservation Agriculture: Obstacles and Opportunities

Facilitator: Penny Anderson, Director of Food Security, Mercy Corps

Presenters: Moffatt Ngugi, Climate Change Advisor, USAID/Bureau for Food Security; Jonathan Mkumbira, Technical Quality Coordinator, Agriculture/Natural Resource Management, WALA Malawi

Content: Conservation agriculture aims to combine improved and sustainable rural livelihoods with climate-smart agricultural techniques, ensuring both short- and long-term benefit to participating communities. In recent years, conservation agriculture has been more widely practiced and groups such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the CAADP are actively promoting it.

Discussion: The moderator solicited input from participants on what the concept means to them and then presented three core concepts:  1) preparing the plot with minimal disruption to the soil and preparing water collection points (zai, basins, contour collection points); 2) complete soil coverage with crop residues to depress weed growth and adding of organic matter; 3) intercropping of annual and perennial crops.

Next, three panelists gave PowerPoint presentations on how principles of conservation agriculture had been applied in their projects. Patricio Agustin described a project that teaches farmers how to practice conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The strategy included using small 7 x 7 meter plots, each with a different crop. They selected plots near regular meeting places, so people can meet and learn how to use techniques in their own fields. Farmer associations are now moving to larger plots and using a hoe model.

Jonathan Mkumbira from CRS in Malawi spoke on the FFP-funded WALA MYAP development aid project in Malawi. This approach focuses on carbon in the soil and uses soil coverage and canopying to stop weed growth, which can cause up to 40% of yield losses. Jonathan also spoke of the benefits of intercropping, which stops the need for mulching. The program was able to produce an eight-fold increase in yield. Challenges facing this approach include burning the land, livestock eating the crops, and excessive use of herbicides.

Moffatt Ngugi spoke on climate-smart agriculture, which emphasizes lowering carbon emissions while increasing productivity and conserving the natural resource base. He spoke of lowering tillage and capturing and managing water and gave the example of digging a half-moon shaped gash in the soil in Burkina Faso to collect water. Moffatt also spoke on agro-forestry and other activities in Zambia, Malawi, and parts of Tanzania which give nitrogen to the soil. By not flooding rice crops all season but adding manure instead, it was easier to weed, and saved water, although this approach requires more labor.

Small-group discussions among practitioners yielded one key lesson: programs need to get farmers to test this concept on small plots so that they see the difference over time. The standard test plot seemed to be about 10m x 10m. Once the plot is established, the farmers should see the difference in management and, eventually, in productivity. Most practitioners in the group have only a year or so of experience, so this topic will be on the agenda in future workshops.


The Way Forward:  Participants identified a number of recommendations:

 Information Sharing

  • Create forums to discuss issues such as Post Harvest Handling
  • Further meetings, discussions, working groups to work on harmonizing approaches


  • Conduct Barrier Analysis studies comparing those who adopt conservation agricultural practices and those who do not to better understand obstacles and enablers
  • Need better systems (and advocacy for government to do more) regarding controlling wildlife near fields / fences around natural parks
  • Look at health-nutrition interventions with farmers to increase productivity (e.g., deworming for hookworm [affects 40%-70% of Kenyan farmers] & chloriquine) – discussion / guidance on how to integrate into Conservation Ag programs
  • Coordination mechanisms between NGOs and Agricultural Extension of government & Research and Development institutions at national level / regional.

Donor Policy and Practice

  • Create more flexibility in funding mechanism to allow for proper implementation
  • USAID / Global Climate Change should agree that GCC funds can be used to support climate-smart and conservation agriculture
  • Results of conservation agriculture requires time, in most cases 2-3 years, so donor / agency must have a clear strategy that will allow farmers to fully understand and adopt the full system. The funding cycle must reflect implementation needs.
  • Strengthening meteorological departments for reliable forecasts to guide farmers on the appropriate conservation agriculture method to be used (monitoring trigger Indicators)


  • Advocate for government to incorporate conservation agriculture in agriculture framework policy