Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Breaking the cycle of poor harvests


Backed by GRZ, UN and GCF, Farmer Field Schools are helping Zambia’s small-scale farmers and their communities become better equipped with knowledge and capacity to adapt and turn climate risks into climate resilience

By Moses Zangar, Jr.

For years, Kennedy Chilepa struggled to eke out a living growing maize and cowpeas on his farm in Zambia’s Mambwe District, where crop yields often take a big hit due to severe dry spells and floods, jeopardizing food security.

Chilepa and many small-scale farmers in the country’s east had long relied on traditional farming methods to manage their crops. But such traditional know-how has become increasingly unreliable and are no longer sufficient to cope with a changing climate.

Farmer Field School at Ngambwa camp in Nyimba district listen to the Camp Extension Officer Photo by Turnbull Chama at FAO

Unable to rely anymore on their outdated methods, Chilepa knows one way to save his farm in Ncheka Village is to sign up to the Farmer Field School in his village and learn how climate change impacts their farming and how to adapt to erratic weather.

“At first, it was a difficult decision for me because I didn’t believe in anything called climate change. After participating in the Farmer Field School, I now know the benefits of converting to these new ways of farming are many and they are worth the time,” the 44-years-old said.


To help remedy the situation, a project financed by the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the world’s largest dedicated climate fund, is helping small-scale farmers cope with worsening climate change impacts in Zambia. Led by the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture, the Farmer Field School initiative operates under the aegis of a project locally known as SCRALA. The partnership with the government was mobilised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through a coalition involving the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Under the GCF-funded SCRALA project, 76 Farmer Field Schools have since been established in eight districts – Mambwe, Nyimba, Mafinga, Chama, Luangwa, Rufunsa, Chongwe and Chirundu – with each school comprising between 30 to 35 participants. The project has so far trained 2,300 small-scale farmers to locally identified and prioritized adaptation practices and it’s looking to expand the initiative to eight other districts namely, Kazungula, Siavonga, Gwembe, Namwala, Sesheke, Shangombo, Senanga and Mulobezi this year.

Planting FFS demos at Buli camp in Chama district. Photo by Turnbull Chama at FAO

The Farmer Field Schools (FFS) are experimental learning centres designed to foster uptake of best practices. They also aim to train and build capacity of extension officers and provide information to small-scale farmers on agriculture resilience including information on diversification of crops and livelihoods.

The SCRALA project has deployed 15 United Nations Volunteers who are working with farming communities in 16 drought and flood-prone districts – promoting alternative livelihood practices and sustainable farming techniques to fend off climate change and improve food security.

Land preparation of FFS demos at Katangalika camp in Chama district

With 20 more automated weather stations added to the existing 68 stations under a previous UNDP-supported project, the Zambia Meteorological Department is taking important steps to give farmers accurate and easily digestible weather information, tailored to specific locations, which will allow farmers to plan better and optimise the planting season.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department holds forums where they share forecasts and agro-meteorological tips on how farmers can prepare for the coming farming season. These improved agro-meteorological tips are giving small-scale farmers the support they need to strengthen resilience and better prepare for more frequent climate shocks.

“I don’t have to wait on rainfall to grow my crops these days. I now harvest two times more from the same field I used to prior to joining the Farmer Field School. My household has enough food to eat and sell,” Kennedy Chilepa said.

Farmer Beauty Sakala, a 59-year-old single mother from Kakwiya Village almost lost interest in farming when she realised that more erratic weather was making agriculture an unreliable source of income. But these days, her garden is green and fertile, and she produces twice as much after joining the Farmer Field School.

“I am now making a living for my family planting vegetables that grow quickly and require less water that can fetch me more money than maize,” Beauty brags.


Women constitute more than half of Zambia’s population of 18 million people and their leadership in agriculture is increasingly being recognized as key to adapting to climate change in the country. Women make up more than 70 percent of the agricultural labour force in Zambia and play a critical role in enhancing food security and nutrition, as they are the mainstay of agricultural production. They are playing a strong role in adapting new technology, spreading information, and urging action.

Two of those who have stepped up in Mambwe District are Bridget Nyirenda and Mary Mbale. With their histories of dismal harvests plus the knowledge they gained from the Farmer Field School, both women are on the frontline cascading this valuable knowledge to other women farmers in their villages – helping them identify available management options to mitigate climate related risks.

Patricia Munwela of Kazungala District in Southern Zambia has first hand experience on impacts of climate change. She now practices conservation agriculture to safe her crops Photo NAIS

“I am very lucky to participate in the Farmer Field School. I will share the knowledge with as many women as possible so that they too can improve their harvests and make a better living,” Bridget said.

“Without the knowledge to cope with this ever-changing weather, one can die of hunger. We really needed this knowledge to help us beat bad weather and grow more food,” Mary said.

These farmers have proved the most open to trying new ideas to deal with climate-stress – even when they have been taunted for attending training sessions. The knowledge gained from the hands-on group learning and on-farm demonstrations enables farmers to make their own locally specific decisions about crop management practices.

“This has resulted in sustainable development benefits, as these vulnerable farmers and their families have seen increases in income and enhanced food security, leading to health and environmental co-benefit,” said Turnbull Chama who coordinates the SCRALA Farmer Field School initiative under FAO.


Approximately 90 percent Zambia’s rural population depend on rainfed agriculture for a living, making them highly vulnerable to more extreme weather associated with climate change, agricultural experts say.

The goal of the SCRALA project is to improve farming yields, reduce poverty and bolster food security in a country where, during times of peak production, up to 60 percent of the country’s staple crop, maize, is grown by small-scale farmers, according to government figures.

Zambia continues to witness an increase in both the frequency and intensity of climate and weather shocks, resulting in more rural households being locked in the poverty cycle, particularly small-scale farmers. Experts say this trend will continue and likely get worse through the rest of this century.

A happy Milimo

This indicates that more investment needs to go into adaptation options that ensure farming systems in the country are resilient to these extreme events, and allow for diversification of livelihoods that include livestock, fisheries and development of the agricultural value chain, agricultural experts say.

Songowayo Zyambo, the Ministry of Agriculture Permanent Secretary, is confident such grounded, field-based learning will help farmers adapt to the country’s shifting climate.

“The current farmer to extension worker ratio in Zambia stands at about 1000:1; and this is against an ideal and internationally recommended ratio of about 400:1. Therefore, in an effort to improve extension service delivery, the Government of the Republic of Zambia, has been promoting the formation of Farmer Field Schools, as this is an innovative approach that groups farmers together, in order to increase the coverage of extension service delivery,” Zyambo said.

Grace Milimo, a smallscale farmer in Gwembe District aspires to be a commercial farming photo by Moses Zangar Jr

In spite of this affirmative action, agriculture analysts say major facets of gender inequalities still exist, especially among rural women employed in the agriculture sector, who constitute 76 percent of the agricultural labour force. These include women’s limited access to and control over productive resources, services and markets.

“As the largest service provider in the UN system supporting countries on climate change adaptation and mitigation, UNDP will continue to partner with the Government of Zambia, the private sector and other UN agencies on this defining issue of our time on a wide range of interventions, including strengthening resilience at grass-root level to help sharpen the ability of small-scale farmers, mainly women to make critical and informed decisions that render their farming profitable and climate-smart,” says Lionel Laurens, the UNDP Resident Representative in Zambia.


In the face of increasingly unpredictable weather, adapting to climate change is an important step in helping small-scale farmers avoid future losses and adopt innovative and tailor-made methods to make their farming sustainable, efficient and economically profitable.

Farmer John and his children pose for a photo before his yields in Gwembe District. Photo Moses Zangar Jr.

For many of Zambia’s long-struggling small-scale farmers like Chilepa, Beauty, Bridget and Mary, the Farmer Field School approach, a GCF-funded initiative supported by a UN coalition led by UNDP with FAO and WFP in partnership with the Government of the Republic of Zambia, offers hope that they might break the cycle of poor harvests, thereby transforming climate risks into climate resilience.

Note: The author is Communications Specialist for the Environment Unit at UNDP Zambia.

A couple reaps the benefits of Conservation Farming in Western Zambia. Photo by Moses Zangar Jr


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