One-man hero of Zambia’s farming revolution

Elleman Mumba makes an unlikely celebrity. He is not a singer nor a footballer – he is a 54-year-old peasant farmer from southern Zambia. Yet he has appeared on the front page of a national newspaper and been interviewed for numerous radio and television programmes.

What explains his fame?

Mr Mumba grows maize and groundnuts on his small plot of land in Shimabala, just south of Lusaka. Feeding his family used to be a problem. “The yield was very little. We were always looking for hand-outs; we had to rely on relief food.”

Like many farmers, Mr Mumba had no oxen of his own to plough his field. He had to wait in line to hire some, which meant he often failed to plant as soon as the first rains fell – with disastrous consequences…

Then, in 1997, Mr Mumba suddenly found himself in the vanguard of a quiet agricultural revolution. His wife had been given free training in a system called conservation farming, and persuaded him to try it.

Conservation farming is about doing less to get more. Instead of ploughing entire fields, farmers till and plant in evenly spaced basins. Only a tenth of the land area is disturbed.

This reduces erosion and run-off – where soil and nutrients are washed away by rain.

“That season I had 68 bags of maize – enough to feed my family and buy four cattle,” he says, blazing with pride at the recollection…

“They said I was using juju in my field. I felt very bad, but I knew I wasn’t using witchcraft. I told them: ‘In CF there’s no juju. It’s just that you conserve water, so even when the rains are light, you are able to get something.'”

Now many of those who called him a witchdoctor have followed him into conservation farming.

RTFA. There’s a lot that can be learned in the West as well as developing nations. This process also returns land that’s becoming “desert” into production. Subsistence farming is “good enough”, sometimes – you know.

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