The impacts of climate change are threatening food security in Zambia. Smallholder farmers that rely heavily on rainfed agriculture are acutely aware of this, as they regularly suffer from droughts, floods and the resulting failed harvests. In 2019, a severe drought in Zambia led to 2.3 million people requiring emergency food assistance to meet their nutritional needs.
As smallholders try to recover, they now must grapple with the compounding effects of the coronavirus.
The pandemic, combined with the public health measures taken to suppress it, is aggravating existing vulnerabilities, straining food systems and eroding farmers’ already limited ability to withstand shocks. The virus has disrupted supply chains, leading to an increase in the cost of agricultural inputs critical to their productivity and livelihoods.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and partners are working to protect farmers’ livelihoods and help them manage increasing risks through an integrated approach that includes disaster risk reduction activities such as conservation agriculture, tailored weather and climate information services for better farming practices, insurance, savings and prudent risk taking, as well as access to markets.
In Monze District, a small farming town in Southern Province, Godfrey Hapaka (58), one of 50,000 WFP-supported smallholder farmers, explains how the organization has helped him cope with the challenges faced during each growing season.
In areas vulnerable to climate change, it is important to use farming practices that maximise water retention and yields, he says. Traditional ploughing to loosen soil before planting leads to its progressive degradation and a loss of nutrients.
WFP promotes conservation agriculture, a farming technique that promotes minimal soil disturbance, crop diversification and the use of organic fertilizer. This helps to conserve and improve the soil and makes more efficient use of natural resources.
‘’Last year, despite the drought, we managed to have a harvest because we embraced this sort of conservation agriculture,” said Mr. Hapaka. “Families practising traditional farming had zero.’’
‘’I was not only encouraged to apply conservation agriculture, but also to diversify by using drought-tolerant crops such as cassava and cowpeas. These have a better chance of surviving dry conditions because they mature earlier”.
But it’s more than knowing what to plant. Farmers also need to know when to plant to give their crops the best chance to grow. Mr. Hapaka received one of 165 rainfall gauges installed by WFP in Southern Province to help facilitate such timing decisions.
‘’Before I got the gauge, I knew nothing about moisture in the soil and would plant at the first sight of rain,” explained Mr. Hapaka. “Now, I measure rainfall and only plant once there has been 20-25mm of it.’’
‘’We used to have huge losses because the soil was too dry for seeds to germinate. Now we know the right time to plant’’.
In areas with rain gauges, WFP helps to organise weather forecast workshops where smallholder farmers receive agro-metrological information that is vital to ensure farmers can make the right decision on what crops to plant.
‘’The first time I went to a workshop, I was urged to plant crops that could be harvested within 90 to 120 days, because the rainy season was expected to be short,” Mr. Hapaka said. “But I didn’t take the advice and I lost most of my maize as the rains indeed ended early.’’
‘’The following year, I paid attention to the same advice, prioritised faster-growing cowpeas over maize, and had a much better harvest.’’
At his farm, Godfrey meets Alfred Noogna, a 62-year-old smallholder farmer. Alfred is a member of Godfrey’s farmers club and is here to receive weather information and the upcoming seasonal forecast.
Last year, Alfred was hit hard by the drought. He did not plant at the appropriate time or the right crops to suit the seasonal outlook. He almost lost everything.
‘’I only managed to harvest twelve 50kg bags of maize last year. In a good year, I can harvest up to two hundred of these,’’ says Alfred.
To further help farmers impacted by shocks, WFP has supported over 7,800 farmers to enroll for weather index insurance to protect them from their biggest threat – drought, in exchange for applying conservation agriculture techniques on at least one hectare of land. Weather index-based insurance is an attractive approach to managing weather and climate risks because it uses objective measurements, such as rainfall, to determine pay-outs. This ensures that when farmers invest in improving their productivity, it does not go to waste with the added benefit of preventing farmers from having to cope with the triple burden of COVID-19, economic contraction and failed crops.
‘’As I lost most of my crops last year, I received an insurance pay-out of 621 kwacha (approx. US$ 42). I used this money to buy food and essential items for me and my family.’’
To ensure universal coverage, WFP is providing technical support to the Government on the insurance product distributed through the National Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP), targeting one million smallholder farmers.
WFP’s integrated approach also incentivizes farmers to build up savings through community savings and loans schemes. This ensures that they can cope with unexpected shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, paying for insurance premiums with their own cash reserves, in addition to increased access to funds that can be invested in diversifying their livelihoods when their crops fail.
‘’When I lost most of my crops last year, I borrowed 500 kwacha (approx. US$ 34) from my savings group. I used this money to invest in a fish business,’’ says Alfred.
‘’I managed to make a profit of around 700 kwacha (US$ 48). I used this money to buy seeds to plant for this farming season. Without my savings, I would have had nothing to continue,’’ he adds.
As coronavirus infections continue to rise in Zambia, WFP is working hard to maintain its programmes while ensuring that preventive measures are in place.
To reduce the need for in-person trainings, WFP is using digital technologies to disseminate messages in local languages on radio stations that provide information on how to limit post-harvest losses and better access markets and financial services. When in-person trainings need to take place, groups are limited to ten participants and mask-wearing, hand-washing and physical distancing are required. WFP is also encouraging smallholders to join mobile marketing and savings groups to help offset and limit the need for physical gatherings.
Additionally, as COVID-19 made it unsafe to congregate smallholder farmers, WFP partnered with MTN, a mobile network provider, to ensure farmers received their insurance pay-outs using mobile money to minimize human-to-human contact.
While ensuring that activities continue during the pandemic, WFP plans on scaling up various interventions of the integrated approach to reach 400,000 smallholder farmers over the next five years, thanks to donor support from Germany, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
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