Climate Smart Agriculture for Smallholders in the Lower Olifants basin: Agricultural Support Initiative for the Resilience in the Olifants’ River Basin Programme

By Erna Kruger

RESILIM-O is large multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder, cross-boundary programme to reduce vulnerability to climate change through building improved transboundary water and biodiversity governance and management of the Olifants Basin through the adoption of science-based strategies that enhance the resilience of its people and ecosystems through systemic and social learning approaches. The programme has been running for four years and is being implemented by AWARD (The Association for Water and Rural Development) with funding from USAID.

The Agricultural Support Initiative (AgriSI) was initiated as a sub-grant process within the larger programmed towards the end of 2016. This initiative works specifically with climate change adaptation processes with smallholder communities in the lower Olifants River basin and addresses two of the RESILIM-O programme objectives which relates to reduced vulnerability and to institutionalize systemic, collaborative planning and action for resilience of ecosystems and associated livelihoods. It is being implemented jointly by Mahlathini Development Foundation and AWARD.

The overall aim of the Agricultural Support Initiative is to enhance the resilience of the people and ecosystems in selected villages in the Lower Olifants River basin, using a systemic social learning approach.
The programme also explores the question: What are you learning about the socio-economic and biophysical characteristics of your environment and how these are changing and how are you able to respond to that?
A key vulnerability which was identified during Phase I of this programme is the potential for increasing food insecurity under climate changing conditions, especially for the poor in former Apartheid Bantustans into which many people were forcibly re-settled. Not only are poor land-use practices impacting production and ecological health and integrity but these impacts are likely to be greatly exacerbated under the hotter and more erratic rainfall conditions that are predicted for the Lowveld as a result of climate change.

Small-scale farming is widely evident throughout communal lands ranging in scale from small, so-called ‘backyard’ gardens to larger plots of between 0.5 and 2 ha. All of these are individually farmed. These form an important component of livelihood security. Current practices typically do little to manage water movement and retention, soil health and loss and offer little resilience in terms of crop choices, for example. From a social and institutional perspective there is little evidence of farmers working together to learn from each other or others or to plan for the future. Collective action and the ability to self-organise are regarded as critical components of adaptive capacity. Furthermore, although some farmers have indicated that they have heard of climate change, none expressed a sense of urgency and few voiced any ideas about how to respond. This suggests that collectively they are not resilient in a way that the magnitude of the impacts of climate change might demand. Building adaptive capacity for food security is thus a key priority of the project.

Six villages were given priority due to their medium to high vulnerability status with respect to food security under climate changing conditions and the existence of already active and interested smallholders. These villages, Botshabelo (Mabins A); Mametja (Mabins B); Lepelle; Willows, The Oaks and Finale.

In each of the villages a CCA baseline and a baseline household survey (34 of around 108) participants was constructed through group explorations and discussions dealing with the present situation in the villages, past, present and future agricultural practices and present and future adaptations that could improve resilience, productivity and diversification. One of the outcomes from the survey showed that nearly all respondents grew vegetables (94%) whilst only a few produced fruit (4%). The diversification of the overall community farming types is displayed below. The survey also revealed that only 79% of respondents reported using any soil fertility management practices – meaning that 7 of the 34 respondents simply plant their crops without addition of any soil fertility amelioration, believing that the soils can naturally provide fertility and that addition of manure can burn the roots of their crops. Other practices that were mentioned were the use of plant residues, use of legumes, chemical fertilizer, compost and sawdust. Another outcome of this survey was the ability to design methodologies and practices for implementation that build on the local good practices and traditions and incorporate local innovations into the learning processes.

The methodology of this project involves working with groups of interested farmers (learning groups) in selected villages by building a local picture of risk and resilience (socio-ecological) using a systems approach (vision and principles), scenario planning (farm design processes) and a spiral model of implementation (action and learning). Participants try out new ideas (farmer level experimentation) individually and jointly and through a process of reflection and adaptation of these ideas enhance their adaptive capacity. Emphasis is being placed on methodologies and approaches for improved soil and water conservation strategies, livelihood diversification (increased and diversified production of vegetables, fruit and field crops and integration of small livestock) and value adds (such as entrepreneurial opportunities and diversification of income options).

Monitoring is important and in addition to monitoring being conducted by the facilitators (both trainers and local champions/facilitators) a local framework for self and peer assessment and monitoring of progress is employed using the ‘five fingers’ principles (developed by AWARD) for on farm practices, to enhance abilities for self-organisation and collective action. Local criteria for assessment of each ‘finger’ (things we are doing and changing) are to be developed alongside an easy scoring process to track implementation and progress. Each finger represents a principle as follows:

  1. Water management: Manage water movement so as to slow down the water speed so as to reduce erosion and enhance infiltration
  2. Soil management: Manage soil movement so as to limit erosion and soil loss
  3. Soil health: Manage soil so as to maintain or improve soil health (nutrients and structure)
  4. Plant (crop) management: Manage plants and crops so as to ensure plants appropriate for the area and to meet the vision
  5. Looking after indigenous plants: Enhance practices that maintain indigenous fauna and flora and ecosystem health of the area

A key component of building adaptive capacity (resilience building) is strengthening peoples’ ability to self-organise, to learn together and to act collectively. Aspects included in the design process are:

1. The collaborative identification of champions/local facilitators in each village to act as local facilitators and motivators for change;
2. Working with learning groups within and between villages;
3. Networking and meeting with others (within group and external);
4. Building locally appropriate collaborative activities (such as seedling production, small nurseries, village level savings groups, joint work parties, sharing resources and joint input supply and marketing processes)

An implementation and learning review was conducted in April 2017 for all learning groups to provide an opportunity for members from all 6 villages to visit a good working example of innovations and good practices in agroecology and soil and water conservation and review their practices. This also provided an opportunity to mentor the local facilitators and showcase the work to stakeholders such as AWARD and other NGOs, the local municipality, and representatives from government.
A few other practices were also showcased during the review session including a selection of herbs and indigenous trees for planting, (such as lemongrass, num-num, marigolds, aloes and fennel. Well-tended banana circles (a local innovation) were also showcased.

The community level groundwork used in the AgriSi project serves as a good basis for working with a decision support system with the smallholders and their supporting originations and stakeholders: participants are already aware of many of the practices that can be included in a basket of options, they have experience with trying out a selection of these practices and some ideas about the potential benefit that each can offer. Members of these rural communities are starting to appreciate the synergies that are created between practices of ‘Climate Smart’ agriculture in the Lower Olifants basin and to use them to create a resilient farming system for themselves. There is good basis for establishing a successful and meaningful community of practice in terms of organizational collaboration and synergies between programme outcomes.

To read the full report, please click here.