When you walk in a maize field in Solwezi, Zambia, it’s difficult to tell where the wilderness ends and the crops begin; you could get lost in the canopy of weeds choking the corn. Lifetimes are spent bending and sweating to coax the crops from this dusty land. There is not much maize to show for it. The farmers of Solwezi often struggle.
A man who walks through these fields every day wants to change all this. Guy Hammond is an unusual face to find in Solwezi. What’s more unusual is Hammond is here to tell farmers to forget plough and fertilizer; a bit like telling a bird to forget the sky.
Hammond fits the part of a farmer from Africa. His khaki shirt is a shade lighter than his pants. White socks peek from his worn black leather boots. His skin is as tanned as the leather.
It’s even stranger to hear how he landed up in Zambia. Hammond is part of Africa’s wandering tribe of Zimbabwean farmers. He grew tobacco in Zimbabwe until he lost his farm to the government in 2002. Forced out, he moved to the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo for First Quantum Minerals as a shift supervisor. His path led him to Solwezi, one of the fastest growing towns in Africa, once a tiny village on the northern borders of Zambia and 16 kilometers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now Hammond works for Kansanshi mine, run by First Quantum Minerals, teaching farmers to abandon the way of farming he was taught as a child. It’s called conservation farming and Hammond wants to change the ways Zambians farm.
“We are now going into our fifth season. The program has taken local average yields from just over one ton per hectare to four tons per hectare. But some of the best farmers on our scheme have consistent yields of about eight tons per hectare,” says Hammond.
It’s an eye-opening experience to walk through crops surrounded by knee-high grass, an acacia tree and an anthill the size of a house. The two fields side by side tell a story. On the one side Hammond has a conservation crop; the other he’s planted with fertilizer. The conservation side is as big as the anthill whereas the fertilizer isn’t.
“In the nineties, Brian Oldreive, a farmer in Zimbabwe, came to believe that modern farming was the root of the problem. He was working on a farm that was failing. Crop yields were poor. No one could work out why the soil was losing its qualities. But the family was buying more and more fertilizer and spending millions on expensive machinery,” he says.
Oldreive, being a religious man, turned failing land into bountiful fields like something out of the bible. What’s more he did it without fertilizer or a plough. Instead, he covered the seeds with mulch made from dried grass and waited for the rains; the way God intended, says Hammond.
“I knew of Oldreive when I was farming as he was writing a lot of [then] controversial articles in the various agriculture magazines about this new method of farming. Everybody thought he was mad. I never learned conservation farming as a child in Zimbabwe. I only learned it in 2009 when I attended Brian’s conservation farming course in Harare after having farmed conventionally for 14 years. I was converted in three days,” says Hammond.
“Oldreive looked back in history and found that modern farming as we know it is a man-made disaster. He found that the plough was the chief culprit. The plough basically inverts the soil, all the organisms that work in the soil on the top, which are anabolic and does all your compost decay and eating of the leaves, and then you are burying them and killing them. And those organisms that are under the soil are being exposed to sunlight and oxygen,” he says.
Oldreive doubled his yield and cut his production costs by 66%. Now this has been brought to Solwezi, says Hammond.
“Conservation farming has taken off like a rocket. People are taking a look at their friend’s crops on the program and asking ‘how the hell did your get your crops so beautiful?’ We now have 1,800 farmers on the program,” says Bruce Lewis, the head of CSR at Kansanshi.
Hammond also wants Zambian farmers to abandon slash and burn farming, which is burning fields to clear crops for the next year’s growth. It damages the soil and worsens global warming.
“Every year, one billion hectares of Africa goes up in smoke. We are also contributing in our own way in Africa to global warming. It’s not just China and industrialized nations that smog our atmosphere, it’s actually the peasant who has been doing what he has been doing for thousands of years,” says Hammond.
Traditionally, across Africa, inputs are notoriously late. The Zambian government delivered its fertilizer to farmers in February, 90 days late. For a farmer this spells disaster.
“Maize is a 110-day crop so you’ve missed a whole season by delivering fertilizer in February; it’s a waste of money. The whole idea is to teach farmers to farm without using farming inputs. That’s the most expensive thing and the thing that cuts the most profit out… With conservation farming, the only input cost is the seed itself… This is why these schemes fail. With all the best intentions, it’s just poor delivery that costs the government millions,” says Hammond.
It’s not only fertilizer and farming machinery companies that will take a knock if conservation farming picks up, companies involved in supplying insecticides will also suffer. Conservation farming naturally kills bugs by rotating the yearly crop.
“You are breaking the life cycle of any insect. By rotating the crop that insect doesn’t have time to breed. You are also increasing your soil content because different plants have different soil contents. Maize needs a lot of zinc; soy beans don’t require any. You are regenerating your soil. You’ll need less and less fertilizer and insecticides by creating natural compost.”
When the world’s population hits nine billion in 2050, there will more people eating food than can be grown, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The agriculture industry has many mouths to feed and a mountain of problems to climb. These are the issues that have made the rest of the world turn to Africa, a continent rich with untouched arable land but producing merely 2% of the world’s food.
“Africa is basically the last natural resource that hasn’t been fully developed for agriculture and urbanization in the world. China has already destroyed 27% of their arable land with industrial waste. Their population is expanding and they have no land. So they are climbing into Africa, lapping up every piece of arable land for their population. It’s not just China, it’s also the Islamic belt and yet Africans, sitting on all these resources, are the poorest people in the world with the most land. We can’t even feed ourselves,” says Hammond.
Hammond may be far from home but it hasn’t left him. Among the maize, he admits to testing a yield of tobacco. He even built a smoke house next to the anthill. The problem is Zambia isn’t a tobacco country but could soon be a nation of better maize growers.