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Agrobiodiversity / / Tailor-made CSA: adapting best-bet practices for East African smallholders

Tailor-made CSA: adapting best-bet practices for East African smallholders

Smallholder farmers are not equal. Take Susan. She is perceived as a “small” farmer in her community of Soweto (Wote) in semi-arid Kenya. She doesn’t own land. The 0.5 ha she cultivates belong to her in-laws. The average farm size in her area is between 1 and 5ha.

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Susan’s failed crops. Credit: C.Birnholz/CIAT

When we visited her in July, she showed us a bare field with a handful of sorghum plants not even a foot high. She tells us that this is all the sorghum that grew. She also planted pigeon pea, green grams and cowpeas planted earlier this year. But she has had nothing to harvest. With no cattle of her own, she relies on her extended family’s ox and plough for cultivation. She was the last one to be able to plough her fields and sow. In addition, the rainfall has been changing and less predictable. This season it was late, and still it was too late for her crops.

On the other hand, Michael is considered to be an “average” farmer in his community. He cultivates his 4 hectares of land, the average farm size for his area in the highlands of the Usambara Mountains (Lushoto, Tanzania) where rainfall can range from 600 to 1700 mm a year. He is from Yamba, 1561 m up.  His main crop is maize but he also grows a multitude of other crops such as cabbage, yams, banana, coffee, pigeon pea, and raises dairy cattle, pigs and chickens.

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Michael. Credit: C.Birnholz/CIAT

To feed his three improved dairy cows, he has planted forages (Napier and Guatemala grass and Leucaena trees), which he cuts and carries to the stable where they are kept all day (zero-grazing system). Like many farmers in the area, most crop residues are also collected to feed the animals. He would like to continue to intensify his production. However, in the long term, he could face serious problems from soil erosion if he continues to leave his steep crop fields bare. Balancing livestock and crop production is a challenge.

In the current context of climate change, mixed smallholder farmers, like Susan and Michael, are under increasing pressure to adapt. But their circumstances are so vastly different that the same solution will not work for both of them. We need a myriad of solutions that can be adapted to meet different needs.

CIAT researchers are evaluating the potential impact of Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) on mixed smallholders farms across three sites in East Africa: Lushoto (Tanzania), Rakai (Uganda) and Wote (Kenya). The four year project, “Participatory evaluation and application of portfolios of climate smart agriculture practices to enhance adaptation to climate change in mixed smallholder systems of East and Southern Africa” began in early 2015.

CSA is based on three pillars: productivity, adaptation and mitigation (reducing/removing greenhouse gases). A number of CSA practices exist ranging from using improved seed varieties, terracing to water harvesting technologies. CSA applies not only to crop production but also to livestock production, such as improved breeds and feeding strategies.

The challenge is understanding which practices are the best options for the different farmers across the region.  Evaluating the potential impacts of CSA practices via research can help inform agricultural development. Development practitioners can be informed in targeting and prioritizing a combination of CSA practices in their implementation and outreach work to enhance adaptation to climate change in smallholder systems of East and Southern Africa.

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Lushoto, Tanzania. Credit: C.Birnholz/CIAT

Understanding the agro-economic context of the different farming systems is the first step in addressing the farming system heterogeneity.

Evaluating the impact of CSA has to be done on multiple dimensions. Improving the environmental impact of smallholder agriculture has to go hand in hand with improving their livelihoods both for women and men. It is important to realize the economic or labor consequences that will incur from implementing practices that would improve soil health, crop and livestock production, especially for farmers who may face labor and financial constraints. CSA can affect gender differently as labor division and income control is not the same for women and men.

For example, the best options for farmers like Susan might be drought tolerant crop varieties and timely planting. During her interview, she said she would like to increase the number of chickens she has so she can run a hatchery business. In the future, this would allow her to afford her own cattle to plough her fields. Yet, Michael would benefit from terraces, which would reduce soil erosion, although this would mean high initial investment. He could also plant more trees (agro-forestry) and prolong his few field contours with more forages. This would help minimize soil loss while providing quality livestock feed.


To increase the relevance and applicability of modelling and impact assessment, typical farming systems across various agro-ecologies were identified. Sample data collected included farm walks, geo-referencing and farm characterization through surveys with the farmers. Data is gender disaggregated when it comes to labor on the farm and income control.

This data will be used to model the farms in their current state to benchmark their environmental and economic performances. This is being done with a whole farm model FarmDESIGN of Wageningen University (Groot et al., 2012). Environmental and economic performance indicators include soil carbon balance, nutrient cycling, livestock feed balance, labor balance, economic profitability, greenhouse gas emissions, and tradeoffs between these dimensions.

Later on the impact of a combination of farmer-preferred CSA practices will be estimated using the same modeling approach. These results will be compared with the benchmarked farm performance. Putting it all together will provide support for development implementers at local and regional levels: Extension services, government and NGOs (such as World Vision, Care, and SNV). Preliminary results will be available in late 2015.

The project is funded by, and part of, the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and is closely linked with CRP Livestock and Fish. Since the start of the project, researchers have surveyed three CCAFS sites.

This research approach was previously used in a CIAT-led GIZ scoping study in Western Kenya to inform the GIZ Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security program of German One World No Hunger Initiative.


Written by Celine Birnholz. Celine is a research consultant. She was brought in to work on the “Participatory evaluation and application of portfolios of climate smart agriculture practices to enhance adaptation to climate change in mixed smallholder systems of East and Southern Africa” project to focus on whole farm modelling, ex-ante impact assessment and farm greenhouse gas emission quantification.

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