DRC: Conservation agriculture reduces labour costs, but farmers must still deal with weeds

December 23, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

It’s Sunday afternoon and John Kakule Toly stands like a teacher at the front of a classroom, facing the many local farmers who have gathered to learn about no-till farming. These farmers are from the village of Bunia and other nearby villages in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo. The meeting was organized by a local organization that promotes sustainable development, known as Forum des engagés pour le développement durable.

This is a regular activity for Mr. Toly. He and his colleagues support farmers to practice conservation agriculture, a method that involves cultivating without plowing the soil. No-till farming requires less effort and inputs, but may require applying herbicides just before sowing.

Mr. Toly says: “Yields are declining, even in many agricultural areas with high production potential, because of the depletion of soil nutrients by burning crop residues and other vegetation after harvest, and the decline in organic matter levels.”

He says no-till farming is cheaper and can produce more, while preserving natural resources. It reduces erosion and preserves the soil, while reducing the use of fuel, for tractors, for example.

Despite the benefits of no-till, there are challenges. These include weed control and the reluctance of some farm labourers to embrace no-till because they consider “zero-labour” farming a threat to their livelihoods.

Mr. Toly explains: “These people oppose us because they earn a living by offering labour to field owners, while “zero-labour” results in less need for recruitment of farm labour. Despite this, we invite farmers to adopt this technique because, since the beginning, we have only received positive comments.”

Farmers who don’t plow their soil must still deal with weeds, and many must deal with the cost of herbicides.

Cornelius Viseso Sila Viseso is an agronomist who considers conservation agriculture a pillar of sustainable agriculture.

He argues that it saves farmers time and helps improve soil fertility.

He says, “This saves the community from plowing, which is a tiring exercise. This saves time.” He also notes that labour costs can be expensive. A further advantage is that, when weeds die and remain on the soil, they serve as an organic manure and improve soil fertility.

He adds, “The other advantage is speed. This means that with “zero-labour,”, you can work an hectare of land in one day because you only need to spread herbicide.”

Since farmers are not plowing the soil, they often rely on chemical herbicides for weed control. Mr. Viseso complains that herbicides are difficult for farmers to access in the region because they are not sold locally. To buy herbicides in Kampala, Uganda, farmers must travel about 600 kilometres.

Mr. Viseso also points out that some herbicides, including the widely used glyphosate, are suspected of being carcinogenic.

After more than one year of training sessions, more than 50 farmers in the Bunia area have adopted conservation agriculture practices and are working their way through these challenges.

Uvoya Uringi Dieudonné is one farmer who has adopted no-till farming. He tried it a few months ago and was pleased because it reduced his costs. He explains: For me, the benefits are first and foremost economic. Thanks to the technique, I only spent $10 US for a field which used to cost me about five times as much. I was no longer forced to pay exorbitant labour costs.

He adds that his yield has significantly increased. In his first experiment, he grew beans on a 6-by-12-metre field and harvested 20 kilograms the first season. In the following season, production nearly doubled.

This work was created with the support of Canadian Foodgrains Bank as part of the project, “Conservation Agriculture for building resilience, a climate smart agriculture approach.” This work is funded by the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada, www.international.gc.ca.