Natural Agriculture in Zambia: Empowering Farmers, Strengthening Communities, and Regenerating Ecosystems



  • Shumei International


  • 13/03/2018

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Africa


  • Zambia


  • This project demonstrated the effectiveness of ecological agriculture and sustainable land management in improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and protecting local ecosystems. In its first phase, the project directly benefitted twenty small-scale farm families. Beneficiaries received in-depth training on the Natural Agriculture approach, which combines farming techniques, such as the cultivation of native crop varieties and seed-saving, with traditional ecological knowledge. The newly acquired skills were shared with the wider women farmers’ cooperative in Mbabala as part of the train the trainer approach. As a result, women farmers were able to reduce their expenditures for costly agro-chemical inputs and increase their farms’ resilience to floods and droughts. In its current phase, the project benefits the co-operative’s 3,000 members in Mbabala and an additional 2,000 farmers in surrounding districts. Overall the project serves as a cost-effective ecological farming model for co-operatives and has grown into a comprehensive program, both in terms of beneficiaries and participating communities as well as program activities and objectives.


  • ecological agriculture, women’s empowerment, resilience, traditional knowledge, community development


  • Alan Imai, Shumei International; Masahide Koyama, Shumei International; and Barbara Hachipuka Banda, Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


Zambia is a predominantly agricultural society, with the majority of the population relying upon subsistence farming. According to UNICEF, the Gross National Income per capita for Zambia in 2012 was $3,850 USD, and 4.8 million people lack access to clean water and 6.6 million people do not have access to sanitation facilities.

Across the country, deforestation is increasingly problematic due to uncontrolled bushfires and human activities, such as mining and agricultural cultivation. As a result, Northern Zambia has lost the majority of its primary forest cover. In the Southern province – with 85% of the population basing their livelihoods on agriculture – clearing forests for firewood is still a widespread practice, which further exacerbates deforestation rates.

Many farmers experience pressure to move away from their traditional crops and embrace cash crops, such as cotton and tobacco.  Some of this pressure is exerted through programs that promote the use of genetically modified (GM) seed varieties and chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. The move to GM crops is unsustainable for local farmers: the costs of buying new patented seeds and fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides every season are untenable. In addition, the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers combined with monocultural cultivation result in a loss of farm biodiversity and soil fertility, requiring even more agricultural land.

Deforestation and natural resource shortages mean that farmers struggle to secure reliable livelihoods. The majority of small-scale farmers are women, who are at a particular disadvantage. Women lack basic access to land titles, financial support, and knowledge, and they are the primary labor force in the fields and the household. Women farmers are burdened by the high costs of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, while additionally being in charge of family duties, collecting water, and selling their produce on the market.

The project was implemented by Shumei International in partnership with Mbabala Women Farmers’ Cooperative Union in the rural area of Mbabala constituency, Choma district, which is located approximately 55km outside of the nearest large town. According to the 2016 census, Mbabala has a population of approximately 20,000 residents, with the Tonga accounting for the largest ethnic group. Polygyny is common in Tonga culture, with households comprising a male head of household, multiple wives and up to ten children.

In Mbabala, houses are constructed from traditional, local building materials, such as grass, cement and molded burnt bricks. The majority of households lack access to electricity and water, which must be retrieved from bore holes in the surrounding area. Efforts are currently underway to improve access to electricity and potable water through the Government’s Rural Electrification project and a program to build additional bore holes in the southern districts.  In Mbabala, the Ministry of Health is working to integrate community water supply programs with sanitation, better toilet systems, and hygiene promotion.

Mbabala and other flat lands have suffered from extensive deforestation with the loss of indigenous Mahogany and Mukuni trees, which has reduced the land’s ability to hold ground water. The impacts of climate change – rising temperatures and less rainfall – are affecting farmers across the Southern region.

The Mbabala Women Farmers’ Co-operative Union was founded to support rural women’s empowerment through incomes and household status. Traditionally, co-operatives were created as businesses to support the distribution of subsidized fertilizers and agricultural inputs. This model required members to pay a membership as well as buying their own shares, which could amount to more than $110USD per person. The Mbabala Women Farmers’ Co-operative Union offered an alternative, by requiring a small annual membership fee ($30USD), which is pooled and gives the women access to funding from the government, foundations or nonprofits. For many members, the co-operative provides the only opportunity of accessing a bank account and financial services. It also provides training and marketing opportunities.

The Approach

In 2004, Shumei International partnered with the Mbabala Women Farmers’ Co-operative Union to introduce the cost-effective and ecological farming approach Natural Agriculture. Natural Agriculture encourages minimum intervention in the growing process and involves:

  • The use of indigenous seeds;
  • The practice of seed saving;
  • The cultivation of soil in its natural state without inputs, such as fertilizers or manure;
  • The understanding of the role of insects and weeds in the ecosystem and how to maintain their balance without the use of pesticides or herbicides.

The objective of the project was to improve the livelihood of small-scale farmers in Zambia by promoting ecological agriculture and sustainable land management practices through Natural Agriculture. The intended outcomes of the project included:

  1. increasing crop yields and incomes while reducing their reliance on agro-chemical inputs;
  2. protecting the biodiversity and long-term health of the land for future generations; and
  3. honoring the traditional culture of the local region and respecting nature.


The project was a collaborative effort between the co-operative leadership in Zambia and Natural Agriculture farmers from Japan.

In the first phase of the project, the activities included:

  • A review of the cultivation methods practiced by the members of the co-operative
  • Interviews with village elders to learn about the traditional cultural knowledge of the land, indigenous crops, their planting and harvesting periods
  • Stakeholder consultations with community leaders and project approval from the village chief. As a result, the chief in Mbabala donated land to the project and the local government was informed of their activities
  • Workshop series for co-operative members on ecological farming techniques in combination with traditional Zambian farming practices, such as:

    • Reintroduction of indigenous varieties and seed-saving
    • Termination of threshing and burning practices after harvests
    • Introduction of mulching with local plant materials to keep the soil moist and temperate and prevent run-off
    • Preparation of the fields before the rains using cattle and hand plows
    • Mixed planting with maize and other crops grown in order to improve land management.
  • Establishment of a demonstration farm on the project site with twenty farm families to grow maize, peanuts, rape (an indigenous green vegetable), chives, onions, cabbages and tomatoes following the Natural Agriculture approach. The demonstration farm was used to showcase the resilience of native crops to disease as well as changing weather conditions due to drought and floods.

Conventional maize field (L) compared with Natural Agriculture field (R) Farmers with their covered fields after harvesting

  • Natural Agriculture Fair for the co-operative to showcase their produce, celebrate traditional culture, food, music and dance, and present their collaboration with the Japanese farmers. This became an annual fair within the project and created opportunities for the farmers to share their experiences and promote community cohesion.
  • Establishment of a seed-saving and distribution system for members. Shumei supported the co-operative in purchasing native variety seeds and members were encouraged to save seeds for replanting and distribution to new members in the following growing season. This helped to create a self-sustaining model and incorporated their culture of bartering, which was promoted throughout the program.
  • ‘Train the trainers’ program, which trained hundreds of farmers on how to share their newly gained knowledge with other farmers (with support from the Shumei Natural Agriculture farmers from Japan). The workshops helped the farmers learn about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, land use and natural resource management, whilst also boosting ownership of the project within the community.

Train the Trainer workshop for women farmers

Farmers display their produce at the Natural Agriculture Fair


The introduction of Natural Agriculture to the Mbabala Women Farmers’ Co-operative Union has led to a long-term partnership between Shumei International and a growing number of farmers. The project has been expanded beyond Mbabala and resulted in the formation of the Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia (NADPZ), a local NGO that runs workshops in other farming communities in rural Zambia as well as Tanzania, Gambia and Malawi. Overall, the project has grown into a comprehensive program, both in terms of beneficiaries and participating communities as well as program activities and objectives.

The participation in the Natural Agriculture program has grown from twenty farming households to 3,000 farmers in Mbabala and an additional 2,000 farmers in the surrounding districts of Pemba and Chikanta. Farmers now apply Natural Agriculture techniques and indigenous knowledge which has enhanced their farms’ resilience, ecological health and productivity, and significantly reduced their expenses on inputs, thus increasing profits.

Over the years, Natural Agriculture farmers have seen increases in their crop yields, seed reserves, crop stability and resilience to drought, flooding, and infestations. During the pilot phase, the demonstration farm increased yields from 2.5 tons of maize per 10 hectares with conventional farming to 7.5 tons of maize per 10 hectares using indigenous maize varieties and Natural Agriculture techniques.

In 2008, Zambia’s agricultural sector was greatly impacted by severe flooding during the rainy season.  Many farmers experienced lower yields or lost their crops entirely.  The Natural Agriculture crops were able to withstand the floods due to their deep roots systems. As a result, the co-operative farmers had more stable harvests. When army worm attacks devastated conventional maize crops, the Natural Agriculture crops were not destroyed. These results encouraged farmers to take an interest in the Natural Agriculture approach and join the project. It also encouraged the successful reintroduction of indigenous varieties of maize that were part of the traditional biodiversity of the region.

Zambian farmer with Go By Red Maize

Local varieties (L to R): Eight Lines, Go By Red, Siluntuba, Kankosyi and Kafwamba

The project reintroduced five local varieties of Indigenous maize species; Eight Lines, Go by Red, Siluntuba, Kankosyi and Kafwamba.  In the 1980’s, farmers in Zambia started to turn to hybrid seeds because they were promised higher yields. However, with the changing climate, irregular rain patterns, frequent drought and the high cost of inputs, the fertilizer-dependent hybrid seeds were failing many farmers. Through the Natural Agriculture Zambia Project, farmers have returned to using local seed varieties, which have proven to be more resilient to the changing climate conditions.

In addition, the Natural Agriculture project contributed to poverty reduction, food security, sustainable livelihoods and local community development by helping farmers to plan effectively, introduce new sources of income and improve infrastructure. This included the construction of a well on the project site for irrigation, water usage management, and access to electricity through a Government program with support from Shumei International. Plans are underway to establish a drip irrigation program on larger fields.

In 2010, the Natural Agriculture project began a new phase of various incoming-generating initiatives, including a guest house, conference hall/community center, a brickmaking facility, and a technical training center for young people.

NADPZ collaborated with Shumei International to build a 14-room guest house, the Sunset to Sunrise Lodge, restaurant and community center which caters to tourists and local organizations, such as CARE International and World Vision, who have community projects in the area. NADPZ has also partnered with organizations, such as AGRA, to use the community center for cooperative training and warehouse management workshops. The restaurant attached to the lodge is self-sustainable.

Project guest houses

Natural Agriculture training farm adjacent to the lodge

The majority of the food served in the restaurant is grown on the Natural Agriculture training farm, which is adjacent to the lodge. It serves as a source of income for the project as well as a source of employment in the community. The training farm is managed by 15 farming households. It comprises a vegetable garden, piggery, chicken coop, and storage facility, and has inspired the creation of a micro-financing animal husbandry project. NADPZ provides goats, chickens and pigs to farmers based on a repayment system.

Another income-generating initiative is brickmaking. The brickmaking machine was purchased to construct the guest house and community center. Once the buildings were completed, NADPZ used the machine to produce and sell bricks to other construction projects as an income source for the Natural Agriculture project.

In an ongoing effort to improve farmers’ livelihoods, the project has worked with the cooperative to increase their access to markets. Some cooperative members have started to cultivate crops specifically for local lodges, hotels and supermarkets in nearby towns.

Lessons Learned and Key Messages

  • Demonstration Farms

The demonstration farm was an effective tool in educating farmers using illustrated materials in their own language. The visiting farmers responded very positively to farm tours, during which they could observe Natural Agriculture practices, ask questions and see the difference between Natural Agriculture and conventional farming.

  • Natural Agriculture Fair

The Natural Agriculture fair played an important role in bringing together rural farm villages and improving community cohesion. It created an opportunity for the women farmers to showcase their harvests and increased their sense of pride and ownership in the Natural Agriculture project. The fair also became a celebration of their traditional culture. In turn, this improved accountability and transparency within the project.

Community members gather for the Natural Agriculture Fair

Community members gather for the Natural Agriculture Fair

  • Farmer ‘Train the Trainer’ Workshops

The Farmer Workshops empowered women farmers to educate other farmers about Natural Agriculture and elevated their status in their communities. In the beginning, the women farmers had to be encouraged to share their best practices, because it was not customary to talk about their success.  This gradually changed and the farmers now see the benefits of sharing their knowledge with others and are more forthcoming and supportive of new farmers.

  • Youth Programs

As the Natural Agriculture project grew, the need for a youth component became more evident and is now being incorporated into new projects.  In the early stages, Shumei donated computers for a youth program. However, electricity access was limited and the young people had no immediate need for the computers. It became clear that the youth development program needed to be implemented gradually and based on a needs assessment. Currently, the NADPZ community center is open to all young people to learn useful, marketable skills and careers. Plans are underway to build a vocational school with a dormitory for students who live far away. The school will teach skills such as sewing, carpentry and electrical engineering.

  • Capacity Building, Long-term Planning and Investment

The Natural Agriculture project shed light on the need for training beyond farming. Once the farmers understood how to grow food without additives, they also needed support in managing resources, long-term planning and creating businesses. For example, the farmers wanted to start a project with hammer mills which they would rent and reinvest the profits in the cooperative.  However, the equipment was very difficult to operate and required both physical manpower and diesel fuel, which was expensive.  While some women farmers were able to enlist support from men in the community, many were not successful. In the end, the project leaders learned they needed to take multiple factors into account before starting new projects.

  • Traditional Gender Roles and Ways of Thinking

One of the most challenging aspects of the Natural Agriculture project was addressing traditional gender roles and ways of thinking in the community. While the women were the primary labor force on the farms, their husbands were still the main decision makers. Outreach activities that went beyond the women farmers was necessary in order for the program to be adopted successfully. For example, the men would allow the women to practice Natural Agriculture, but once they started to accrue extra income, the men would want to buy fertilizers. It was seen as a sign of wealth to be able to buy these inputs, whereas the women were learning that it was not necessary. This created the need for continuous education for the community and efforts to empower women further.

  • Measuring Impact

While the project goals were to increase the incomes and household status of women farmers, it was difficult to use currency as a metric given the strong bartering system in rural Zambia. Instead, the impact was determined by the farmers’ ability to trade their crops for higher-value items, such as cattle, blankets, and other products that they could resell. It was also difficult to measure given the fluctuating cost of food and the pricing of crops in the market. In the future, greater emphasis should be placed on data collection of yields by more farmers to better quantify results and measure impact.

  • Community Development

The Natural Agriculture project became a core part of community development in Mbabala and caught the attention of the Zambian Minister of Community Development. In Zambia, each constituency is eligible to receive Government support from the community development fund. However, communities often do not have the capacity or experience to effectively create budgets or plans to use these resources. This resulted in the Natural Agriculture project team helping to manage additional community development projects. It also reinforced the connection between sustainable agriculture, women’s empowerment and rural community development.


For the next phase of the project, NADPZ is creating a sustainable community development model that incorporates education, training and the production of goods and services. This includes a sunflower oil and animal feed business, basket-making and a community school, which doubles as a training center. The goal is to create sustainable community projects that support each other. For example, women farmers are learning basket-making and sewing as additional sources of income. Using the sewing machines donated to the program, the women farmers sew school uniforms for local students. In school, students will learn about agriculture and run their own school garden. Parents will support the school in the form of school fees and maize donations for the student meal program, which will boost public health and encourage students to stay in school. These are just a few examples of how the Natural Agriculture project continues to grow and benefit the community, while contributing to the conservation of their biodiversity, sustainable land management and traditional culture.


Alan Imai
Alan Imai is the director of Shumei’s Natural Agriculture programs overseeing international projects.  Alan has been working with farmers for more than 15 years focusing on seed saving, soil restoration, biodiversity preservation and sustainable land management. Alan holds a B.A. degree in Horticulture from Shimane University in Japan.

Masahide Koyama
Masahide Koyama is the director of the Shumei Natural Agriculture department in Japan. He received a M.S. in International Development from the University of California, Davis and a M.A. from Doshisha University Graduate School of Policy and Management in Japan. He supervises the Natural Agriculture network and university collaborations.

Barbara Hachipuka Banda
Barbara Hachipuka Banda is the founder and director of the Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia. Barbara has been working on community development for more than a decade and speaks on behalf of small-scale women farmers at international conferences. She holds a B.A. in Development Studies from the University of South Africa.