Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

Lessons from the soil

“From the soil of South Africa” was farmer Philemon Zwane’s response when asked about the source of his agricultural knowledge: an answer that demonstrated a real understanding of the environmental constraints which constantly challenge him.

Zwane is a low resource smallholder farmer from the District of Hlabisa in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. He farms 10 hectares of land most of which is seen by other farmers as too marginal for arable farming due to the shallow, stony soils and steep topography.

Responding to these challenges Zwane has a diverse repertoire of agricultural practices, and it is precisely this diversity that has allowed him both to use various established agro-ecological practices and at the same time create several more. For Zwane, agriculture appears as a lesson to be learnt rather than a repeated routine. He has responded to his agricultural constraints with both technological and natural innovations and observations, which in combination have allowed him to make excellent use of the resources available to him.

He plants a wide range of food and cash crops but the main staple is maize. Only tobacco, sugarcane and cotton are grown specifically for sale; most crops perform the dual purpose of family food provision with surpluses sold to generate income. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are produced for the same reasons. These include cabbages, tomatoes, onions, peaches, apples, citrus, papaya (papaw), banana, mangoes, guava, chillies and pumpkin.

Although maize constitutes the major household staple, he regards tobacco as the crop that offers household security, in other words it is insika yekhaya (the mainstay of the house). Tobacco, according to Zwane, offers him quick and easy access to cash whenever he requires it.

Choosing an appropriate seed
He arrived in Hlabisa with maize seed from his place of birth, and has continued to utilise this variety due to its drought-resistant attributes. It is an early maturing variety, which he refers to as ‘traditional’ maize. In the past he has also purchased seed locally, which he plants in a different location to ensure two distinct seed lines.

His sorghum is a dwarf variety, which he also brought with him. He claims that although it is not a bird-resistant variety, he is successful because he plants at the ‘right time’, during the months of August through to November, but conditional on adequate rainfall. This optimal period means that the preferred wild grass Panicum maximum (ubabe or guinea grass) ‘flowers’ as the sorghum grain reaches the ‘soft dough’ stage at which time it is most vulnerable to birds. Similarly Berchemia zeyheri (umcaka or red ivory) also fruits over this period and is also preferred by birds to sorghum. Zwane has sorghum to substantiate his claims, although others claim that time of planting is only a partial solution to bird predations. He also ‘closes’ his sorghum with traditional medicines.

Both maize and sorghum are planted in rows thanks to his maize planter; yet even vegetable crops that are transplanted by hand follow this same pattern of planting. Vegetables are grown in seedbeds prior to transplanting. Beds are made in various locations under the partial shade of fruit trees, but generally near a concrete watering trough or the dam itself. Zwane also purchases seedlings - depending on availability - at the farmers co-operative and/or when he is running short.

Because his land is situated on a steep gradient, he has devised his own system of ‘contouring’. Zwane starts, not with the aim of forming a contour, but with the objective of planting a fruit tree. The contour is initiated with a first hole of one to one and a half cubic metres in size (dug to a frontal depth of one metre and a rear depth of one and a half metres, with the soil being thrown forwards). Soil is replaced down to rooting depth, with the remainder mixed with organic matter and cattle manure. A fruit tree is placed into this hole and filled with the remaining soil mixture, creating a level basin. As more fruit trees are planted, a series of discrete level basins are produced separated by sloping land. With continual parallel ploughing, the constant addition of organic materials around the trees and the placement of ploughed up rocks continuous with the basins, a contoured ridge is established and maintained. Once a number of such rows of trees have been established, the topography starts to take the form of strips of land separated by contoured rows of fruit trees. These strips of land are planted with his annual crops.

Zwane therefore uses a diverse range of farming techniques. This makes it possible for him to use both recognized agro-ecological practices and at the same time create new systems that best fit with the specific regional and environment challenges that he faces.

For more details on farmers such as Philemon Zwane and on the charity ‘Find your Feet’ who help to disseminate indigenous agricultural knowledge in KwaZulu-Natal please contact: Dan Taylor, Find Your Feet, 316 Bon Marche Centre, 241-251 Ferndale Road, London SW9 8BJ. Phone: +44 (0)20 7326 4464, Fax: +44 (0)20 7733 8848. Email: dan(at) Website:

Lessons from the soilLessons from the soilLessons from the soilLessons from the soil

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