From adoption claims to understanding farmers and contexts: A literature review of Conservation Agriculture (CA) adoption among smallholder farmers in southern Africa

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The paradigm of conservation agriculture (CA), which comprises minimal tillage, permanent soil cover, and intercropping, has become a prominent fixture of discussions on sustainable intensification, climate change and climate smart agriculture. However, controversy exists over the practice’s level of adoption and universal applicability. This article addresses the controversy by assessing the extent of CA adoption by smallholder farmers in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The authors frame their review of adoption studies with an examination of socio-economic contexts, changing definitions of CA, and barriers to adoption. Turning to an analysis of adoption claims, it is found that ambiguous definitions of conservation agriculture adoption, varying methods for estimating adoptions, and project bias denigrate the significance of adoption figures. The authors argue that adoption of CA in southern Africa is lower than adoption figures suggest, as these reflect on short-term uptake numbers, which are often inflated by the provision of artificial incentives. It is found that the usefulness of adoption studies is compromised by bias in the selection of project participants, and by participants’ expectation of support. Additionally, it is argued that these analyses are encumbered by ignorance of project context and poorly understood relationships between adoption variables. Household economic analyses are found to be uninformative due to smallholders’ reliance on family labor. The authors conclude with a call for use of a wider range of quantitative and qualitative research methods, and for studies which focus on the wider market, institutional and policy contexts.

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Small-scale farming, Conservation agriculture, Adoption of innovations, Southern africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Farming systems, Farm/Enterprise Scale
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 87:116-132