Sustainability Research Institute

Conservation Agriculture in Southern Africa

Conservation agriculture is a farm land management strategy that focuses on the preservation of soil moisture and prevention of soil erosion through reduced tillage, permanent organic soil cover, and the use of crop rotation or intercropping.

Conservation agriculture is widely promoted as a Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) which pursues development, climate mitigation and adaptation goals simultaneously. As such, our CA research directly contribute to the wider theme of Climate Compatible Development (CCD).

It is an approach that is increasingly promoted within agricultural development and food security work in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g, Africa CSA Alliance), but many of the success claims attached to it are built on an incomplete evidence base. 

A new programme of research led by the Sustainability Research Institute, in partnership with the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Malawi) and Copperbelt University (Zambia), looks to identify and address knowledge gaps relating to this much-heralded ‘climate smart’ agricultural technology in southern Africa.

Determining context appropriate conservation agriculture strategies and understanding the role, performance, and barriers to the adoption of the technology within farming systems that are subject to resource constraints, local and uncertain agro-ecological conditions, economic and political risks,  and social and cultural dynamics, requires interdisciplinary insight. Conservation agriculture represents a case study of the broader challenges of achieving appropriate and climate compatible agricultural development. We are involved in coordinating and working with a network of organisations within Zambia and Malawi to offer multi-perspective insights into these complex challenges. 

In May 2014, a workshop was held in Lilongwe that brought together representatives of 19 organisations involved in research, practice and policy to discuss knowledge gaps and begin to plan research programmes. A report from the workshop can be accessed here.

The project goal is to understand the impacts of the 2015-16 El Niño on cropping choices, yields and post-harvest losses of CA and non-CA farmers in South East Kenya and southern Malawi. It will assess the contributions that CA practices have provided to the climate-resilience of smallholder livelihoods during variable conditions in the 2015-16 El Niño event and through comparisons with previous similar events and proceeding contrasting climate extremes.


To better understand under what farming system conditions CA improves the resilience of smallholder production through extreme climate conditions.


  • To analyse whether farmers practicing CA can better maintain their crops compared to those not practicing CA under above average and below average rainfall extremes.
  • To compare farmers’ experiences of the El Niño of 2015-2016 with experiences of previous El Niño events in these contexts.
  • To analyse the impact of climatic and farming system conditions associated with El Niño on incidence of crop pest damage.
  • To evaluate how the 2015-16 El Niño event will affect farmer decision-making on cropping, land management and post-harvest handling in the subsequent 2016-17 growing season.

We will test the hypothesis that smallholder farm-plots under CA practices are likely to sustain or increase their yields and livelihood security during the 2015-16 El Niño event compared to non–CA farm-plots. Testing this hypothesis and answering these research questions will help to quantify the benefits of CA practices has in being ‘climate-smart’ and improving the resilience of crop production and smallholder livelihoods to climatic stresses and shocks.

The adaptive capacity of maize-based conservation agriculture systems to climate stress in tropical and subtropical environments: A meta-regression of yields

Understanding the interactions between drought and heat stress, soil texture and crop management is critical if we are to understand and predict the adaptive capacity of conservation agriculture.  The SRI CA group are leaders in this arena we have recently published a novel synthesis which integrated published CA yield datasets (supplemented with data provided by Christian Thierfelder, CIMMYT) with global soil and historical climate datasets.

Our headline findings were that that conservation agriculture enhances the adaptive capacity of maize production in sub-Saharan Africa under drought and/or heat stress.  However, in very wet seasons and on clay-rich soils, CA yields less compared to conventional practices.

In our publication we used meta-regression to explore four key questions:

(1) Does the relative yield performance of CA improve with increasing drought and temperature stress? (relative meaning as compared to a conventional control).

We found that the relative maize yield performance of CA improves with increasing drought severity or exposure to high temperatures.

(2) Do the effects of moisture and temperature stress interact?

Yes! we found a significant interaction of moisture and heat stress on CA performance. CA always performs well in conditions of average rainfall to drought, but heavy rainfall reduces its benefits. The response to heatstress is complex and affected by soil type (Figure 1).

(3) Are the effects of moisture and temperature stress are modified by soil texture?

Yes! As mentioned above, we found the amount of clay in soils changed the effect of moisture and heat stress on CA performance. On soils with lower clay contexts, more silty or sandy soils with better drainage, CA appears to cope better with heat stress than CP and heavy rainfall has a less negative effect on CA performance. Soils containing a lot of clay are less favourable for CA if rainfall is high, presumable because of increased waterlogging, and CA appears no more resilient to heat stress than CP.

Figure 1 The effect of heat stress at anthesis (loge(GDD30++1)) and growing season precipitation balance (precipitation – potential evapotranspiration) on maize yield response ratios (loge(RR)) comparing conservation agriculture to conventional practice. Panels depict the effects of climate stress as modified by soil texture for low (left), medium (middle), and high (right) soil clay contents. Negative values of precipitation balance, toward the bottom of panels, indicate a rainfall deficit. Blue colours in the graph indicate conservation agriculture outperforms conventional practice and vice-versa for orange.
Figure 1 The effect of heat stress at anthesis (loge(GDD30++1)) and growing season precipitation balance (precipitation – potential evapotranspiration) on maize yield response ratios (loge(RR)) comparing conservation agriculture to conventional practice.

(4) Do crop diversification, fertilizer application rate, or duration of no-till enhance CA performance under climate stress?

This was complicated. First we found increasing nitrogen application rates did not improve the relative performance of CA under high heat stress. Second we found crop diversification did not notably improve CA performance, but did increase its stability with heat stress. Third we did not find a statistically robust effect of no-till duration, but more data from long-term studies is required to explore this properly.

The published version of this work can be found here:

Steward, P.R., Dougill, A.J., Thierfelder, C., Pittelkow, C.M., Stringer, L.C., Kudzala, M., Shackelford, G.E., 2018. The adaptive capacity of maize-based conservation agriculture systems to climate stress in tropical and subtropical environments: A meta-regression of yields. 251, 194-202,


Andy Dougill – Professor of Environmental Sustainability

I am an applied environmental change researcher with expertise in leading the design and implementation of inter-disciplinary ‘problem-based’ research projects focused on environmental sustainability and climate change issues. I have developed integrated methodologies for studying dryland environmental change and held a Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship (2013 – 2015) for research on “Socio-environmental analyses of community carbon projects in Malawi and Zambia”. Ongoing studies are funded through the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) and the NERC / DFID Future Climate for Africa programme.

Lindsay Stringer - Professor in Environment and Development

I’m a Professor in Environment and Development, interested in the role that CA can play in sustaining livelihoods and providing other benefits to society and the environment. I currently lead a project funded by CCCEP exploring the trade-offs between adaptation, mitigation and development within policy in southern Africa. This builds on my work examining complementarities and conflicts between national policies to address land degradation and climate change, and whether these policies create a supportive context for farmers’ adaptations (including CA). I also currently supervise PhD students Edna Chinseu and Ben Wood.

Stephen Whitfield – Associate Professor in Climate Change and Food Security

I am a geographer and political ecologist interested in the ‘knowledge politics’ of agricultural development and climate change. I have carried out projects in Zambia and Malawi that traced the development of narratives and successes around CA and looked critically at the strength of evidence bases underpinning these. I am interested in understanding how experiences and framings of agricultural change vary across farmers, public and private organisations, research institutions, and policy-making circles and the socio-political dynamics through which certain perspectives become dominant or are closed down. In addition to CA, I have studied a number of other ‘climate smart’ agricultural developments.

Peter Steward - Post-Doctoral Research Fellow

I'm an agricultural ecologist using meta-analytical tools and field-based manipulations to study the resilience of CA to climatic and biological stresses and shocks. In collaboration with DARS and CIMMYT we used large rain shelters to simulate increased drought stress in CA maize-legume systems at a long-term CA trial in Malawi whilst monitoring crop health, yields, disease and pest damages. I have recently published a meta-regression on the adaptive capacity of maize-based CA systems to climate stress and have on-going collaborations with CIMMYT to advance this approach.

Eleanor Jew – Research Fellow in Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA)

Eleanor is an interdisciplinary researcher who is interested in the relationships between human and environmental systems, and how they can be managed to achieve both development and conservation goals. Eleanor uses a mixed methods approach to understand the links between system. Prior to joining the ACRES project Eleanor has worked in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana on a range of research projects. Her research interests include land use management, wildlife utilisation, CA, biodiversity indicators and ecosystem service provision.

Ben Wood - PhD Student

My research explores the social justice implications of projects in Malawi which pursue development, climate mitigation and adaptation goals simultaneously. CA is an important intervention and has the potential to contribute to each of these goals. My data on household perceptions suggest that CA can create food security benefits for households. However, limited land ownership, income poverty and ill-health prevent underprivileged people (resource poor, elderly, disabled, caregivers) from securing  benefits.

Edna Chinseu – PhD Student

I'm an Agricultural Research Scientist pursuing my doctorate focusing on understanding smallholder farmers’ dis-adoption of agriculture technologies in Malawi using CA as a case study.  My research was motivated by 1) observed disparities in effort and resources invested in CA, 2) problems of declining soil fertility, 3) climate-related risks, and 4) lack of sustained adoption levels. My study involves examining policies and institutions relevant to CA as well as farm level factors.

Thirze Hermans

Thirze Hermans – PhD Student

Thirze Hermans, a Dutch national, is a PhD student funded by the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) and enrolled at the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI), University of Leeds. She did her Master at Lund University, Sweden in physical geography and ecosystem analysis. Her research interest is in conservation agriculture (CA) adoption using multidisciplinary approaches. Her aim is to find solutions to pertinent adoption constraints in southern Africa. She currently focusses her research on farming systems in Zambia and Malawi. 

International Collaborators

David Mkawmbisi – Associate Professor of Environmental Sustainability in the Faculty of Natural Resources Management at LUANAR (Malawi)

David is currently Programmes Coordinator in the office of the Vice Chancellor and is actively involved in several development and research programmes in Malawi working with rural and urban communities. His research interests are on climate change and smallholder farmers, environment and development in rural and urban areas, soil nutrient fluxes and waste recycling. David is also among Africa researchers that provide technical backstopping to national negotiators on climate change within the UNFCCC framework and he is a member of the UNFCCC committee on Climate and Agriculture and the Malawi National Technical Committee on Climate Change.

Chinwe Ifejika Speranza – Professor, Head of Sustainable Land Management, University of Bern (Switzerland)

Chinwe heads the research unit Sustainable Land Management, at the Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland. She has long-term experience in research on land management practices, land use and natural resources-based livelihoods, their interactions with social and ecological processes, the implications for reducing vulnerability, building resilience and enhancing sustainability. She has worked on topics such as drought and food security, CA and CSA practices, post-harvest management, adaptation to climate change as well as on local water resources management. Her research work has involved case studies in Switzerland, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal and Nigeria.

Felix Kalaba – Lecturer at Copperbelt University (Zambia)

Felix lectures at Copperbelt University in Zambia and is a CCCEP visiting researcher whose research explores ecosystems services and rural livelihoods. Felix is interested in understanding the factors that influence the adoption of CA technologies and linking sustainable utilisation or management of natural resources with rural livelihood improvement. Felix other research interests include ecosystems services and human welfare, agroforestry systems, and social–ecological interactions, carbon storage and carbon dynamics in woodlands.

Christian Thierfelder - CIMMYT Cropping Systems Agronomist specializing in CA

Christian Thierfelder is a Senior Cropping Systems Agronomist specializing in Conservation Agriculture (CA) systems research with CIMMYT. He is based in Harare, Zimbabwe and covers the whole southern African region. He trained as a Soil Scientist at the Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, Germany and did his PhD-project with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) on soil conservation in Cali, Colombia. He received his PhD with the University of Hohenheim, Germany in 2003. Since 2004, he has been involved in a number of CA related projects led by CIMMYT in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia. He has conducted applied and strategic research on-farm and on-station to adapt CA to the needs and environments of smallholder farmers in southern Africa. Since 2009 he has been project leader of several CA projects. He guided the research programs of 30 Bsc, MSc and PhD students, and published more than 55 research articles in peer-reviewed high-impact journals and books. 

Amos Ngwira – DARS Cropping System Agronomist

Amos has a strong interest in crop simulation modelling (DSSAT) by evaluating technologies and practices that favour adaptation to climate change through investments in productivity. He has 16 publications and has won the International Plant Nutrition Institute scholar award. Amos has worked with CIMMYT, SOFECSA and several consultancies. He is currently employed at Chitedze Research Station (DARS) and advises our CA resilience experiment.

Ivy Ligowe – DARS Agronomist specialising in soil fertility

Ivy’s research focus is the assessment of soil quality changes, nutrient use efficiency and disease and pest prevalence in maize CA cropping systems. Her current research work involves assessing integrated practices for soil fertility and climate change adaptation (including CA). Ivy has worked in collaboration CIMMYT, FAO and Total Land Care Malawi. She is a member of the Soil Health Consortium of Malawi, Conservation Agriculture Task Force and Climate Smart Agriculture National Team.

Austin Tibu – Environmental Sciences and Management Lecturer at LUANAR (Malawi)

Austin brings experience in agriculture and disaster risk management through an integrated landscape approach and he lectures on disaster risk management, land resources and integrated watershed management. Working in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Management sectors since 2003 he has participated in disaster risk assessment and response initiatives and was involved with developing interlinkages between catchment management and flood risk management in the Shire Basin. Austin was a member of the Malawi Delegation to the UNFCCC negotiations on agriculture and its vulnerability to climate change, mitigation, adaptation and LULUCF and is the national focal point for development of the Malawian Agriculture National Adaptation Plans.

Steward, P. R., A. J. Dougill, C. Thierfelder, C. M. Pittelkow, L. C. Stringer, M. Kudzala and G. E. Shackelford (2018). "The adaptive capacity of maize-based conservation agriculture systems to climate stress in tropical and subtropical environments: A meta-regression of yields." Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 251(Supplement C): 194-202.

Dougill, A.J., Whitfield, S., Stringer, L.C., Vincent, K., Wood, B.T., Chinseu, E.L., Steward, P., Mkwambisi, D.D. (2017). Mainstreaming Conservation Agriculture in Malawi: knowledge gaps and institutional barriers. J. of Environmental Management, 195, 25-34

Sutcliffe, C., Dougill, A.J., Quinn, C.H. (2016). Evidence and perceptions of rainfall change in Malawi: Do maize cultivar choices enhance climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa? Regional Environmental Change, 16; 1215-1224 

Whitfield, S., Dougill, A.J., Dyer, J.C., Kalaba, F.K., Stringer, L.C. (2015). Critical reflection on knowledge and narratives of Conservation Agriculture. Geoforum, 60, 133-142