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The potential of nutrition-sensitive Conservation Agriculture: lessons from Zambia

By Anne Marie Mayer, Marjolein-Mwanamwenge and Carl Whal

Anne Marie Mayer works as a freelance nutritionist specialising in the links between agriculture and nutrition. She holds a PhD in International Nutrition with Soil Science and Epidemiology from Cornell University. Her current interests include community value chains for nutrition, nutritional quality of foods, and links between nutrition and sustainable agriculture. 

Marjolein Smit-Mwanamwenge is the Nutrition Coordinator with Concern Worldwide, Zambia. She is a nutritionist with a Masters in Nutrition and Health from Wageningen University, Netherlands, with eight years of work experience in sub-Saharan Africa in public health nutrition, linking agriculture to nutrition, capacity-building and advocacy.

Carl Wahl is the Conservation Agriculture (CA) Coordinator for Concern Worldwide, Zambia. A former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, he has lived and worked on CA and agroforestry adoption in over 20 districts of Zambia. 

We would like to acknowledge the support of the Conservation Farming Unit (CFU) in organising the field work and their valuable contributions to the study and this report. We also appreciate the time and efforts made available by the farmers, extension staff and stakeholders to participate in the focus group discussions and interviews.

This study was made possible by a grant from the USAID Technical and Operational Performance Support (TOPS) Program. The TOPS Micro Grants Program was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of the materials produced through the TOPS Micro Grants Program does not necessarily reflect the views of TOPS, USAID or the United States Government. 


Location: Zambia 

What we know: Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a means to sustainably increase food production; how to integrate nutrition considerations into agricultural CA practices is not well researched. 

What this article adds: A study by Concern Worldwide explored pathways for nutrition-sensitive CA in Central and Western Provinces of Zambia, based on literature review, key informant interviews and focus group discussions. Potential nutrition impacts identified were: increased own production and consumption of CA crops (cereals and legumes); livestock products and vegetables; increased time availability and agricultural diversity that could contribute to improved infant and young child feeding practices; purchase of other foods through income generated; and improved soils yielding more nutritious food. 


Conservation Agriculture (CA) is an agricultural system based on three basic principles: minimum tillage (or minimum technical disturbance); maintenance of soil cover; and crop rotation, usually with legumes. CA has shown to increase productivity, build resilience and protect the soil. However, CA research and implementation is largely production-oriented and there is little evidence in the literature as to how CA currently impacts household nutrition or how it might be adapted to become more nutrition-sensitive. 

CA in Zambia is a means to sustainably increase food production, but it is being promoted against a backdrop of very high rates of undernutrition. At 40%, Zambia has one of the highest prevalences of childhood stunting in the world (Central Statistics Office, MoH Zambia (2014); acute malnutrition remains static at around 6% of children; and obesity is on the rise. Determinants of undernutrition at the household level include income poverty; lack of access to sufficient and diverse foods; poor feeding and childcare practices; gender inequality; poor access to clean water; and lack of access to sanitation and quality health services. Therefore, while complex and multi-sectoral interventions are required to address chronic malnutrition, it is clear that agriculture has the potential to increase incomes and improve nutrition through increased production of a diversity of nutrient-rich foods; an opportunity to contribute to a reduction in undernutrition that is currently unrealised.

In 2015, a study was undertaken by Concern Worldwide in Zambia to inform how agricultural interventions based around CA practices can integrate nutrition considerations. The study premised that the pathways to nutrition-sensitive CA are likely to lie through: 1) increases in production; 2) promotion of nutritious crops (particularly in the legume rotation); 3) using the delivery platforms and mechanisms to shape demand for nutritious foods related to infant and young child feeding, maternal nutrition and household food and nutrition security; and 4) gendered impacts on women’s time for caring practices. The study process and findings aimed to engage multiple stakeholders in order to illuminate opportunities for those implementing and funding CA interventions to utilise CA to improve household diets (and thus contribute to improved nutrition) and advance the situation for women. 

Concern Worldwide is an international, humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been working in Zambia since 2002 with extremely poor people in some of the most challenging agro-ecological conditions in the country. While supporting sustainable livelihoods, women’s empowerment and reduction of risk from HIV/AIDS and natural disasters, Concern has developed technical strengths in climate-smart agriculture; in particular concerning CA and the linkages between agriculture and nutrition (see

Study method 

The study was conducted in March-April 2015 and comprised a literature review followed by key informant interviews to establish the key questions and areas of focus. Subsequently, qualitative focus group discussions (FGDs) were held with farmers in Central and Western Provinces of Zambia. Eight (four female and four male) FGDs were conducted with CA adopters and two case studies were developed from each province (a total of 126 participants). Key informants included promoters of CA, technical staff in the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, Ministry of Health and representatives of NGOs. Findings were subsequently shared, discussed and reviewed with stakeholders in Lusaka.                

The study was conducted in close collaboration with the Conservation Farming Unit, which has led CA promotion in Zambia since it was founded in 1995. Currently, the CFU works in 20 districts across Zambia, supporting over 2,000 lead farmers to demonstrate, train and promote CA principles to over 180,000 follower famers. CFU also promotes the uptake of inputs and equipment through the private sector to enable faster uptake of CA by the small-scale farming sector.

The study drew on guidelines and theoretical models that been developed over the past few years to help understand the links between agriculture and nutrition. Evidence is emerging as to how agriculture can contribute to improved nutrition outcomes for children and adults. These models are helpful when trying to understand how CA might improve nutrition and incorporate nutrition considerations, or how to make changes towards nutrition-sensitive CA. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has developed ten key principles for improving nutrition through agriculture (FAO, 2013), which were used to structure the recommendations from the study and IFPRI and others have described how potential pathways can enable agriculture to contribute to reductions in undernutrition (Headey, Chiu & Kadiyala, 2011). 


Food production 

Household food production can be critically important to the diets and nutrition of women and children (Kumar, Harris & Rawat, 2015). Literature shows that CA has a positive impact on household food security in terms of improvements in maize security (Nyambose & Jumbe, 2013), but also on the production and consumption of legumes (groundnuts, soybeans, cowpeas) (Nyanga, 2012). All FGDs clearly reported that CA increased their production and consumption of both maize and legumes, particularly groundnuts and beans. The main challenges of growing more legume crops were the limited access to seeds and markets. Farmers also indicated that CA increased their time availability, which was used to grow more field crops (e.g. maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, groundnuts) and for vegetable gardening, increasing both food availability and food diversity. Evidence from Zambia suggests that greater agricultural diversity is associated with greater dietary diversification and those households with greater agricultural diversity have fewer stunted children (Kumar, Harris & Rawat, 2015).

Agricultural income 

Agricultural income can be used for immediate or future household needs, including food and non-food purchases to support a healthy diet and life (Herforth & Harris, 2014). Most FGD participants reported increased incomes since practicing CA. The extra income was spent on food purchases (e.g. sugar, fish, meat, cooking oil, rice, tea, flour, refined maize meal and instant cereal products), productive resources, school fees, livestock (milk and draught) and increasing agricultural labour. While the addition of a variety of foods (including animal-sourced foods) may meet a nutrition gap and improve household dietary diversity, overconsumption of certain foods such as sugar, meat and refined cereals could contribute to the increasing problem of overweight. The Demographic Health Survey showed that 23% of women are overweight in Zambia (Central Statistics Office, MoH Zambia, 2014). The use of income for productive resources, purchase of animals and enterprises has the potential to improve nutrition through increased availability of food or other pathways. If income is spent on school fees, there could be a long-term benefit for nutrition because education levels of children contribute to prevention of malnutrition throughout the life course.   

Women’s empowerment 

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are now widely recognised as important determinants of child nutrition (Smith & Haddad, 2015). In Concern’s experience, the majority of primary beneficiaries and adopters of CA are women, so there is a high potential for women to link increased agricultural productivity under CA to nutrition, provided they are able to make and influence decisions and control resources.

The amount of time or labour women spend on agriculture can affect their own health and energy expenditure. In addition, caring practices (such as breastfeeding and meal preparation) can be affected adversely where women’s labour burden is heavy (Reid & Chikarate, 2013). Women indicated during the FGDs that CA increased their time availability, which enabled them to breastfeed more frequently, prepare more healthy and diverse meals, and take time to rest. Women reported to have increased the diversity of the diets of their children by adding groundnuts to infant porridge and by purchasing additional food items such as sugar, cooking oil and animal-sourced foods. However, the diet diversity of most of these children is still not meeting World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations of at least four food groups daily. Nutrition-promotion activities and demonstrations of food preparation could optimise infant and young child feeding practices based on the additional food production and food purchases achieved by CA. 

Women in Zambia tend to have greater control over groundnuts as these are seen as “women’s crops”. Groundnuts can be used for both home consumption and provide income with a potential positive impact on nutrition (Nyange, Johnsen et al, 2012). The use of inter-crops and crop rotations in CA with vegetables and pulses, when under the management of women, is likely to contribute to household food security and diversify consumption. 

Increased time availability has the potential to improve nutritional outcomes of both the woman herself and her children. The women indicated that time availability was increased by the use of herbicides and mulches that reduce weeding demand. There was also the opportunity to spread out labour for land preparation over a longer period of time under CA, compared to conventional practices. However, stakeholders contested that overall CA may not always decrease labour and increase time availability as making planting basins or holes (where there is no access to draught animal power) is heavy work, and not ploughing can increase weed burden. Both weeding and hoe-based conservation agriculture are traditionally seen as women’s work and this is an area that requires further investment, including expanding affordable access to ripping (a form of tillage) services and other labour-saving equipment. 

Natural resources 

In theory, improvements in soil fertility lead to improved nutritional quality of foods (Lal, 2009). Links between CA and nutritional quality of foods could be mediated through soil improvement; for example, the pH of the soil affects nutrient uptake by plants; arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis (a relationship between plant roots and fungi that enhances uptake of nutrients by plants) could be better preserved in minimum tillage practices (Antunes, Franken, et al, 2012), and better nutrient uptake by plants and the additional soil organic matter could improve nutrient content of grains (Baraski, Srednicka-Tober, et al, 2014). CA projects could theoretically reduce mycotoxin contamination by promoting various measures, such as use of lime, farmyard manure and crop residues. Any gains in nutritional value of crops achieved by these means need to be maintained post-harvest through nutrient-retaining methods of storage, processing and cooking. A potential risk with CA practiced in Zambia is contamination of food with herbicides where these are used; they are also a potential hazard for farm workers. 

Potential impacts on nutrition from Conservation Agriculture 

Based on the testimonials of CA farmers, dietary and nutritional improvements resulting from CA could include the following: 1) Increased own production and consumption of CA crops (cereals and legumes); 2)?Increased time availability and increased agricultural diversity that could contribute to improved infant and young child feeding practices; 3)?Increased production of livestock products and vegetables due to additional time available; 4)?Purchase of other foods with extra income derived from CA; and 5)?Possible improvement of nutritional quality of food grown on improved soils. ? 

Possible negative consequences may arise from the increased consumption of highly processed foods and excess animal products through food purchases and through herbicide contamination. 

Recommendations and programme implications 

Table 1 provides a summary of recommendations to increase the nutritional impact of CA programmes based on the research and structured under the FAO key programming principles for improving nutrition through agriculture. Concern Zambia is taking these principles on board within current programmes that work with smallholder farmers and promote CA. Activities include the promotion of legumes and access to legume seed, inclusion of activities to promote gender equality, linking to government service providers for the delivery of nutrition behaviour change communication, considering diet diversity as a potential outcome of agriculture interventions, and promoting diversification of production. 

The full Concern Worldwide Zambia report and research brief can be found here. 

For more information, email Michael Hanley. 



Antunes, P.M., Franken, P. et al (2012). Linking soil biodiversity and human health: do arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi contribute to food nutrition? Soil ecology and ecosystem services D.H.W. et al. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 

Baraski, M., Srednicka-Tober, D et al. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition 112(05): 794-811. 

Central Statistics Office MoH Zambia (2014). Zambia Demographic and Health Survey 2013-14. 

FAO (2013). Synthesis of guiding principles on agriculture programming for nutrition.

Headey D, Chiu A, & Kadiyala S (2011). Agriculture’s Role in the Indian Enigma; Help or hindrance in the undernutrition crisis? IFPRI Discussion Paper 01085. May 2011. 

Herforth, A. & Harris, J. (2014) Understanding and applying primary pathways and principles Brief #1. Improving nutrition through Agriculture Technical Brief Series. Arlington VA: USAID/Strengthening Partnerships, Results, and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING) Project. 

Kumar, N., Harris, J., & Rawat, R. 2015. If they grow it, will they eat and grow? Evidence from Zambia on agricultural diversity and child undernutrition. The Journal of Development Studies. Special Issue: Farm-level Pathways to Improved Nutritional Status. 51 (8): 1060-1077. 

Lal, R. (2009). Soil degradation as a reason for inadequate human nutrition. Food Security. 

Nyanga, P. H. (2012). Food security conservation agriculture and pulses; evidence from smallholder farmers in Zambia. Journal of Food Research 1(2): 120-138. 

Nyanga, P. H., Johnsen, F.H. et al. (2012). Gendered impacts of Conservation Agriculture and the paradox of herbicide use amongst smallholder farmers. International journal of technology and development studies 3(1): 1-24. 

Nyambose, W. & Jumbe, C. (2013). Does Conservation Agriculture enhance household food security: evidence from smallholder farmers in Nkhotakota in Malawi. 4th International Conference of the African Association of Agricultural Economists. Hammemet, Tunisia. 

Reid, J. & Chikarate, J. (2013). Final evaluation of the Accenture funded project: effecting improvements in livelihoods through Conservation Agriculture Malawi and Zambia. 

Smith, L.S. & Haddad, L. (2015). Reducing Child Undernutrition: Past Drivers and Priorities for the post-MDG era. World Development 68: 180-204.

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Anne Marie Mayer, Marjolein-Mwanamwenge and Carl Whal (). The potential of nutrition-sensitive Conservation Agriculture: lessons from Zambia. Field Exchange 51, January 2016. p56.



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