Photo credit: Kelvin Trautmen, AICCRA
Innovation story

Farmer, Livestock Keeper, Community Leader - Meet Esther Zulu from Nyimba District, Zambia

AICCRA works to scale climate-smart agriculture and climate information services that reach millions of smallholder farmers in Africa. Ahead of COP27, AICCRA teams sat down with some farmers in our focus countries to learn more about them, the challenges and opportunities they are faced with and how climate-smart technologies and information services can help.  

We also asked the farmers if they had a message for world leaders at ‘Africa’s COP’ – COP27.

Meet Esther Zulu, a farmer, livestock keeper, and community leader from Nyimba District in Eastern Zambia. 

Esther Zulu, a member of the Nsenga tribe, was born in Nyimba District in the Eastern part of Zambia, where she currently lives and farms on property inherited from her parents, also farmers. 

Nyimba is primarily a farming community – with most community members farming for business in an effort to improve their livelihoods. The community shares the season and help each other with working in the field and other agricultural activities. Some, like Esther choose to use natural resources like compost manure and glicidia trees to fertilize their crops; others farm with traditional fertilizers and chemicals. In September to November, farmers prepare the land for cultivating. In January and February, it’s the rainy season and time for planting and field work, rainy season. March, April, and May are typically the harvest season, and from June to August, those with gardens focus on those. This is also the time when the market season starts. 

Esther is a leader in her community, holding the position of Executive Committee Chairlady for the Chitetezo Farmer Federation – an organization representing 55 farmer cooperatives focused on improving the cost-efficiency of its community-based supply chain of legumes by engaging in a cooperative movement in collaboration with Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO).  

Her experience provides a testimonial for social innovation that strengthens local farmers’ business capacity, accountability, and transparency, through an inclusive business model with the private sector promoting nature conservation and sustainable agriculture.

Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) is a social enterprise that finances improved agricultural practices through the adoption of agroforestry and a legume-based farming system that increases food crop yields and market opportunities for over 230,000 small-scale farmers. Through the partnership with the federation, COMACO will expand its impact on sustainable agriculture adoption and the various ways these practices can increase conservation outcomes, including reduced deforestation and dependencies on such livelihoods as charcoal-making and wildlife poaching.

We asked Esther: ‘How and why did you become a farmer?’

I was very much interested in the way they [my parents] were doing farming. When I grew up in urban areas in the Copperbelt, most people were not stable with their livelihoods. Food was a problem. Those who were not working were starving. When I returned to my home village after completing my education at the Copperbelt, I thought, why work for someone else, when I have my own company - a farm. I take my farm as my company, since I am a business farmer and sometimes I engage other people to help me in the farm.  

I became very interested in farming and started on a small field, but when I harvested, I saw that that the outputs could make a difference for my life. I have been farming since 1992, and I have improved a lot. When I took the farm over from my parents, we lived in a grass-roofed house. But this time, when you come to my farm, you will find that I have built a house with bricks and roofed it with iron sheets.  

There is success through farming. Other farmers have adopted from me, as they looked at me saying “See how she started, and now she is on another level”  

Most farmers are not jealous of me, but they want to copy me and do likewise. If you come to my village now, you find most of the houses are made of bricks and roofed with iron sheets. This is what made me to come to the village, so that I can improve the livelihoods of the villagers and together we provide food for those in town as they buy from us.

I have four children, two of them have completed school and I managed to pay for their school fees and their college fees, from farming. I am a single parent who is relying on myself. I don’t ask anybody for assistance, I provide anything for myself. If you come in December or January, food is a challenge for other farmers, but in my house you will never sleep without having eaten.

I grow maize as a staple, and often harvest more than I can eat, and I sell that for income generation. I also plant groundnuts for income generation and food. Soya beans are for income generation. I also rear chickens, these normal village chickens, for food and income generation. I have animals, like cows and pigs, and want to start goat raising, I already built a goat stable. In future I plan to go into fish farming, as in the Eastern Province we don’t have fish farms. This will also help me to make money.

Have you seen the climate change in your lifetime? Is the weather different? Have seasons changed?

Early in the 1980s, rains started in October and ended in May. Today the weather is totally different. This year there was one rain in November, and then it stopped until the end of December. There has been a shift in terms of rainfall patterns, of when it starts and ends.  

The period of rainfall has shortened and is stronger. There are periods of flash floods, and then rivers and streams dry up. The water table has gone down. In the 80s we had dambos (wetlands), but today they have gone. Seasons have changed, for example last week we experienced very cold weather, while we are in summer. Even the outbreaks of pests and diseases have increased, they were not as common in my early childhood. That’s part of climate change. 

Climate change is real and threatens Zambian crop and livestock systems, impacting agricultural businesses and undermining livelihoods.

What are the main challenges you face in farming, or any business you do?

The changes in weather are fast and unpredictable. For farmers and livestock keepers it has become very difficult to anticipate climate related events and plan their agricultural season. Last year, for instance, I started planting after the Met Department said early rains were to be expected in November, but the rains only came end of December. The shortening of the rainy season has also brought more challenges with inputs. This affects our indigenous varieties; we need varieties that are early maturing and drought resistant.  

In addition, it is becoming more difficult to prepare the fields, as soils are becoming more compacted with soil erosion. Challenges with soils have to do with the excessive use of chemical fertilizer. Soils are dead, and the use of chemical fertilizer has created dependency among farmers. The government spends a huge amount of money on subsidizing chemical fertilizer. Initially it was a temporary measure, for farmers to improve their production.

The market becomes another challenge, in addition to the climate challenges, as the prices are fluctuating and not stable. Every time there are changes in the currency - I plan for the sale of commodities I have a budget, but when I reach the market, the price has changed, and I often make a loss. For all of us to benefit from markets, we need more money. The markets are not stable. Government promised to buy all products from farmers, but they come very late in the season, and don’t pay cash. You wait for a time and get paid, and for a farmer that is difficult as he/she has to buy inputs for the next season. In my case COMACO provides a market. They have certain targets though, and don’t buy all products from our farmers. So many farmers end up selling to ‘briefcase buyers’ who come and buy products at very low prices.

Also, the floods are destroying our roads, and then transportation becomes a challenge for farmers. We need the government to help repairing those roads. COMACO is also trying to help by bringing the market closer to farmers, by establishing buying points in the different zones, reducing the distance to farmers. That requires building the centers, through the cooperatives and with partners.   

Are there new technologies or farming techniques that have really helped you farm? How?

Climate-smart technologies are new and have helped me on my farm. On my farm I practice minimum tillage, crop rotation, potholing and ripping, manure compost making. I plant Gliricidia trees in my fields to return CO2 to the soil and improve soil fertility.  

I am using the new methods of farming, since I am a member of COMACO cooperatives. They gave us lessons on climate-smart agriculture. We use tools that our parents were using, and the resources that we have. We don’t go to town to look for inputs, and we don’t use chemicals on our farms. I use the natural resources that I have, trees, crop residues, livestock manure. I make manure compost and return the crop residues to my fields.  

I trust using organic manure compost. When I use the organic manure compost and then I sell on the market, everyone asks, “Did you apply fertilizer?”, I can then say, “No, it’s organic”. Many people come for organic products and ask me for the varieties that I am using, because the maize is soft to eat, and healthy to the human body.

The Chitetezo Farmer Federation represents 55 farmer cooperatives, aiming to improve the cost-efficiency of its community-based supply chain of legumes by enhancing cooperative leadership to address such challenges as grain quality, crop bulking, transport logistics, and local adoption of mobile banking. Increased gender role in cooperative leadership is a key component, commitment to community-agreed conservation regulations for soil and forest protection, cooperative-run services to support farmer training and local seed production and improved financial sustainability of COMACO.

As Executive Committee Chairlady of the Chitetezo Farmer Federation, Esther contributes to top-level management discussions and decisions to support the needs of small-scale farmers. The exposure strengthens her capacity to lead the Federation and uphold its own mission and standards of achievement, representing a further step into farmer empowerment through associations and cooperative movements.  

How and why did you become the chair of the Chitetezo Federation?

I never wanted to do farming on my own, but with the community. When COMACO came in 2008 forming groups, I attended a meeting and joined the groups. I saw that this was new and useful, hence I implemented what I learned from COMACO. I was selected as group leader for a group of 20 farmers.  

Then, in 2014 I was selected to attend a training in Kaunga because they wanted leaders. I was a mere farmer, representing the cooperative by what I was doing. After I was interviewed and we did the training, we formed cooperatives, and I was selected as the first secretary of the cooperative in my chiefdom. In 2018 I became the chairperson of the cooperative at chiefdom level. I ran that cooperative.  

In 2021, as cooperatives we saw that we don’t have the one voice that can come out. We asked our coordinators who passed that message on to the COMACO CEO Dale Lewis - that the cooperatives are making a point to have one voice on what they are doing across all districts. Our CEO accepted that and called for a meeting. He asked our coordinators to pick in each district one member to come to the Board, and we would see what to do. After that we formed the Board of the Federation, and elections came.  

I was voted to be the chairperson of that Federation, just because of what I was speaking in the meeting, how I was coming out and showing the leadership on the ground where I came from.  

Our goal is to finish poverty and have each farmer in our areas adopt climate-smart agriculture; and to plant the wonder tree that never takes time to grow, Glicidia.

Do you know what AICCRA does? Have they helped you? How?

Yes, I do know AICCRA. It aims to improve food security through access to knowledge, technologies, and decision-making tools, to strengthen climate resilience. AICCRA works with us here in Zambia as partners by scaling actionable climate information services. AICCRA is promoting the CSA/CIS technologies that enhance gender and social inclusiveness.  

To address the challenges with climate, they improve access to solar irrigation, drought tolerant seed varieties, aquaculture as well as diversified chicken, goat and legume systems. AICCRA also strengthens local capacity by training intermediaries in view of communicating climate information services.  

AICCRA has helped me and my community. As we came together to make the (Chiteteze) Federation, cooperatives sat down to find a way in how we can use the Federation as the mouth for these cooperatives, on how we can train farmers on climate-smart agriculture. AICCRA helped us to be a partner and implement at large what we do as farmers growing legumes, in adaptation to climate change.

I like the inclusiveness in AICCRA, to make sure that everyone is included, women, youth, differently abled people to come on board and learn, using the different technologies that we are promoting.  

What are your hopes for the future of your community?

The hope for the future of my community is that all the farmers countrywide here in Zambia promote climate-smart agriculture and implementation to comply with what they are being taught and the lessons we learn. So that we may overcome the threats imposed on us by climate change.  

We want to augment a healthy environment. We are now promoting agroforestry with the planting of trees. We hope that there will be enough trees for the forests to rejuvenate, to provide energy and for the people to have enough food, improving soil fertility without using chemical fertilizer.  

Through trees improving soil fertility and health, people save costs of fertilizer and don’t depend on chemicals. Another hope is that they then can manage to produce enough and even have surplus for sale so that they can generate income from agriculture, and don’t depend on destroying the forests for generating income.  

We also want the Federation to grow as an umbrella board that provides the cooperatives with a market, a storage for the crops, training for the different leaders, and education for its members. The Federation wants to come up with an office, as a one-stop support centre, selling inputs and farm implements in a way that they become accessible for all cooperative members. It will then be become a place where the international community can easily access the cooperatives – an important entry point for stakeholders. 

Do you feel that voices of farmers like yourself are heard by people both within your own country or around the world? Who listens to you?

Yes, in Zambia, our government is supporting the work we are doing as farmers promoting CSA and promoting trees like fast-growing trees. Worldwide we are heard through what we are doing through COMACO, and the products that COMACO exports. These products are from us as reliable farmers, farming with nature.  

Some changes are already seen, and we can do more so that our voices can be heard. We need more female leaders that can speak. When females speak a lot of households come on board and practice what we are doing.  

We also need more players to come on board. The government helps to disseminate our messages, we already use social media, newsletter, radio. The more players that come on board through different channels, we can capture more success stories from our communities and the Federation. With multiple channels we can spread our messages faster.

Worldwide, people can see what we do, farmers who farm with nature. Outsiders of our country are willingly seeing our commodities and want to know where these commodities are coming from. When they see farmers like me, when they hear my voice that I speak, they want to know more about how I practice farming.  

For the message to be disseminated we have the content, and small-scale farmers in our Federation are participating in that. In other areas, farmers have not yet joined us. Our voice should be heard by policy makers, those in government, civil society at large, to disseminate this message in their own ways. That will help promoting farming with nature, the healthy products knowing that they come from small-scale farmers, products that are healthy for the world. This requires coming together and we ask policy makers to take up the policies that will be helpful.  

World leaders will meet in Egypt in a few months' time to make commitments that tackle climate change - do you have a message for them?

All the leaders meeting in Egypt should encourage farmers in various countries to promote climate-smart agriculture, especially restoring the trees that have been destroyed. Farmers must see the benefits from planting fast-growing trees that provide us with soil fertility and fuel, as well as investment through carbon trade. Glicidia is a wonder tree that has stopped farmers applying chemical fertilizer and as it provides us with higher crop yields, it slows down the expansion of croplands into forest areas. Planting and protecting these trees helps us to create new bylaws in our communities with our leaders.  

We want to become knowns as champions for promoting agroforestry, for every household to plant trees. Every small land should have enough trees. Currently we are leading in our country, and we want the leaders to further support promoting the planting of trees.  

And we want the leaders to make sure that we can provide farmers with adequate markets for their legumes. After improving the soils, through the various trainings, the farmers produce quite well, and the legume products should be given enough markets so that farmers can generate income which they will use to solve their various needs, paying for school fees, for health, etc. This is linked to the value addition, so that we can produce quality products from organic production.  


Read other farmer profiles and updates from AICCRA’s work in its six focus countries at our COP27 hub.