The Drought Crisis Threatening Smallholder Farmers in Zambia

Published: Mar 26, 2024 Reading time: 2 minutes
The Drought Crisis Threatening Smallholder Farmers in Zambia
© Foto: Grace Sikanda Namakau

The impacts of climate change and El Niño droughts devastate smallholder farmers in Zambia. Signs of drought are emerging, and predictions indicate longstanding effects, disrupting millions through crop failures and food and water shortages. Visits to affected regions show crops drying up, with fears that small-scale farmers will not be able to provide for their families.


Yet amidst the crisis, there are glimmers of hope. Smallholder farmers like Nang’unyi Bulele, utilising biochar compost, have yielded a minimal harvest to sustain their families. Hailing from Nakonga Village, she works tirelessly as the breadwinner of her female-headed household, supporting a family of seven through subsistence agriculture.

Biochar is a charcoal-like material made by burning agricultural and forestry waste biomass. It is produced through a unique process that results in low contamination and allows for safe carbon storage. Unlike regular charcoal, biochar enhances soil quality by reducing acidity and helps sandy soils retain water better to minimise plant drought stress and nutrient leaching.

“My life depends solely on farming,” she explains.

“It’s only through selling my crops that I can provide food for my family and cater to my children’s educational needs. Without farming, they would have no choice but to drop out, and we would have nothing to eat.”


The country currently finds itself in the midst of a devastating drought, arguably the worst it has seen. Caused by El Niño weather patterns, the abysmal 2023/2024 rainy season has been further exacerbated by climate change. The prolonged dry spell has had immense destructive consequences across critical sectors like agriculture, water availability, and energy supply, placing national food security and millions of livelihoods at risk. It also poses grave threats to Zambia’s economic development goals.

With a staggering 84 districts across the country severely affected, they have already lost approximately 1 million hectares of the estimated 2.2 million hectares planted with maise. On Ms Bulele’s modest farm, evidence of the drought’s impacts is visible. Sections of her maise field without biochar compost have dried up completely, yielding little to no crops. However, sections fertilised with biochar still show signs of life. Although far below normal levels, she harvested just enough to sustain her family through the next few difficult months.


“This terrible dry spell means yields are very poor across the region, so there will be widespread hunger,” she laments. “But the portions enriched with biochar fared far better than those without, so biochar made a big difference.”

Though Zambia’s smallholder farmers continue to confront the devastating drought, the promise shown by biochar compost provides a ray of hope for the future. With the early resilience-enhancing effects already visible on Ms Bulele’s farm and others like it, biochar could play a vital role in helping farmers adapt to increasingly common climate shocks.

Autor: Grace Sikanda Namakau

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