Improving soil health through CSA: Webinar recap, recording and slides

Efforts to meet the growing demand for food across sub-Saharan Africa has led to unsustainable land management practices, causing soil degradation and weakening agricultural systems. Soil health is key to building climate resilience and can be improved through a range of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices.

Held virtually on 23 February 2021, GCRF-AFRICAP’s latest research seminar, ‘Improving Soil Health through CSA’, focused on recent AFRICAP research aimed at informing context-specific CSA recommendations and policies for resilient agriculture and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Following introductions by the event chair Prof Steven Banwart, the event started with research presentations, beginning with Prof Andy Dougill. In addition to offering an overview of what climate-smart agriculture is and how it can be a route to building back resilience into African food systems, he also highlighted the interconnections between land management and climate challenges, talked through the process and issues of moving from conservation agriculture farm trials to farming system uptake, and then reflected on the current politics of CSA and resilient food systems with a specific focus on the situation in Malawi.

Thirze Hermans expanded further, offering an in-depth explanation of integrated soil health assessments and how they combine soil science and local experience for a deeper understanding of land management decision-making. Thirze provided details from her recent paper based on Malawian research combining local knowledge and conventional soil science to understand soil health in Conservation Agriculture.  

The research presentations closed with Dr Samuel Eze who explained why soil health is key to achieving climate resilience. Through case studies from both Malawi and Tanzania, as well as research on soil health indicators, he explained how CSA delivers benefits to key soil physical and chemical parameters, and for whom.

Dr Christian Thierfelder situated AFRICAP’s research through an overview of CIMMYT’s work, sharing his perspective as a practitioner working alongside farmers. He also outlined challenges and benefits of CSA practices, and ended by identifying opportunities for future research.


The event ended with a facilitated Q&A. As we were unable to respond to all questions during the webinar, our speakers took the time to share insights for the top five unanswered queries.

How many years has Africa researched and trialled Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) practices? How many years has Conservation Agriculture (CA) been researched in Africa?

CSA practices are diverse and have been part of various agricultural innovation banners. Some of the practices are also traditional practices, meaning they have been around for long time, but the presentation and promotion have changed. The specific CA trials presented in the webinar have been in place for approximately 10 years, but CA initiatives in Malawi started back in 1998 by the NGO Sasakawa Global 2000.

Are Conservation Agriculture, Climate Smart Agriculture and Regenerative Agriculture the same?

The technologies overlap and all aim to achieve sustainable land management, but they are not exactly the same. Climate-smart agriculture is an approach to land management that combines many practices including conservation agriculture (strictly zero tillage, permanent organic soil surface cover and crop diversification) whereas regenerative agriculture focuses more on practices that reverse land degradation. 

Why is CA not being adopted by all farmers, and not set into all agriculture policies in Africa?

There is a wide variety of reasons why CA as a package is not adopted including health, labour, inconsistent messaging and definitions, land tenure, time lag in yield benefits, input shortages and cultural values. Reasons can be agro-ecological and socio-economic or cultural. Context across regions, countries and the continent are very diverse, which means there may be different CA constraints in different contexts. Our research on innovation and adoption explores this in greater depth.

Would you agree that inadequate policy dialogue on Conservation Agriculture and Climate Smart Agriculture is a factor for low adoption in Malawi?

Yes, as our previous studies on CA / CSA adoption across Malawi have shown (e.g. Dougill et al., 2017) the various national policy initiatives have failed to lead to a step change in adoption of CA despite the positive yield benefits seen in dry years. Sustainable land management advice has not been headlined in national policy, district-level planning, or local agricultural extension advice, which remains focused on increasing the use of external inputs such as fertilisers and hybrid seed varieties.

There is a clear need for a more holistic view of the farming system to stress the long-term importance of land management practices to build resilience to climate change through reduced tillage, increased surface cover, and intercropping that can enhance soil water holding capacity, carbon storage and nutrient availability.

The great lakes of Kenya are filling with silt, coupled with increasing rainfall and tectonic cycles, leading to rising water levels and flooding. We need widespread and sustainable adoption of soil conservation measures in the catchments of these lakes. How can we achieve this?

Our work in highland catchments in Tanzania aligns with literature from across all African Highland settings, showing the wealth of Indigenous knowledge on sustainable land management practices and scope for simple measures, such as Fanya juu terraces and vetiver grass planting in Tanga Region, to stabilise steep slopes and thus reduce erosion losses.

Catchment scale management becomes critical and downstream users like water supply companies and hydropower can be expected to pay for the ecosystem service provided by Soil & Water Conservation measures upstream, including earth dams and measure to ‘slow the flow’ of storm waters. The biodiversity value of lake systems needs to be factored into catchment-wide management plans and Payment for Ecosystem Service initiatives.

Download presenter slides

View or download the presenter slides from Improving Soil Health through Climate Smart Agriculture.

Paper information

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.  

Eze, S., Dougill, A.J., Banwart, S.A., Hermans, T.D., Ligowe, I.S. and Thierfelder, C., 2020. Impacts of conservation agriculture on soil structure and hydraulic properties of Malawian agricultural systems. Soil and Tillage Research201, p.104639.

Hermans, T.D.G., Dougill, A.J., Whitfield, S., Eze, S., Thierfelder, C. (2021). Combining Local Knowledge and Conventional Soil Science to Understand Soil Health in Conservation Agriculture. J. of Environmental Management, 286, 112192.

Hermans, T., Whitfield, S., Dougill, A. and Thierfelder, C. 2020. Why we should rethink ‘adoption’ in agricultural innovation: Empirical insights from MalawiLand Degradation & Development.