The gospel of conservation agriculture

Faced with poverty and hunger at his remote mission in the Lesotho mountains, Rev August Basson realised providing food for the soul alone wouldn’t sustain his flock for long. Conservation agriculture proved to be the answer to his payers. He tells Peter Hittersay how his teachings are improving lives.
Issue date : 24 April 2009

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Faced with poverty and hunger at his remote mission in the Lesotho mountains, Rev August Basson realised providing food for the soul alone wouldn’t sustain his flock for long. Conservation agriculture proved to be the answer to his payers. He tells Peter Hittersay how his teachings are improving lives.

Rev August Basson arrived at a remote Lesotho mission station with a passion to spread God’s word to the locals. Little did he know he’d soon be including the principles of conservation agriculture (CA) in his teachings. It all started in 1990 when Rev Basson met the team leader of the Africa Inland Mission (AIM), who told him about a vacant pastoral position at the Lesotho Evangelical Church (LEC) mission in Tebellong. Three years later he, his wife Anita and their three children made the gruelling trek to their new home.

Tebellong lies on a plateau in mountainous south-eastern Lesotho, 70km from Qacha’s Nek. It’s accessible only by fording the Senqu river, then taking a tortuous, winding track carved out of the mountainside. The mission station consists of only a church, hospital, a number of stores and animal shelters, the pastor’s house and volunteer huts.

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Finding the right path
You can’t minister to people’s souls without looking after their bodies, and Rev Basson realised he’d have to address poverty and unemployment in the area. The most natural solution was an agricultural project.At first he thought the answer lay in hydroponic vegetable farming but this proved unsustainable. “I thought that the solution lay in ‘things’ rather than getting the local people to use what they already had,” he admits.With donor funding he built greenhouses, bought a tractor, laid on irrigation and hired five employees, but community members didn’t have the R20 000 start-up capital needed to replicate the operation. The project produced tomatoes and other vegetables, but the locals couldn’t afford them. Six years into the project Rev Basson admitted failure.

For his next step, Rev Basson found inspiration in Darrow Miller’s book Disciplining the Nations, which states that poverty is a state of mind and that changing this mindset lets people discover and use the unlimited natural resources God has provided. His message is, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”
“In 2001 I was introduced to CA by Piet Dreyer of Bela Bela. Piet had worked with Brian Oldrie of the Rivers of Life mission in Zimbabwe who conducts CA training,” recalls Rev Basson. “He believes CA is the way God intended people to farm – with nature, not against it. We adopted the basic principles in our vegetable patch, in which we also planted a block of maize.”

Winning over the locals
The area suffered a massive drought in the 2001/02 season, but the maize looked great. Yet CA still looked like a crazy idea to the local smallholder community, who attributed the good crop to irrigation. Rev Basson didn’t give up. He managed to hire 10ha to 15ha of land locally. With R10 000 of donor funds and R10 000 of his own money, he hired the owners to weed and dig the basins. As it happened, 2002/03 saw the worst recorded drought in 80 years, and nobody harvested a thing – except on the CA fields.

“The yield was only about 1t/ha, but this was 1t/ha more than all the other smallholders achieved with conventional ploughing,” says Rev Basson. This convinced many detractors. The drought caused massive famine and people queued at Rev Basson’s gates seeking employment or food. One morning he invited them to meetings to tell them about a plan for resolving the problem. “We taught about the incredible potential God has given us, started teaching them about CA and gave them carrot seeds to plant the CA way,” recalls Rev Basson.

Attendance at the service-cum-CA meetings climbed to 250 to 300 people – more than attended regular Sunday services! Although about half fell by the wayside, Rev Basson and his trainers built up a core of keen CA farmers in the surrounding communities, and he held two-day CA training sessions throughout Lesotho.
But while he was enthusiastically received, practice was dismal as there was nobody to provide training and guidance or help with soil preparation, planting, fertilisation and weed management. Rev Basson decided to concentrate on building up a core of CA trainers and practising farmers in Tebellong and surrounding areas as far as Qacha’s Nek.

Vision ignited
The church set up trusts to build a CA training facility at their Maphutseng Mission near Mohale’s Hoek. They intend to have practical and trial CA plots open to all to help overcome poverty in Lesotho and the rest of rural Africa. The entire project relies almost exclusively on donations from international development agencies or private donors for salaries, capital and operating costs. After 15 years in Tebellong, Rev Basson and his family moved to temporary accommodation at the Maphutseng Mission in September last year, where they’re assisted by a an international training and administration team. One field under the CA basin system yielded 6t/ha of maize this year, while 10t of surplus maize produced here was sold to the United Nations World Food Programme for distribution in Lesotho.

Another 6t were sold to a trader in Mohale’s Hoek, the first truckload to leave the Maphutseng valley since the 1970s.
A curriculum is still being developed, but the aim is to train 30 students and 15 pastors a year in basic biblical principles and as CA trainers during a one-month initial residence course. This will be followed by one week a month of progressively more advanced training. The rest of the time, students will pass on what they’ve learnt to farmers in their area and pastors will initiate CA projects similar to the one in Tebellong.

Success – and beyond
In an area stretching to Qacha’s Nek and within about a 30km radius of Tebellong, Rev Basson August and his dedicated team now have roughly 20% of smallholder farmers practising CA, up from the 5% four years ago. “More and more young people now believe they can make a living out of farming the CA way and don’t have to migrate to cities,” Rev Basson is pleased to say. Now he’s taking his message to the rest of Africa. “We’re receiving invitations from bible and theological schools and individual missionaries in Uganda, Chad, Kenya and Tanzania to share with them our wonderful experiences of farming God’s way,” he says.Contact Rev August Basson on
00266 588 8360 or 083 658 3410,
e-mail [email protected] or visit     |fw