To till or not to till?

That may be the question, but the answer seems clear when we understand the benefits of no-till farming and various intercropping strategies. Traditional land management strategies in Africa yield inconsistent outcomes for farmers who manage their land through tilling methods and monocrops in comparison to farmers who are challenging the norms and seeking sustainable methods.

No-till practices have resurfaced since their departure after the agricultural revolution, and the current popularity of these practices stems from the advantages farmers and agronomists have discovered. Regeneration International, an organization focused on solving global issues through regenerative agriculture, makes clear the benefits of no-till farming:

  • Soil structure remains intact
  • Improved soil increases water absorption
  • Reduction in soil erosion and runoff and prevention of pollution
  • Slow evaporation allows for more absorption of rainwater
  • Maintains microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria that are good for soil health
  • Saves time and money (decreases fuel expense by 50 to 80 percent and labor by 30 to 50 percent)

In addition to these benefits, no-till farming helps the soil create natural nutrients that can feed crops, reducing the need for the overuse of fertilizers that may be harmful to the environment.

So to foster sustainable agriculture, large-scale and smallholder farmers should turn their attention to the kind of farming practices that are not only profitable, but also beneficial to the larger agricultural ecosystem. The FAO emphasizes that “selecting the right land uses for given biophysical and socio-economic conditions, and implementing [sustainable land management], are essential for minimizing land degradation, rehabilitating degraded land, ensuring the sustainable use of land resources (i.e. soils, water and biodiversity) and maximizing resilience.” Along with low manipulation of the soil, farmers can manage land more productively through cover crops that make the soil more fertile in preparation for planting crops, decreasing the need for herbicides that are often associated with no-till farming.

Crop rotation and mixed-farming play an essential role in land management and sustainable practices. While crop rotation can create healthier soils comparable to cover crops, mixed farming also has its advantages. In Malawi and Zambia, the Zambia National Farmers’ Union has used the integration of nitrogen-fixing trees and maize to address the lack of fertilizers used when farming the crop. The Faidherbia albida is “dormant in the early rainy season and loses its leaves just as field crops are being established,” so “maize can be grown directly under the leafless Faidherbia canopy,” since it does not compete with the crop for light, nutrients, or water. What is more, the decaying leaves act as a natural fertilizer, providing “up to twice as much organic matter and nitrogen.” This mixed-farming method proves effective, as “maize planted outside the tree canopy [in Zambia] produced average yields of 1.9 tonnes per ha, compared to 4.7 tonnes when the crop was grown under the canopy.” In Malawi, the results were exponential, increasing maize yields 100 to 400 percent when intercropped with the tree.

More traditional methods of mixed-farming practices revolve around cash crops, but yield substantial results like that of the example above. In the central-southern part of Tanzania, mixed-maize-bean production proved that both crops intensified where legumes and maize were mixed. Like no-till farming, mixing crop varieties has its benefits:

  • Helps buffer the risks from variable rainfall, market shocks, and temperature extremes
  • Promotes beneficial insects
  • Buffers abiotic and biotic stress
  • Regulates disease

Overall, the output of mixed-farm areas is greater than monocrop farms. However, while farmers would like these methods to benefit the community beyond yields by impacting poverty levels, the chart below shows that there is little impact on the prevalence of poverty in a number of Sub-Saharan regions.


Table 2.1 Major Farming Systems of Sub-Saharan Africa
Farming Systems Land Area

(% of region)

Agric. Popn.

(% of region)




of Poverty

Irrigated 1 2 Rice, cotton, vegetables, rainfed crops, cattle, poultry Limited
Tree Crop 3 6 Cocoa, coffee, oil palm, rubber, yams, maize, off-farm work Limited-
Forest Based 11 7 Cassava, maize, beans, 
Rice-Tree Crop 1 2 Rice, banana, coffee, maize, cassava, legumes, livestock, off-farm work Moderate
Highland Perennial 1 8 Banana, plantain, enset, coffee, cassava, sweet potato, beans, cereals, livestock, poultry, off-farm work Extensive
Highland Temperate


2 7 Wheat barley, tef, peas, lentils, broadbeans, rape, potatoes, sheep, goats, livestock, poultry,
off-farm work
Root Crop 11 11 Yams, cassava, legumes,
off-farm work
Cereal-Root Crop 
13 15 Maize, sorghum, millet, 
cassava, yams, legumes, cattle
Maize Mixed 10 15 Maize, tobacco, cotton, cattle, goats, poultry, off-farm work Moderate
Large Commercial and 
5 4 Maize, pulses, sunflower, cattle, 
sheep, goats, remittances
8 8 Sorghum, pearl millet, pulses. 
sesame, cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, off-farm work
Pastoral 14 7 Cattle, camels, sheep, 
goats, remittances
Sparse (Arid) 17 1 Irrigated maize, vegetables, 
date palms, cattle, off-farm work
Coastal Artisanal Fishing 2 3 Marine fish, coconuts, cashew, 
banana, yams, fruit, goats, 
poultry, off-farm work
Urban Based little 3 Fruit, vegetables, dairy, cattle, 
goats, poultry, off-farm work

FAO data and expert knowledge.


Prevalence of poverty refers to number in poverty, not depth of poverty, and is a relative assessment for this region.