Mahlathini Development Foundation – transforming through collaboration

ReStory Narrator: African Farming [Email:; Web:]

The following articles were first published by African Farming (March 2021) and the full publication is available on

The Mahlathini Development Foundation (MDF) works with 350 farmers in Bergville and a further 30 in the Bergville Youth Group. PHOTOS: Robyn Powell

In the grassy foothills of the northern Drakensberg, hundreds of smallholder maize farmers are converting to the soil enhancing farming methods suggested by the Mahlathini Development Foundation (MDF). The results are impressive enough to keep membership numbers ticking up.

The MDF started working with smallholder farmers in a village outside Bergville in 2013. Today 350 farmers from 18 villages in the area and 30 from the Bergville Youth Group take part in the programme. In southern KwaZulu-Natal – Highflats, Ixopo, Creighton and Umzimkhulu – 150 farmers have joined the movement, whereas 180 farmers from the region stretching from Greytown to Wartburg and Tongaat participate.

Mahlathini Development Foundation – the big picture in conservation agriculture

Summer cover crops like sunflower are intercropped with a mixture of millet and sun hemp. PHOTO: ERNA KRUGER

Conservation agriculture is about more than notill farming. It’s like a three-legged pot – and MDF smallholders are exploring the best ways of balancing all three legs to get the most out of their land.

“Farmers often refer to conservation agriculture as ‘notill’ but it’s much more than that. In fact, notill or minimum tillage on degraded soils has limited effect. Things can actually get worse in the short term before they slowly start improving,” says Erna Kruger, director of the MDF.

Monocropping with maize is a common cause of degraded soils. Maize is an important smallholder staple crop. It is eaten green and milled for maize meal, and provides maize stover and grain for both livestock and poultry. “Smallholders default to planting maize crop after maize crop, which undermines the soil. They end up with unstructured soils that are very low in organic matter and nutrients,” Erna says.

The MDF introduces farmers to an alternate way of planting and working with the environment. Using the three “legs” of conservation agriculture – multicropping, providing soil cover and practising notill – they can slowly restore soil vitality and boost productivity.



Nothile Zondi in a 100m2 summer cover crop plot – a mixture of sun hemp, sunflower and forage sorghum. Each field is divided into 100m2 blocks or strips to facilitate crop rotation, so that maize can follow after a legume or cover crop.

Conservation agriculture helped Nothile Zondi of Stulwane to become more adept at feeding her family and community, as well as their cattle and the soil itself.

Smallholder conservation agriculture farmer Nothile Zondi, who started with the MDF programme in 2015, has improved yields on her plot in Stulwane, Bergville, and provides winter grazing for their small herd of cattle.

“Before, I had big problems with soil erosion during heavy rains and windy periods. Now, thanks to improved soil health with good drainage, my maize can withstand bad weather better because the soil is more stable. It is alive. It holds moisture. No-till has saved my soil.”

Nothile says she provides food for her family, with surplus for the community, and her cattle benefit from grazing the maize stover. She grows lespedeza and cover crops for grazing and bales veld grass for cattle feed during winter.

Nothile and her husband run 11 cows on the grassland surrounding their farm. There is little to no grazing during winter and it’s not uncommon to lose lactating cows to malnutrition in the dry season. This year, improved fodder flow planning and the baled veld grass meant that Nothile got her animals, including three lactating cows, through the lean months.

“Last year, I made and stored about 30 hay bales. I started feeding the cows just after calving. They had lost condition and I gave them half a bale a day, sprayed with LS33 [a liquid protein mix]. My husband could not believe what I was doing. But the cows grew healthy and were back in condition in no time. Now we are supplementing the other cows.”

Nothile makes the bales using a hand operated box baler designed and made by Brigid Letty from the Institute of Natural Resources who assists with livestock integration issues within this process. The box baler can also be used to bale maize stover and cover crops like cowpeas, beans, dolichos and teff.

Another innovation introduced through MDF with the assistance of a local manufacturer of no-till equipment, EdenEquip, the two-row planter makes smallholder farmers’ lives easier. It is a huge help at planting time. Nothile has only about 0.3ha of land and the planter helps maximise productivity. She uses it to cultivate a 1 000m2 lot divided into 2m strips with 4 lines of maize and four lines of cover crops intercropped. She grows sugar beans, cowpeas, sunflower, teff and dolichos, as well as winter cover crops like saia oats, fodder rye and turnips. She also plants perennial fodder species like lespedeza, tall fescue and Pensacola. “I like to plant using close spacing. It means there is less weeding. I use less land and less labour and get better yields. My livestock also have cover crops for grazing all the time.”

Nothile says using no-till has improved her yields from 480kg of maize off three fields to 700kg off one (1 000m2) field.

She says intercropping means she gets a better maize crop following a legume, like cowpeas, because of the extra nitrogen. She dreams of expanding her production of maize and sugar beans, and would like improved mechanisation on her farm to speed up planting and reduce weeding.



Phumelele Hlongwane’s healthy stand of 10x10s, where she intercrops maize with the likes of sunflowers, pumpkins, beans, cowpeas and summer cover crops. Each 10mx10m plot is rotated to different crops in the following season.

Phumelele Hlongwane’s healthy stand of 10x10s, where she intercrops maize with the likes of sunflowers, pumpkins, beans, cowpeas and summer cover crops. Each 10mx10m plot is rotated to different crops in the following season.

Phumelele Hlongwane’s rugged 2ha farm in Ezibomvini village near Bergville is an unforgettable sight. Her conservation agriculture field is a jungle of towering maize, sunflower, sun hemp and fodder sorghum, with pumpkins, cowpeas, sugar beans and dolichos growing profusely on the ground. In her vegetable garden, healthy crops of spinach, cabbage, green peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and onions wait to be picked. Sturdy pigs grunt in their muddy pen and the cattle are out grazing in the hills.

Only 1ha of Phumelele’s farm is in production, yet the harvest is way too big for her family. Since she adopted conservation agriculture practices, her maize yield has taken off and she is able to sell surplus maize and vegetables to generate valuable income.

“Before we started no-till farming, we were happy. Then, in 2014, I volunteered as a local MDF facilitator because I didn’t believe I could do anything better or different. My opinion has changed big-time. We are doing much better and yields are much bigger. I have food to last until the next harvest and I have food to sell,” says Phumelele. She would like to expand by another hectare of land, but is limited by a lack of machinery. “I need a tractor and implements, if the minister of agriculture has money,” she says with a smile.

Although maize is an important staple crop, Phumelele does not rate it above her vegetable crops. “I cannot lift one above the other. Maize fills the stomach but the vegetable garden fills the pocket,” she says. Under no-till, her maize harvest has tripled. Like Nothile Zondi, she likes the practice of intercropping maize with cover crops because this cuts down on weeding, which is a tough and time-consuming chore.

Phumelele has now become a devout conservation agriculture farmer and enjoys spreading her knowledge to anyone interested in learning. Even though she uses time-saving ‘cheats’ like the two-row planter, she still spends countless hours working the land. It is undoubtedly a labour of love. “I love no-till,” she says. “I have lost friends because I’m always working in my garden. No-till has become my best friend. I take care of my land. I build up the soil cover. My land needs to be fed for it to feed me.”

Phumelele dreams of becoming a more independent farmer and helping other small scale farmers move up to the next level.

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