The promotion of conservation agriculture (CA) for smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa is subject to ongoing scholarly and public debate regarding the evidence-base and the agenda-setting power of involved stakeholders. We undertake a political analysis of CA in Zambia that combines a qualitative case study of a flagship CA initiative with a quantitative analysis of a nationally representative dataset on agricultural practices. This analysis moves from an investigation of the knowledge politics to a study of how the political agendas of the actors involved are shaping agrarian practices. From its initial focus on CA as soil conservation and sustainable agriculture, the framing of the initiative has evolved to accommodate shifting trends in the policy arena. In tandem with the increased focus on climate adaptation, we see an increased emphasis on private sector-led modernisation. The initiative has shifted its target group from the poorest smallholders to prospective commercial farmers, and has forged connections between its farmer-to-farmer extension network and private input suppliers and service providers. The link between CA and input intensification is reflected in national statistics as a significantly higher usage of herbicides, pesticides and mineral fertilizer on fields under CA tillage compared to other fields. We argue that the environmental and participation agendas are used to buttress CA as an environmentally and socially sustainable agricultural development strategy, while the prevailing practice is the result of a common vision for a private sector-led agricultural development shared between the implementing organisation, the donor and international organisations promoting a new green revolution in Africa.
This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in Agriculture and Human Values. The final authenticated version is available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9820-x