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Research article2024Peer reviewed

Two crops are better than one for nutritional and economic outcomes of Zambian smallholder farms, but require more labour

Thierfelder, Christian; Mhlanga, Blessing; Nyagumbo, Isaiah; Kalala, Kelvin; Simutowe, Esau; Chiduwa, Mazvita; Maclaren, Chloe; Silva, Joao Vasco; Ngoma, Hambulo


Sustainable intensification practices suitable for smallholders in southern Africa will be needed to counteract the impact of future climate change and soil fertility decline in the region. Diversification of maize-based farming systems with grain legumes could play a key role. Here, we compared the performance of different maize-legume diversification strategies (single-row intercropping, strip cropping, and crop rotation) with sole cropped maize under conventional ploughing and Conservation Agriculture in four Zambian districts in the Eastern and Southern Provinces. These options were assessed using the Sustainable Intensification Assessment Framework (SIAF), with metrics representing productive, economic, human, social, and environmental dimensions. Data were collected from on-farm trials over three growing seasons. We found no significant effect of cropping systems on individual maize and legume grain yield across growing seasons, but substantial nutritional and economic benefits of intercropping systems due to simultaneously growing two crops. In particular, maize-legume intercropping strategies (single-row intercropping and strip cropping) resulted in higher energy and protein yield at cropping system level than sole maize and maize-legume rotation, which had positive implications for human nutrition. Although there were increased labour requirements to manage the intercrops, and particularly the strip crops, these cropping systems had much higher net benefits and returns to labour and inputs than the other cropping systems tested. Farmer evaluations however did not show a preference for the intercropping systems over the maize-legume rotation or sole maize, most likely because labour and its availability may be as or more important for farmers than overall cropping system benefits. Soil organic carbon content and soil pH did not differ between the tested cropping systems at the start of the trials and after three cropping seasons, but decreased over this period independently of the cropping system. Overall, the results indicate that maize-legume strip cropping, and single-row intercropping can increase food and nutrition security as well as gross benefits from farming, but this comes at the expense of greater labour requirements throughout the growing season. The latter may be addressed through, e.g., appropriate-scale farm mechanization, if intercropping or strip cropping systems are to become a viable option for labour, not land, constrained farms in Southern Africa.


Mbili Mbili; Conservation agriculture; Sustainable intensification; Integrated assessment; On-farm Trials

Published in

Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
2024, Volume: 361, article number: 108819

    Sustainable Development Goals

    End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
    End poverty in all its forms everywhere

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Agricultural Science

    Publication identifier


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