Department of History

Inherited Soil Surveys, Transdisciplinary Approaches in Zambia (InSTAnZa)

Project summary

If agriculture is to develop sustainably in a changing climate then decisions on policy and land management must be based on sound information about the soil, its composition, properties and status. Because the soil is variable this information is hard to obtain.

Many countries in the Global South, with challenging problems in agricultural development, have a legacy of soil surveys from the colonial and post-colonial periods. Could this information be used to address contemporary problems, for example, to identify the soils where conservation agriculture interventions might have the biggest impact?

Inherited soil surveys Zambia


This project is a collaboration between the School of Biosciences (UoN), the School of Humanities (UoN), and the Faculty of Social Sciences (UoN),  and the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London (UCL) and the University of Zambia (UNZA). The project is led by Murray Lark, Professor of Environmetrics, with support from Anna Greenwood, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Alison Mohr, Associate Professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy who are UoN co-investigators. Dr Maurice Hutton is working on the project as a Research Fellow in the Department of History.  External co-investigators on the project are Dr Lydia Chabala, Dr Clarence Chongo, Dr Nawa Mwale and Mr Stalin Sichinga from the University of Zambia and Professor Megan Vaughan, Professor of African History and Health at UCL. Dr Ikabongo Mukumbuta and Nalumino Namwayi are Research Fellows on the project at the University of Zambia. The project has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Sustainable agriculture must preserve the soil so that it can be used agriculturally in the long term. Communities adapt their farming practices to face environmental, economic and social challenges. This process of adaptation can be supported by research, but only if we understand the soil, how its properties, potential and limitations vary in space and how communities have adapted their farming practices in the past. Soil survey has conventionally been a way to generate knowledge about the variation of the soil and how it is used.

At  present the development of sustainable agriculture is a challenge in many countries, particularly in the global south, not least because of climate change. Tackling these problems requires collaboration between different specialists. Whether a technical solution will succeed will always depend, at least in part, on social factors. Is an innovation compatible with practices, values and traditions of a community? Does it affect how agricultural labour is divided over time, between social groups, between adults and children and between genders? Studies of farming systems also show that these have rarely been fixed, but have changed over time, in response to different social and environmental factors. This suggests that a historical perspective on sustainable agriculture could be just as important as the perspective of the natural and social sciences in developing robust, equitable and effective solutions to contemporary problems in food security. We contend that collaborative study of the processes and products of soil survey from the colonial era (1930s in southern Sub-Saharan Africa, SSA) until the late 20th century, would provide a context in which natural scientists, social scientists and historians could develop an integrated approach to understanding sustainable agriculture. It would also address a very pressing practical problem. 

This problem is the scarcity of information on the soil and its variation in space over most of SSA. Collecting soil data is costly, and few people have the expertise to do it. Yet, the soil surveys produced in Africa in the past have rarely been mobilised to address contemporary problems. We contend that these sources provide a unique window into past decisions and assumptions about the soil, whose effects are still felt today. In these soil surveys are embedded a rich set of observations and interpretations, along with hard data (soil analyses) and maps.


However, old surveys cannot just be dusted off and used as if new. First, there is the technical challenge of determining whether the analyses are still reliable. Furthermore, the survey was commissioned in a particular historical context to address particular problems. Farming was done by communities with particular structures and power relations, and some perspectives will have influenced surveyors more than others. In short, the soil scientist, historian and social scientist all have a critical role in the process of appraising an inherited survey and identifying its possible strengths and weakness when used to support contemporary decisions about farming and the land.

Through the proposed cross disciplinary UK-Zambia partnership, we will critically interrogate a number of inherited soil surveys created in Zambia, from the colonial period to the present, developing a theoretical framework for their appraisal. Our intention throughout is to show how triangulating perspectives from the history, social science and soil science can develop a shared evaluation of these surveys. An evaluation, furthermore, that can be applied to pressing current problems relating to soil quality in the region. To this end, we will engage with policy makers, agricultural advisors, NGOs and farmer groups to plan further funded work so that inherited soil surveys in Zambia, and elsewhere (SSA and beyond), can best be used to develop sustainable agriculture as a basis for food security into the future.

Planned impact

Farmers in Zambia, particularly smallholder farmers, face substantial challenges from climate change and other environmental problems such as contamination by mine wastes. To address these with effective interventions at scale, policy makers, extension workers, NGOs and farmers groups in Zambia require contextual spatial information on the soil, which is currently very limited. This proposal has substantial potential for impact because of its objective of developing approaches to unlock the value of inherited soil surveys to support contemporary agricultural development.

We propose to develop an integrated transdisciplinary approach to survey evaluation to maximise their value for contemporary purposes. This will allow a survey to be used as a source of spatial information to interpret new experimental findings in wider context, to target interventions at scale, and to identify how farming communities have adapted to challenges from environmental, economic and political change. This information would have considerable impact on the capacity of key actors in Zambia to implement policies and on-farm advice with substantial impact on food security, rural livelihoods and resilience of agriculture to environmental change.

We have, as a project team, links with these actors in Government and extension (the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, ZARI), NGOs (Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute), donors (Catholic Relief Services) and the private sector (Zambian National Farmers Union and Zambia Conservation Farming Unit). Notably, the senior surveyor at the Soil Survey Unit, ZARI, Ministry of Agriculture is an investigator in this project through University of Zambia. We also have links with cognate bodies in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi. In our impact plan we detail how we propose to use these links to maximise project outputs in four key ways:

1. Maximising use of evaluations undertaken in the project. Project team members (UoN and UNZA) are engaged in DFID[FCDO]-funded research in Copperbelt Province on potentially harmful elements in soil. One survey that we shall examine (from 1956) is of Copperbelt Province. On the basis of the evaluation of this survey we shall collaborate with ZARI colleagues to help them develop guidance for extension workers on how the DFID [FCDO] research can be interpreted at Provincial scale. We shall also collaborate with the CEPHaS project (UKRI GCRF Collective Fund) in using evaluated surveys to assess potential impacts of conservation agriculture practices in the south of Zambia.

2. Securing funding for further work in Zambia. The objective of these bids would be to extend and enhance the impact of developments in this exploratory partnership-building project.We shall work with identified stakeholders to prepare a proposal for funding (eg, to DFID [FCDO] or Gates Foundation) for a national soil survey archive, incorporating evaluations of all surveys. Discussions with DFID [FCDO] have begun. We shall also prepare a proposal on the use of survey information as a baseline for examining social and cultural dimensions of agriculture and food, using walking survey methodology. This is likely to be targeted on future AHRC calls, but we shall also examine how it could be integrated with the archive development work.

3. Scoping and developing opportunities for regional work. We shall initiate discussions with colleagues in neighbouring countries on how the national soil archive proposed for Zambia (2 above) might form a model for a regional archive. Whether this is done in a staged process, with a Zambian archive developed first, will be discussed with partners (Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia), and a strategic decision will be taken.

4. We shall build on links through existing work funded by the Gates Foundation (Ethiopia) and BBSRC (Pakistan) to discuss with partners in those countries how deployment of inherited soil surveys might have impact there.

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