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[NAIROBI] African farmers could boost yields and save money by taking simple steps to conserve soil quality, said scientists at a major international meeting last week in Kenya.

The Zimbabwe-based Africa Conservation Tillage Network (ACT) was launching a manual on 'conservation agriculture', an approach for reducing soil erosion and saving water.

The manual recommends breaking the soil only where seeds are to be planted, as ploughing entire fields can degrade soil. Farmers are also advised to rotate crops to increase soil fertility and grow 'cover' crops along with their main crop to prevent runoff.

According to Edward Chuma, chair of ACT's steering committee, the manual is the first of its kind to specifically address the needs of African farmers.

"In the past they used guidelines suited for other regions," he said.

ACT compiled the manual after a year-long consultation with farmers, researchers, agricultural extension workers and policymakers.

It will be distributed to farmers across Africa through national agricultural extension systems and independent bodies.

Chuma noted, however, that many African farmers were reluctant to adopt new concepts in place of traditional farming methods.

The International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, World Agroforestry Center (known as ICRAF), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization are sponsoring the initiative.

The launch was held at the Third World Congress on Conservation Agriculture, held in Nairobi on 3-7 October. About 500 delegates from 60 countries attended the meeting.

Kenya's vice-president Moody Awori told the meeting that the government would incorporate the concept of conservation agriculture into its recently launched national agricultural plan.

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