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Food & Resource Rights

5 ways we can use eco-friendly farming to tackle drought in Zimbabwe

On World Food Day, we take a look at Zimbabwe where climate change has brought devastating drought. Despite the huge challenges, we are supporting farmers to pioneer new environmentally-friendly approaches that are sustainable and drought-resistant.

Siphiliso Sibanda of Matobo District in Zimbabwe stands in her thriving field of pearl millet. Photo: Phumla Maduma, Trócaire. Siphiliso Sibanda of Matobo District in Zimbabwe stands in her thriving field of pearl millet. Photo: Phumla Maduma, Trócaire.

For Sekai Mugaviri, climate change is not some distant, faraway threat. With failed rains becoming increasingly frequent, the reality of climate change means she may not be able to feed her five children today.

Three years of successive droughts have devastated communities here in Zimbabwe. Drought has scorched crops. So adapting to the new climate is absolutely crucial for her to be able to harvest crops, feed her family and earn an income.

Three in four people in Zimbabwe are like Sekai, they rely on subsistence agriculture. Drought has hit Zimbabwe again this year for a third successive season. This year’s harvest only produced half of what the country needs, according to the World Food Programme.

The drought is being compounded by the Covid-19 crisis. A nationwide lockdown has caused massive joblessness. As a result, the UN is now warning that by the end of 2020, a staggering 8.6 million, 60% of the country, are at risk of going hungry.

Yet there is hope.

Innovative farming techniques are transforming the fortunes of farmers like Sekai. Trócaire is working through local partner organisations in Zimbabwe like Caritas Masvingo to introduce new farming approaches. These approaches can help produce crops even during drought when water is scare, and they are also environmentally friendly.

“I now face few challenges in life” says Sekai after she introduced drought-resistant crops into her farm. “I have my own money and can make critical decisions for my family like paying school and hospital fees, buying my children’s books and uniforms. I am much happier.”

How do we make this incredible transformation take place?

1. Grow drought-resistant crops

A tale of two crops: the contrast between dry maize and thriving pearl millet on Sekai’s farm. Photo: Simbarashe Chagwiza, Caritas Masvingo.   

Switching to growing drought-resistant small grains has turned around the fortunes of Sekai’s small farm. By looking at Sekai’s field of two different crops you can see the situation quite starkly.

On one half of the field Sekai has attempted to grow maize – which is traditionally grown as a staple across the region. The maize has failed, due to lack of rains, and all that remains are scorched dry husks.

Yet in contrast, the rest of the field is thriving. Here she has planted finger millet and the crop is doing very well. She will reap a good harvest.

“I don’t regret our decision as a family to grow small grains” explains Sekai. “We have a very good crop of finger millet and sorghum. Growing maize is a nightmare in this area.”

 

2. Harvest water when it does come

Alleta Bvepfe and her husband Fabian Garariza, of Gutu in Zimbabwe, at their surface water runoff pit. Photo: Simbarashe Chagwiza, Caritas Masvingo 

‘’This area is dry” says Alleta, another farmer who is struggling with keeping the family farm going during the drought. “Water is everything that we need”.

Conserving water smartly during drought conditions is essential to give crops the best chance to survive. Water run-off pits are a smart way to make sure that every drop of this precious and life-giving resource is not wasted.

Our project constructed runoff pits with households like Alleta’s which captures water from roof-tops and open spaces around the home. The water is used to irrigate crops during the driest parts of the season. One pit can store 15 cubic metres of water, and also helps to reduce soil erosion.

“When we were told about water runoff pits I knew this was going to work for us” says Alleta. “Our project has generated a lot of interest and we have since introduced fish in our pit. Very soon we will be harvesting the fish’’.

3. Use organic approaches

After being trained in ‘agroecology’, a sustainable approach to agriculture which respects the environment, Alleta’s family now use organic farming methods. They no longer use fertilisers and chemicals which are not only harmful to the body but also to the fish.

Using organic composting can also improve soil health, leading to stronger and more resilient crops. By using the manure of animals on the farm, this zero-waste approach reuses the resources already available and the farmers don’t have to pay for external inputs.

“I used cow dung and compost to increase soil fertility in my field. Caritas Masvingo taught us how to use organic fertilisers.”

4. Empower women farmers

Transforming the fortunes of a farm can also transform the lives of female farmers. Sekai is happy that the project has restored her dignity as a woman. She no longer begs for food or looks to her husband to provide for her needs.

“I can decide which crops to grow and my husband respects my decisions. We now work as a family” says Sekai.

She says that without the right supports, women often continue to be dependent on other people for their needs.

5. Change mindsets and policies

Sekai and Alleta’s transformed farms are inspiring to see. Yet for most other farmers, they are still using traditional approaches which leaves them at risk.

There are still negative attitudes in society towards using small grains, and most farmers still rely on growing maize, which is very vulnerable to drought. The Zimbabwe government policy also heavily promotes hybrid maize and wheat rather than small grains.

Our programme tries to change these mindsets. Through organising food and seed fairs, communities get the opportunity to taste the food and get information on how to grow the different small grain varieties.  We are beginning to make inroads and to win people over.

With our partner organisations we are also pushing for the government to change laws and policies and to promote traditional seeds. Our partners are campaigning for a shift in thinking and are urging the government to redirect investment towards agroecology and sustainable crop production.

It has made farmers like Sekai and Alleta more resilient, and could make a huge difference across Zimbabwe if these approaches were promoted widely.

With climate change only set to make things more difficult and drier in the years to come, these innovative techniques could really be transformative.

This project was funded with the generous support of Irish Aid.

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