FEATURE | Oasis in the drought: How farmers in Zimbabwe’s driest regions are learning new ways of farming

Oscar Singo stands in the field of cabbages he grows to feed his livestock, a technique he learned at a farmer training center. (pic: Tawanda Karombo)

By Tawanda Karombo

In the sweltering mid-October heat of Matobo, one of Zimbabwe’s hottest and driest districts, Spiwe Moyo tended her ripening tomato crop. Nearby, underneath a baobab tree, a few emaciated donkeys and a small herd of skinny cattle take shelter from the blazing sun.

Along with the onions, vegetables and green beans grown by other communal farmers as part of the Evergreen Community Market Garden, Moyo’s tomato crop is a virtual oasis of green, surrounded by bare red soil that receives little shade from the sparse leaves of the mopani trees and a few patches of dry grass long desolated by the high temperatures.

Despite the punishing heat, unfriendly surroundings and daily struggles for water for humans and domestic animals, she beamed a smile when she spoke of the prospects for her crop, which will ripen in the next week or so.

“I am just weeding out the crop and inspecting for pests and other diseases, because in this hot weather, crops can suddenly suffer diseases or pest attacks. We only water the crops in the morning or evening, to conserve the water,” Moyo said in an interview at the garden.

The water comes from a solar-powered well funded by Catholic Church organizations. Without it, she says, “there would be no green crops to talk about, as the rains are not sufficient.”

There has been practically no rain in the past two years in this arid part of Matebeleland South province. This year, however, rains came suddenly, a month earlier than expected.

Experts say that is one of the uncertainties caused by climate change, and it has combined with other climate-related disasters that have made food scarce in southern Africa.

Green amid the drought

Climate change has caused as many as 86 million people across sub-Saharan Africa to migrate from their land, according to a September UNICEF report.

And drought and climate change are creating critical food scarcity for more than 11 million people in nine southern African countries, the report says.

In an effort to head off water wars and help farmers adapt to the changing climate, various Catholic agencies are funding agro-ecology learning centers and solar-powered community wells in southern African countries, including Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

“..In the last two years, there have basically been no rains here”

At the centers, which blend sustainable agriculture techniques with indigenous farming practices, local farmers learn skills such as contour plowing, drip irrigation and organic pest control, as well as practices such as “intercropping,” or combining multiple crops in one plot.

As a result, communal oases of green are appearing in various areas, as “model” farmers share their new knowledge with their neighbors.

“The seasons are changing and we are seeing the impact of climate change, because we usually have the first showers in August and at the end of October we then get the first planting rains. But in the last two years, there have basically been no rains here,” said Felix Ncube, who is a member of the management committee of St. Joseph’s Agro-Ecological Center in Matopos.

[CLICK: IN PICTURES: One village’s devastation at the hands of Zimbabwe’s worst drought in 40 years]

Committee members run the learning center and also train other people in the community, passing along their new knowledge to other farmers.

The problems related to climate change are worsened by unemployment and food insecurity, Ncube said. Although Caritas and the World Food Program assist the community with relief kits, they distribute aid only to the elderly, leaving younger people desperate, he said.

“The youths here have nothing to do to feed themselves or take care of their families, so they end up cutting down trees as a source of energy [for brick-making kilns], and this is contributing to the arid conditions in the area,” he said.

Because deforestation can affect local rainfall, farmers hope that slowing the loss of tree cover will also help ease some of those conditions.

Competition for farmland and demand for charcoal both lead to deforestation. In Zambia, the Mother Earth Center, a sustainable farming project run by Comboni Sisters, encourages farmers to reforest their land.

“…it is getting dryer and hotter here”

Gwinyai Chibaira, agri-livelihoods project manager for Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe, has seen successive droughts and floods wipe out farmers’ crops.

Even so, when an agricultural training center was launched in 2013 in Beitbridge, only four farmers signed up, he said.

Now about 100 households have participated in the training programs, learning to grow fodder for livestock such as cattle and goats. They can then sell the animals to support their families and reinvest in their farms.

Zimbabwe faces its worst drought in 40 years, and the race is on to help farmers adapt

Livestock and drought

Oscar Singo, 36, has gone a step further. Besides growing fodder and cabbages for his herd of cattle, he buys animals from others and fattens them before auctioning them off.

As the climate changes, experts recommend planting earlier to reduce the risk of heavy storms and flooding before they can harvest their crops. They also encourage farmers to plant trees and other vegetation to retain moisture and create additional windbreaks, and to ensure that cattle and goats do not devour newly planted trees and other vegetation.

In Beitbridge, farmers find that fodder crops serve as animal feed, help avoid erosion and provide an additional source of income.

Timothy Ngulube, a 60-year-old livestock farmer in Fula, a village near Beitbridge, hopes to earn enough to install his own solar pump to irrigate the fields where he grows crops to feed his animals on his landholding of less than four acres.

“I used to grow tomatoes and maize,” he said, “but it is getting dryer and hotter here, hence I have to focus on livestock, which is resilient to these dry weather patterns.”

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NCR Online

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