By Doreen Bhebhe
Noncebo Sibanda, a villager at Tsholotsho’s Mvundlana village, Matabeleland North province is among many communal farmers in the area who want to quickly forget the 2019-2020 farming season.
It is the year when a ravaging El-Nino driven drought left lasting scars in their communities as villagers at Mvundlana face serious hunger.
“We survive by the grace of God and well-wishers who sometimes gives us food handouts after we failed to harvest anything to take us through the year,” Sibanda, a widow who stays with three grandchildren said.
“I only planted maize, but because of poor rains, we did not harvest anything.”
Her food insecure situation has been made a lot worse by the Covid-19 induced border closure which means her two sons based in neighboring South Africa cannot manage to send her groceries via Omalayitsha.
Cross border transporters are commonly referred to as Omalayitsha.
They are perceived as reliable in transporting groceries and providing transport to Zimbabweans traveling to and from South Africa, but currently they have not resumed operations due to the closure of borders to ensure beneficiaries such as Sibanda receive food parcels from their sons.
Most communal farmers such as Godfrey Moyo from Tshaka village did not plant anything in the just-ended season owing to poor rains while some watched helplessly as their crops failed because of “poor timing.”
“We did not need to be experts to see that planting was going to be a waste of maize seed and other resources due to lack of rains. Those that planted did not harvest anything and are facing hunger just like us who did not plant anything,” Moyo said.
As the country approaches the 2020-2021 farming season, farmers are expected to draw from lessons learnt from the previous spell and build sustainability in terms of their activities in preparation for the new season, experts said.
In Jambezi area in Hwange district, Agritex, in conjunction with other non-governmental organizations has trained communities on conservation farming and the need to grow small grains which are suitable for most parts of Matabeleland North province because of the soils and limited rainfalls patterns.
Conservation farming involves minimum tillage on the land and is fast proving to be a sustainable climate smart agriculture as it reduces chances of leaching and erosion of nutrients.
A research paper titled: “Small grains “resistance”? Making sense of Zimbabwean smallholder farmers’ by Keith Phiri, Thulani Dube and Philani Moyo shows that the uptake of small grains has been very low among communal farmers in climate change affected districts in spite of expert advice.
The paper expands that smallholder farmers face labor-related challenges in sorghum and millet production which lead to their preference for maize. These challenges include the heavy burden of cultivating sorghum and millet in comparison to maize.
They also note that small grains production is unattractive to smallholder farmers because the crops are much prone to consumption by quelea birds.
“The rationale for a shift from maize production to small grain production is premised on a number of scientific reasons,” the researchers said as they urged farmers to adopt conservation farming and turn to small grains.
“Firstly, sorghum and millet are believed to be more ecologically compatible with semi–arid areas compared to maize because of their drought tolerance. It is based on their strong adaptive advantage to climate change and lower risk of failure in comparison to maize that they are advocated for.”
Sibanda and Moyo said they cannot be left behind in the drive to adopt conservation farming methods and planting small grains to ensure household food security.
“I have no option but to plant small grains this farming season to escape this hunger situation that I face with my grandchildren,” Sibanda said as she lamented the hunger situation caused by the climate change induced drought.
Recommended small grains are millet, sorghum and rapoko which are resilient and can survive the dry spell.
Moyo added: “I am starving. I will have a mix of maize and small grains while also using this conservation farming method that we have been taught.”
Moyo was referring to Intwasa/Pfumvudza conservation farming method to maximise productivity per unit area, even during drought periods, to ensure household and national food security.
Intwasa/Pfumvudza is a natural way of farming which has been introduced to the farmers for them to be able to provide for their families. It involves the utilisation of small pieces of land where they dig up holes and apply correct amount of manure for higher returns. This helps provide a yield which will be able to sustain them for a long time.
“This year was tough and many households did not have access to food since we did not do well during the past farming season. However, we have now been introduced to do things differently so that even when we have less water, we are able to produce commendable yields for our families,” he added.
The approach can be used in marginal areas and still give high yields. The department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services (Agritex) states that more than 300 000 farmers across the country have been trained on the Intwasa/Pfumvudza farming model.