Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
For Ndaba Dube, a smallholder farmer at Ntabemnyama Village in Umzingwane District, Matabeleland South Province, reports of a drought in the 2019-2020 cropping season had cast darkness and despair.
Reports of a drought were abuzz on radio, in newspapers, on his WhatsApp farming groups, scuttling all the hopes he had.
The situation on the ground left him helpless.
Livestock in and around Umzingwane were dying due to scarce grazing, the absence of reliable sources of water and lack of dipping chemicals.
All this worried Dube.
But, the rains that poured significantly from January up to last month have shone a solitary blinking light on the shadows and grip of a drought in the first half of the 2019-2020 cropping season.
The rains cheered Dube and other smallholder farmers in Ntabemnyama Village, about 130km southeast of Bulawayo, the second biggest city in the country.
Their sorghum crop survived and is now thriving in this drought-prone district.
“The rains that came in the second half of the farming season brought so much joy to us. Grazing pasture has improved tremendously and our livestock is in good condition.
“Our sorghum crop is looking magnificent and we are expecting to get about 96 tonnes of sorghum from irrigation plots here at Ntabemnyama. I’m confident of a bumper harvest.”
But a bumper harvest would not have been possible without external support.
The farmers have benefited from the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund’s long-term development initiative called Matabeleland Enhanced Livelihoods, Agriculture and Nutrition Adaptation (MELANA) project which was started in 2016 and runs through to March 2021.
Under this US$80 million initiative supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government with funding from the European Union (EU), the Embassy of Sweden and the UK Department for International Development (DFiD), a solar-powered borehole was drilled, Ntabemnyama dip tank rehabilitated and piped water to their irrigation plots installed.
The support which also included training in growing traditional grains, fodder production, stock feed distribution, animal husbandry and marketing brought the resourcefulness of the farmers.
“We used to lack water and we thank MELANA for their generous support,” said Dube. “Water is life and is the key to better livelihoods for us as farmers. Water availability has truly opened opportunities for us — sorghum growing, animal husbandry and growing of vegetable crops.”
Recently, Government set the floor price of traditional grains — millet, rapoko and sorghum — at $7 260 a tonne to help promote these grains in the face of climate change and health challenges related to the consumption of refined maize-meal.
At the new floor price, the Ntabemnyama farmers can earn close to $700 000 from the 96 tonnes which they grew on contract for Buntu Foods.
Government with the support of development partners such as ZRBF have been at the forefront of promoting the diversification of farming by moving away from the growing of maize given the impact of climate change, health issues and the economic benefits of traditional grains.
With the increasing frequency of droughts, long mid-season dry spells and unreliable rainfall patterns, traditional grains are now being seen as an important cereal to mitigate the impact of climate change, as well as increasing food and nutritional security.
Traditional grains are cereal crops such as pearl and finger millet, sorghum and rapoko. They are hardy plants which require relatively little water, making them more drought-resistant.
Zimbabwe’s staple crop, maize, is vulnerable to low rainfall and agriculture experts and nutritionists alike are encouraging and training farmers to take up traditional grains farming as a solution to food insecurity in the country.
Traditional grains hectarage has increased marginally from 380 000ha in the last cropping season to approximately 390 000ha in the current season on the back of increased input support schemes, deliberate efforts to commercialise these grains and better rainfall in the past two months.
“As MELANA we have helped more than 100 farmers here in Umzingwane to get contracted to Ubuntu Foods, a private company that processes sorghum and millets,” said Rodney Mushongachiware, a market linkage specialist for the MELANA project.
“Farmers are seeing the benefits of growing traditional grains. They are now taking farming as a business. When they get money, they are motivated to continue growing traditional grains.”
He said MELANA is working in 11 wards of Umzingwane district were they have rehabilitated five dip tanks, set up a one –hectare nutrition garden with a solar water pump, built community seed banks and rehabilitated a 10 hectare irrigation scheme in Ward 12 of Mtshabezi.
“We used to get water from a river close to Ntabemnyama Mountain but now things have changed,” said Albert Sibanda, a farmer from the area.
“We are now drinking clean and potable water from our solar powered borehole. We are now able to grow sorghum, dip our cattle and grow other vegetables because of this initiative.”
Access to water, training, market linkages and their own resourcefulness has lifted the Ntabemnyama farmers from the dark depths of despair to glowing smiles and hope perched on the expected sorghum bumper crop.
The massive poverty that gripped the farmers in this area for years is slowly being pulled down and the farmers vow to keep it away by growing traditional grains for many years to come.