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Giving a life-line to small holder farmers in Zimbabwe

by Chimimba David Phiri
20 Jul 2017 at 10:33hrs | Views
Smallholder farmer irrigating their field. © FAO/ BELIEVE NYAKUDJARA
Unlocking the potential of smallholder irrigation

Harare - As we approach Gudyanga irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe's Manicaland province, the relentless April sun bears witness to the need for a functional irrigation system. The women at the scheme ululate to welcome us and we soon settle down either on floor mats or wooden benches for what would turn out to be a very candid discussion.

Gudyanga is one of the schemes that have been rehabilitated under a FAO smallholder irrigation project (SIP) funded by the European Union. The area lies in Zimbabwe's natural region 4, which is characterized by low rainfall (less than 650 mm annually), severe dry spells during the rainy season, and frequent seasonal droughts. In such areas, irrigation is essential in ensuring that crops receive enough water for a decent harvest, as well as guarantee more than a single annual harvest.

We are told that since the establishment of the scheme in 1997, the irrigation system has suffered numerous breakdowns, leading to its near total collapse. This had left Gudyanga residents vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, as they had no choice than to depend on rain-fed farming over the past few years.

"We heard from the Ministry of Agriculture that FAO and the European Union were looking for irrigation schemes to rehabilitate in the province and we applied," explains the chairman of the irrigation committee. "We were very excited to be informed about our selection to benefit from this project. This year, we are happy to tell you, we have produced more yields than the scheme had ever produced since its establishment 20 years ago".

Other farmers in the scheme also proudly share testimonials of increased production. "I used to produce four scotch carts, this season I have harvested double that," says an elderly lady with excitement, "there is surplus food for my family this season, something that I am not used to having," she adds gleefully. An average scotch cart transports approximately 300 kilograms of grain.

The rest of the community seem eager to share their stories; it seems like every farmer at the scheme has a success story of their own. The rehabilitated irrigation has not only provided food security for a community reeling from two consecutive years of drought but also securing income for farmers as they sell their surplus maize following a bumper harvest.

Smallholder irrigation plays a vital role in the sustenance of rural livelihoods and is one of the most reliable ways resource-poor farmers can improve their livelihoods and ensure sustainable food security during dry periods. What is more pleasing is how farmers under the SIP have firmly grasped the concept of farming as a business. Under the project, the farmers have been linked to credit agreements with banks and markets to sell their crops. They are now looking at farming beyond their subsistence needs to seeing it as a viable business capable of raking in considerable profit.

At Maunganidze Irrigation Scheme, the farmers entertain us with a short play that depicts an old spirit medium dubbed chipipi ngonono (an old guiding spirit who is believed to hail from the Zimbabwe's Save River). Chipipi ngonono, covered from head to toe to depict sacredness, narrates the story of the irrigation scheme since its establishment. The spirit satirically expresses its gratitude to FAO for supporting the scheme and promises to send a big fish as a token of appreciation.

At this scheme the farmers boast of a tomato crop whose size in hectarage and in harvest surpasses all others in Zimbabwe. The scheme has been cultivating tomatoes since its establishment; however sourcing a reliable bulk market for their tomatoes had become a problem. With the onset of the SIP, the farmers explain to me how they are hopeful that this year when harvest comes, they will have ready buyers for their impressive tomato crop.

We also visit Tonhorai irrigation scheme where we also had the opportunity to witness and participate in a prize-giving event for farmers who are being rewarded for their hard work. "No one works as hard as we do," the number one farmer and his wife say to me as we walk towards their peanut crop. The two farmers proudly show me their exceptional crop that is almost ready for harvest. "We are in the field before everyone else, they find us here and leave us here." The dedication of these two farmers mirrors the commitment of the majority of farmers that are benefitting under the project's varied interventions in the province.

When project deadlines pass and funds disappear, all too often results begin to dissipate. An important facet of the SIP is on ensuring sustainability beyond the project lifespan.

The mountainous province of Manicaland may be known for its scenic landscape and red soils. Beyond the beauty of the terrain, however, are unexplored stories of promising tomato producers, energetic farmers defying climate imposed limitations and even chipipi ngonono inspiring communities to work hard. These stories prove beyond doubt that projects such as the EU-funded SIP go a long way in contributing to the long-term agricultural and macroeconomic development of the communities.

Chimimba David Phiri - FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa and Representative in Zimbabwe

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