Promoting Climate Smart Agriculture in Zimbabwe’s Dry Belt

We’re doing much better – even though the climate now is a lot less predictable

Gosha Zimhatye and Haris Rutsate have been friends all their lives, all 64 years. At Gosha’s homestead in rural Zaka, in Zimbabwe’s south-east, they reminisce about the bad old days.

“There weren’t nearly as many people living here then,” says Gosha, “but even then our crops were very poor, and the yields small. We had big problems with soil erosion, and we didn’t irrigate, we just waited for the rains. The crops you see here now are very different, and we’re doing much better – even though the climate now is a lot less predictable.”

“This area has always been dry,” adds Haris “and we haven’t had adequate rainfall for almost seven years. The difference now is with the soil and water conservation techniques imparted to us, we make sure the water we do receive is used to the fullest advantage.”

One of those techniques is the provision of permanent soil cover through mulching. Using the stover or stalks and leaves of maize plants creates mulch that keeps the soil moist, improves aeration, and helps the soil retain nutrients where they’re most needed – in the ground.

“By using mulch, not only are we conserving natural resources, we’re now getting higher yields than ever before,” says Haris.

“And it’s great for keeping the weeds away. Our wives really love it,” says Gosha, grinning.“Now they don’t have to spend their days weeding. They could even come out in their best dresses and pull the few weeds they see by hand, without getting dirty.”

The use of mulch and other methods have been significant gains for Gosha and Haris under CARE’s USAID ENSURE project, which aims to re-establish food security by improving farming techniques aimed at increasing household food production, as well as improving community resilience to disasters such as drought. Zaka receives an average of 450mm of rainwater per year, even less during the recent drought that’s left almost 4 million people in Zimbabwe without enough food.

ENSURE brings farming communities together and enables them to share newly acquired skills and knowledge. Under the project, Gosha acts as the lead farmer for the area, meaning his farm is the demonstration plot for ten local farmers, including Haris. Once a month, the farmers’ group meets at Gosha’s and discusses improved farming techniques.

Given the area’s low rainfall, perhaps the greatest skill the farmers have learned has been water harvesting. On Gosha’s plot, which runs up the side of a gently sloping hill, rainwater collects into an infiltration pit measuring around 10 x 2 meters, and around a meter and a half deep. “This water feeds into a series of contours,” explains Gosha, “and percolates down the hill. The water seepage from the contours is what irrigates our crops – so we’re still reliant on rains, but we’re managing that reliance so much better now.”

Some of the new methods introduced to the farmer groups involve no simpler a technology than a pen and paper. “Keeping a calendar has been really important”, says Gosha. “Our planning used to be very haphazard and the constant cycle of preparation, planting, all the way through to harvesting made for unnecessary labor demands. With a farming calendar, we’re now able to allocate time to certain duties – for example, we do our winter weeding in June and July, and land preparation from July until September – so we’re using our resources much better.”

The two men have also diversified the crops they grow. In addition to maize, Zimbabwe’s staple crop, they grow beans, and small grains including millet, cowpeas and ground nuts.

The introduction of small grains in this part of Zimbabwe has been an important development for farmers explains Fortune Tafirenyika, CARE’s Field Assistant in Zaka.“Crops such as millet and sorghum are much more tolerant of the harsh conditions here,” he says. “Previously, farmers would grow maize alone and with very poor results, but by diversifying their crops they’ve been able to achieve much better results.”

“The soil here is very sandy and it leeches easily, losing nutrients,” says Fortune. “By promoting climate-smart agriculture, using simple methods such as mulch and water harvesting, we’re helping farmers conserve their most precious resources – soil, water and people – so they can produce not only food for themselves but they can sell their excess at local markets.”

With the advent of new methods and improved techniques, Gosha and Haris have put the old days behind them. But not all of those days were bad. When asked about their best memories of their early years the two men grin broadly. “I think it was the beer drinking of our schools days,” they chuckle, before falling silent and gazing out over their crops.

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