Lupane, Zimbabwe – For decades, Linda Ncube, a small-scale farmer in northwestern Zimbabwe, relied on the water that flowed from Tshongokwe dam into dug-out trenches to irrigate her maize crops.
But when some two years ago the dam dried up due to poor rainfall and siltation, the impact on the 56-year-old and the other smallholder farmers at Tshongokwe Irrigation Scheme, a small community farm in Lupane district, was severe.
“The temperatures were so high that our maize crop could not survive,” said Ncube, a widowed mother of two who now lives with her three grandchildren. “It is not only us humans that suffered but (even) our livestock as drinking water dried and grazing lands got depleted.”
Over the past decade, many smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe have suffered poor harvests due to drought, exacerbating an already dire situation for millions of people in need of food assistance.
With the dam below capacity and climate change increasingly bringing unfavourable farming conditions, the community at Tshongokwe in 2018 realised it needed to find effective solutions to the crisis.
“The drought was not only affecting farmers in the scheme but even our market,” Soneni Dube, the chair of Tshongokwe Irrigation Scheme committee, said.
“We looked for assistance from NGOs who provided us with capacity building and financial assistance to resuscitate our farming activities,” she added.
The community decided to join Sizimele-Action for Resilience Building in Zimbabwe, a three-year consortium project aimed at boosting diversified agricultural production for more than 30,000 at-risk households in the districts of Matobo, Insiza and Lupane with assistance from NGOs and international partners, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
At the Tshongokwe Irrigation Scheme, whose 24 hectares of land are shared among 63 farmers, the programme drilled two solar-powered boreholes that store water in two 10,000-litre tanks. Flowing from the tanks, the water goes through underground pipes onto the drip lines to irrigate the farmers’ crops.
“We have shifted from the old ways of doing things to the new ways,” Dube said. “We have stopped using flood irrigation because it does not only waste water but it washes away plant nutrients such as fertilisers. We are now using drip irrigation which saves water and nutrients critical for crop growth.”
Also, the programme installed a weather station that provides early warning and in-weather season forecasts and also records surface and underground temperatures, as well as wind speed.
The station has a manual rain gauge used by the farmers daily at 8am and an automated rain gauge that sends data to the Meteorological Services Department of Zimbabwe which then issues early warning messages if needed.
“We combine this technology with our local traditional ways of weather monitoring to check if the amount of rainfall is good for us to grow which types of crops and when. It also helps the nation to monitor weather in this area,” said Tshongokwe Irrigation Scheme vice chairperson Ozins Ncube.
By February 20, Lupane district had received 226.1 millimetres of rainfall, which is far below the average expected level in a normal farming season running from November to April.
“There has been farming here since 1980 with no problems but now there is climate change. Climate-smart agriculture is the answer [to the farmers’ problems),” said Ahunna Eziakonwa, the UNDP’s assistant administrator and regional director.
“Drought cannot be prevented but can be predicted – and by predicting it, the impact can be reduced (thereby) reducing humanitarian needs.”
Along with weather monitoring and the usage of water-efficient drip irrigation systems, the participants at the Tshongokwe scheme have adapted to the challenging climate conditions by growing drought-tolerant crops that not only grow fast but also have high yields.
“Each farmer here has about 0.4 hectares [of land]. The area covered by the irrigation was divided into small pieces to accommodate everyone. We rotate crops. Last year I grew tomatoes and sold to buyers from Hwange, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls,” said Ncube, who currently has Michigan pea beans in her plot.
The farmers also pay a monthly sum into the scheme to cover the drilling of more boreholes until all hectares are covered by drip irrigation.
They have also set up a marketing team to attract customers for their products in nearby areas and have struck deals with big private companies that buy their produce at an agreed off-take price, according to Douglas Sayers, the scheme’s secretary-general.
Ncube said the earnings from her produce help her sustain her family and pay her grandchildren’s school fees. Another smallholder farmer, Stella Mudzindiko, 64, said she uses profits to buy vaccines for her cattle, goats and donkeys.
“Our cattle at times suffers from various diseases. So, I use the money from the plot to buy vaccines such as tick grease [a poisonous cream applied on animal skins to kill ticks]. After harvest, we use the remains from the crops as livestock feed,” she said.
As for Ncube, she hopes that in the years ahead she will be able to get consistently good harvests to attract even larger private-sector demand.
“I am confident, with more solar-powered boreholes, I will feed the nation,” she said.