By Irene Kalulu
Changing climate patterns in Zimbabwe have left many households facing severe hunger, especially in rural communities where people are now heavily dependent on food aid from donor organisations.
The country has been experiencing frequent and severe droughts, storms, high temperatures and overall conditions unfavourable for living and farming. Zimbabwe is predominantly dependent on farming for its food supply needs, therefore agriculture remains the answer to the country’s problems.
Women are and have always been at the heart of most farming activities in the county as they do most of the cultivation work. Having seen the erratic weather patterns and the reduction in yields a few women from Zhombe district have opted out of using conventional farming methods and have been practising conservation farming for over ten years now. Some of these women, all widows include Norita Phiri (70) and Junior Manyatela (53).
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) conservation agriculture or farming is a concept for resource-saving agricultural crop production that also conserves the environment. It is basically using different measures like no tilling, no fertilisers or pesticides and other organic means which do not damage the environment. This type of farming benefits the soil and nature by managing healthy farm practices.
For Norita Phiri, conservation farming has been a blessing for her and her family. When her husband passed on they only had two cows. She had to sell one to cater for expenses during the course of her husband’s funeral, the other she lost during a drought season. What she went through when her husband passed on and she had to look after her family on her own drove her passion to learn more about conservation farming. An organisation called Self Help Development Foundation (SHDF) came to her village to teach people on best farming practises suitable for a drought ridden environment.
“Most people laughed at us when we started using boma sheets and not tilling our fields. They thought it was folly and would not amount to much in terms of harvesting. But I noticed that when we had a bad rainy season my field retained moisture because of the method we used of just having plant points where we put manure and our seeds,” she said.
This practise where you do not till your land but you just have plant points where you put your seed without tilling, is time-saving as you only need to prepare where the plant or seed will be placed. Stubble mulching is another conservation method where you place the stubble or crop residue on the land as surface cover during a fallow period. Stubble mulching helps prevent erosion from wind and water and helps conserve the soil’s moisture. Minimum soil disturbance is essential to maintaining minerals within the soil, stopping erosion and preventing water loss from occurring within the soil. Tillage is seen as destroying organic matter that can be found within the soil cover.
Another method is the use of boma sheets in farming. This is where the farmers have moving cattle pens where cattle can graze in a particular field so that the cattle dung fertilises that particular field. After two weeks they move the pen to another person’s field and rotate until every person’s field is rich in manure. The introduction of grazing livestock to a field that once held crops is beneficial to the farmer and the field itself. Livestock manure can be used as a natural fertilizer for a farmer’s field.
Norita says that when she used conventional farming methods she would harvest less than a tonne of maize. But when she perfected the art of conservation farming she started harvesting two tonnes of maize crop.
“I have been able to send all my children and grandchildren to school, not only that but I now own 6 cattle and have built a two roomed house. Those around me who have refused to embrace these new farming practises are struggling because of the hot temperatures,” she said.
Besides maize crop, Junior Manyatela produces small grains which are more drought resistant. “Everyone in my community can tell you how my life has changed. I always have food to eat in my home. When you practise conservation farming you are guaranteed of a harvest. Your crops won’t die when the rainfall is erratic,” she said.
The District Development Coordinator for Kwekwe District, Fortune Mupungu said that district farmers who have been practising conservation farming have over the years always managed to harvest even when there has been no rainfall in the district. “We are quite impressed with those who have been doing conservation farming over the years. Conservation farming conserves the soil so it is a noble idea,” he said.
He also added that government has been giving inputs which include seeds, technical support, fertilisers to those who are taking part in the government led “Pfumvudza” project. The Pfumvudza project is a government led input program, a conservation farming technique meant to drive Zimbabwe towards food sustenance. However, fertilisers are not good for the soil or the climate. Anna Brazier, a Sustainable Development Consultant says that government should stop handing out fertilisers but teach people how to protect soil from erosion and manage fertility using locally available materials. “We have to protect the soil. Conventional methods of farming using ploughing, fertilisers and pesticides is causing untold harm to the environment. It’s not an issue of taking up conservation farming because it’s the nice thing to do but it’s the only thing that we can do,” she said.
She also said that government needs to focus on food crops instead of cash crops. To have proper food security people need many other types of foods, and to ensure proper food security polycultures and integrating agriculture in the cropping systems needs to be encouraged.