Coping with complex change in Zim smallholder farming

By Brighton Gweshe

Since the onset of the new millennium, life has not been the same for the numerous smallholder farmers of Zimbabwe as each month seemed to bring its own fair share of unique hardships. Below I will set out some of the major issues, and the consequences they have wrought. Finally I will highlight some of the strategies that have been employed to mitigate the problems highlighted.

Increased retrenchments and industry closures have forced some urban workers to return to their rural homes, increasing pressure on smallholder land available for cultivation. In the communal areas, soil fertility is rapidly diminishing partly because the land has been continuously ploughed but largely because people are not affording to replenish the nutrients lost through cultivation. With inadequate protection, the soils are becoming vulnerable to erosion resulting in gullies, siltation of rivers and a drop in the water table. The obvious result has been that the land now produces less; leading to most smallholder households becoming food insecure. The hardships are compounded by increasingly unreliable climatic conditions with dry-spells and more frequent droughts being experienced every two to three years of a five-year period.

Livestock lose condition leaving the farmers without adequate animal draught power; while tick borne diseases (TBD) especially January disease (JD)have knocked out some smallholder household herds to zero. 

Crops have not been spared in any way as farmers are having a torrid time controlling the notorious fall army worm in maize as well as the tiny but destructive tuta absoluta in tomato. Whilst in the midst of trying to come to terms with these perennial hardships, the deadly Covid 19 pandemic unceremoniously came and claimed permanent residency in our midst, confining smallholder farmers to their less developed communities.  On the other end, remittances from relatives and friends working in the urban areas and in the diaspora are fast becoming less reliable due to unprecedented levels of inflation looming in the country.

Smallholder farmers in various communities across Zimbabwe have adapted by adopting several survival strategies in a bid to satisfy needs and concerns of household and community. A number of coping strategies have come from the smallholder farmers themselves and have enabled then to survive and flourish. However, most of the survival strategies at community level are initiated by development agencies and government institutions. Below l share a number of strategies that have made some smallholders to thrive over the years.

  • Adopting climate-proofed agricultural practices (Conservation Agriculture/pfumvudza/intwasa)
  • Resuscitating community dip tanks as a matter of urgency (TBDs control)
  • Growing of small grains (sorghum, millet, rapoko) and oil seeds (sunflower, sesame)
  • Growing and gathering local and exotic fodder crops (grasses and legumes eg Leucaena, acacia pods)
  • Appropriate technologies (soil and water conservation)
  • Community based money lending programs
  • Reverting to cultural practices (crop rotations, etc)
  • Establishing community seed banks (eg rediscovering Hickory King variety)

In the next instalment, I will get into more details on the theme coping with complex change in agriculture.

Brighton Gweshe is an agricultural economist and extension consultant.

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