Bulilima’s climate is semi-arid. This is a district in Matabeleland South Province of Zimbabwe, which is more like that of Kalahari Desert, a desolate tract which covers much of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa.
“In the vein of Kalahari Desert,” says environmentalist, Admire Betera, “Bulilima receives little rainfall, slightly between 25 and 50 centimetres of precipitation.”
The region, akin to most semi-arid areas in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, is dominated by shrubs like the resurrection bush (umafavuke) and trees such as manketti (umgoma/umganuompobola), mopani (iphane) and acacia (isinanga) and is highly characterised by rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns, which make sustainable livelihoods tough for people like Violet Tshuma, a farmer from Maloba.
“Isigaba sethu sithola izulu elincane ngo November lango December, kodwa ilanga liyabe litshisa kakhulu (Our region receives little rain in November and December, but temperatures are always high),” she said.
“Over the years, these little rains coupled with high temperatures have resulted in significant reduction in yields for maize, small grains and pulses, causing climate change-linked challenges such as poverty as well as food and nutrition insecurity in villages such as Dombodema, Malalume, Goba, Mafeha, Ndiweni, Maloba, Tokwana, Msinjwana, Matjinge, Mazwaligwe and others.”
Tshuma said some families in the area struggled to raise school fees for their children as more resources were channelled towards food, but applauds Practical Action for coming up with a life-saving project code-named “Community-based seed conservation and management of plant genetic resources.”
“The community-based seed conservation and management of plant genetic resources project built a drought resilient Bulilima community, which is food and nutrition secure,” Tshuma said.
The project, which started in November 2015 and is ending in November 2018, is funded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the tune of US$298 162.
Department of Research and Specialist Services: Crop Breeding Institute and Genetic Resources, as well as Biotechnology Institute (National Genebank), are project partners.
“We are providing smallholder farmers, especially women-headed households with improved climate adapted seed varieties of sorghum (amabele), pearl millet (inyawuthi), cowpeas (dinawe) and bambaranuts (indlubu) in marginalised Bulilima, Mangwe, Matobo and Gwanda districts,” said Practical Action Southern Africa’s Project Manager for Sustainable Agriculture and Livelihoods, Melody Makumbe.
“For all the four crops that the project is working on, we have 10 different lines of advanced varieties that have been coming from the Department of Research and Specialist Services, particularly the Crop Breeding Institute, who are our key partners in this project and so far Tshuma and other farmers have picked varieties that are maturing early, and adapted to climate change and giving higher yields.”
For Mathempeli Ncube, another beneficiary from Mbuyane, the life-changing project is not only providing her and other smallholder farmers, who are almost 70 percent of the country’s rural population, with quality seeds, but also empowering them with sustainable environmental management skills.
“One major constituent of the project is raising alertness on climate change effects and adaptation measures.
Thus, we are now more aware of these and other issues,” she told The Southern Times, on the sidelines of a seed fair at Mafeha Primary School in Bulilima recently.
The fair enables farmers, extensionists, and seed experts to learn, share knowledge and experiences as well as build community connections in support of indigenous farming practices, seed conservation and sustainable utilisation of improved indigenous crop varieties.
As for Avilla Zingoni, an Agritex officer, the project accords farmers like Tshuma, Ncube and others the opportunity to participate in crop breeding, as well as work directly with researchers from Matopos Research Institute and the National Genebank.
“Farmers are participating in research and development of crop varieties that are suitable for their areas and this is helping a lot in fighting the scourge of climate change and variability,” she said.
Zingoni said the project is significantly empowering farmers to produce their own food and not to rely on donors, a fact supported by Njabulo Hanyane, an agricultural extension officer, who equates this capacitation to enhanced food and nutrition security.
“Food and nutrition security begin at the household level and this is what the project is all about – capacitating smallholder farmers with valuable knowledge and technologies to fight climate change, improve agricultural production and eradicate poverty, in line with the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (Zim-Asset),” he said.
Sharing the same sentiments, Onismus Chipfunde of the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Institute, said the project is promoting conservation farming as well as strengthening traditional agriculture simply by helping Tshuma, Ncube and others to access, conserve and utilise crop varieties that fight drought, climate change and variability as well as diseases and pests.
Marco Mare, plant breeder, Department of Research and Specialist Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, urged development partners to chip in and invest more resources in research, development and improved technology around agricultural biodiversity as a way of protecting the environment and safeguarding indigenous crop varieties.
“Zimbabwe and other southern African nations have lost several local crop varieties due to neglect, but the time is now ripe for development partners both in the country and region to invest in technology development and promote indigenous knowledge of agricultural systems as a way of fighting climate change,” he asserted.
Mare said at regional level, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) believes the investment of technology development for small grains and pulses augments productivity and improves food and nutrition security.
On the impact of the project, Makumbe said 120 extension officers, Zimbabwe Farmers Union members, the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers (ZIMSOF), Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT), Farmers’ Association of Community Self-Help Investment Group (FACHIG) and Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organisation (Tsuro) Trust, as well as 20 000 additional farmers in surrounding areas have so far benefited through accessing improved crop varieties.