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Kavitha Dispatch

From Drought to Surplus - a Tale of Success

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Here comes the tide! That's why they are building tide ridges.
As I wrote about in my other dispatch, the communities of Chivi in central Zimbabwe organized to overcome their problems of food security - a major issue facing rural Zimbabwe. Chivi is located in the Masvingo district, an area with very little annual rainfall which has experienced some very difficult times - especially during drought years. Year after year, the communities in Chivi were faced with food shortage problems. In 1991, with the help of IT Zimbabwe, the people of Chivi were able to organize and come up with their own plan to address food security. Let's take a closer look at what they did:

According to an in-depth study conducted by IT Zimbabwe and the community, the main problems that were plaguing Chivi were:

  1. LIMITED WATER -- They were situated in area highly prone to drought conditions. The little rain they did receive would concentrate in certain areas only. Rain would fall for approximately two weeks in November, but it would be followed by a long, dry spell that would kill off any crops that had started to grow during the rains.
  2. SUSTAINABLE NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT -- The soil in the region was very poor. When the rains did come, erosion and water run off would carry away the nutrient rich parts of the soil leaving behind sandy soils that couldn't hold water or nutrients properly. The government agricultural extension department, Agritex, advised farmers to use organic fertilizers. But in a region where people could barely buy food to eat, how could farmers afford these expensive fertilizers?
  3. CROP CHOICE -- About 40-50 years ago, governments and agriculture companies around the world started advocating the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and engineered seeds among rural communities. During this "Green Revolution," governments went to great extents to show the rural farmer that these improvements in agriculture would end problems of food shortage and would create faster growing and higher yielding crops. Here in Zimbabwe, the government agriculture extension department, Agritex, convinced rural farmers to plant more maize, a non-native plant brought in from the Americas, in place of their traditional grains. Today maize has become a staple of the Zimbabwean diet, but all the maize grown in Zimbabwe are hybrids - a combination of different types of maize. Because seeds from hybrids aren't productive, the farmers needed to buy new seeds every year, instead of saving the seeds from their own crops, as they traditionally would have. Since farmers in this area are struggling as it is, their limited funds often leave them scrounging for whatever seed they can afford or that is left over. They end up settling for maize that is not suitable for their soil, and thus face another year of poor crop yields.

The community reviewed these issues and started by implementing the traditional solutions they already knew. "We encouraged farmers to be innovative and highlighted the abilities they had within their own community," explained Blessing Butaumocho from IT. By pulling together, brainstorming, and working cooperatively, the people of Chivi were able to turn their situation around.

To tackle issues of limited water and sustainable nutrient management, the community looked into a number of soil and water conservation techniques. They dug tide ridges, long embankments along a slope, which stopped water run-off during the rains, thus also stopping soil erosion. By stopping water run off, the ridges formed confined areas where the water was concentrated, thus making efficient use of the little rains they did receive. By allowing the water more time to sit and absorb in the soil, the water table below the ground was also recharged.

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To help their sandy soils become richer, the community turned to local solutions. All over Zimbabwe you can see large anthills, some that are over 3 or 4 feet! In actuality these are not anthills, but termite mounds and these termite mounds are very rich in nutrients. They are made primarily of clay and the termites mix them with their saliva and other organic matter, which gives the termite mounds a sort of plasticity. By spreading these termite mounds over their fields, the farmers in Chivi improved their soil's water retention. The nutrients from the livestock manure that they usually spread on their fields were finally getting absorbed and not just washed away. The crops responded quickly and now Chivi enjoys protected soils.

All of these soil and water conservation techniques require a great deal of labor and time. Farmers in Chivi were organized into farmer groups and clubs so that the community could work together and take advantage of their local resources. The farmer clubs would unite people of different social levels, so wealthy farmers would benefit from extra labor while poorer farmers would have access to livestock. Digging up termite hills takes a lot of time, but it's definitely much easier when you have a donkey to help carry back the soil to the community. Installing tide ridges can take forever. It takes digging trench after trench in the hot sun. But, when you're joined by friends from the surrounding farms, singing and talking while you work, the job can be finished in no time!

An unexpected outcome of the Chivi project has been the empowerment of women in the community. Traditionally, women here in rural Zimbabwe are rarely found in roles of leadership, although they do much of the work. Now that Chivi is being made a model for other communities, development groups are seeking out the individuals who helped implement the successful strategies. Since women do much of the work in the farms, it is now the women who are in the best positions to train other farmers in their techniques. For the first time in Chivi's history, women can be seen leading large community training sessions - even teaching men! With this empowerment comes an increase in self-worth and an improvement in gender relationships in general. Who would have thought that addressing food security could bring about women's rights?

Other techniques that the community in Chivi learned about and started using include: installing sub-soil clay pipes for irrigation, creating artificial water tables with plastic sheets for vegetable gardens, and installing cement wells.

By organizing information sharing events and field days, the farmers started to solve their problems of crop choice themselves. Instead of relying solely on maize, the farmers turned back to more traditional native crops like rapoko, round nuts, bambera nuts, cowpeas, sorghum, and millet. These native crops are more suited to the region and allow farmers to save their own seeds year after year. Chivi eventually organized seed fairs, where farmers can display their seeds and exchange them along with information on how the crop grows. In addition to being much higher in nutrients than hybrid maize, small seeds like sorghum and millet are much more adaptable to drought conditions. Within just a few years, the number of crops farmers were growing had increased significantly. As I remember from working with ABA in Peru, having more diversity in crops is good for food security.

So, by joining together, sharing information, and creating innovative technologies, the community in Chivi has gone from being dependent on government handouts for food, to having a surplus of the only problem is selling it all!


Monica - Bon Voyage Shawn!
Shawn - Leaving on a Jet Plane :-(
Kevin - When Intolerance Rises to Intolerable Levels
Kavitha - Old Ways to Make New Changes
Abeja - You Reap What You Sow
Abeja - Visiting a Tobacco Auction
Making A Difference - Send A Message!

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