For many years every farming season, Mr Mbengano Machokoto (48), a communal farmer in Zvishavane’s ward 18 toiled all day in his sun–scorched maize fields for little or no returns at all.
Inconsistent rainfall patterns and arid conditions in the area have led to the perennial flop of maize production.
Despite the evidently dismal performance of maize in the area as a result of the effects of climate change, most farmers like Mr Machokoto have been for years been ignoring and fiercely resisting advice from agricultural experts to plant small grains.
However, their attitude towards small grains has incredibly changed following the rolling out of the Enhancing Community Resilience and Inclusive Market Systems (ECRIMS) programme by various stakeholders which include CARE and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Under the programme, ICRISAT, which is an international agricultural research organisation with headquarters in India is working with local communities in promoting small grain production and cattle feed production in various districts throughout the country.
“ICRISAT has held surveys to try and come up with some varieties that are suitable and adaptable to harsh environmental conditions that are inclusive of low rainfall areas particularly in regions four and five. These surveys have prompted the promotion of seed varieties within these communities. So this is basically a resilience programme where we’re saying farmers should develop some adaptive and transformative skills, and one of the skills we’re promoting is small grains,” said Mr Vusumuzi Sithole, an ICRISAT research associate.
Mr Sithole said the outcome of the survey results have clearly indicated that most farmers in Mberengwa and Zvishavane have been realising very low yields from maize and other crops because of the effects of climate change.
He said the research organisation has held some varietal seed trials in various districts with a view of identifying the best suitable crop for dry regions.
“We’re actually tapping on these varietal trials that we’ve done for small holder farmers so that they build resilience. The scope of the project is that each and every one of the communities which we’re working with should have access to small grains.”
Mr Sithole said the programme, which was started last year in December, targeted six farmers per ward in 50 wards in Mberengwa and Zvishavane.
Mr Machokoto, from Chief Mazvihwa’s area, is one of the lucky farmers who were selected to be part of the project. “ICRISAT gave me a variety of small grains such as velvet beans, groundnuts, okashana and sorghum. I planted these crops on December 9 last year when the cut-off date for normal planting period had elapsed. Despite my late planting, I managed to harvest a good and better crop than what I’ve done in previous years,” said Mr Machokoto.
He said he harvested a tonne of groundnuts, two tonnes of sorghum and one-and-a-half a tonne of millet.
“For the first time in my farming history, I’ll be able to sell my small grain crop to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). I’ll be also selling some of the harvest as seed to other farmers in the area,” said Mr Machokoto.
Under the programme, Mr Machokoto also managed to plant two hectares of velvet beans which he plans to feed his cattle on as well as sell at $3,50 per kg to other farmers.
His field was recently selected as one of the demonstration plots for the project in the ward.
“We selected Mr Machokoto’s plot as one of the demo sites in ward 18 because he excelled under this project. He was voted the best farmer in the area. When we started the programme in the area, there was no rainfall, but farmers who received small grains from ICRISAT managed to yield some dividends because the crop that we passed on to them has actually shown higher yields. This is clearly a success story which can actually be adopted by fellow farmers,” said Mr Sithole.
The ICRISAT climate change expert said the ECRIMS programme also promotes the planting of velvet beans to feed cattle.
“Velvet beans are actually a relatively very new crop. We previously witnessed people flooding low rainfall districts to barter trade cattle with as little as a bag of maize. With the introduction of velvet beans, that culture should come to an end because farmers will now be able to feed their cattle during drought periods,” he said.
Another farmer in ward 7, Ms Tsvakai Moyo, said she used to lose a lot of cattle to drought every year but following the introduction of velvet beans, she will be able to feed her animals in the event of a drought.
Ms Moyo, who was also voted the best farmer in her ward, has thriving groundnuts and millet crops at her plot. “This programme has really changed my life. I can now adequately feed my cattle as well as my family. This year I’m also going to sell some of my surplus crop and be able to send my children to school,” she said.
Ward 18 Agritex officer, Mr Terrence Gumbochuma, described the programme as a huge success in the area.
“Before ICRISAT came with this programme, most farmers experienced very low yields and couldn’t feed themselves. Most farmers planted their crops in December 2017 and by February this year, some were already harvesting. After harvesting in February, some planted again and are harvesting for the second time this season. This is how good the ICRISAT seeds are,” said Mr Gumbochuma.