Read, Debate: Engage.

Food Insecure Zimbabwe Pins Hopes on New Farming Method

October 08, 2020
topic:Food Security
tags:#Africa, #climate change, #food security, #agriculture
by:Cyril Zenda
The perennially hungry southern African nation is hopeful that in the new conservation farming method targeting rural farmers, it has found the necessary silver bullet to defeat starvation.

This year alone, more than half of Zimbabwe’s 16 million citizens are languishing in the throes of what the United Nations has described as a man-made hunger, blaming the country’s chaotic land reforms of two decades ago and continued poor planning for the food deficit that has been growing by the year.

The government disagrees, blaming the now perennial hunger on climate-change related poor rains in the past few years. The debate about what and or who is to blame has, however, not been putting food on the table for millions of Zimbabweans who now have to contend with the indignity of being fed by international donor agencies when they are sitting on more than four million hectares of some of the choicest arable lands in the world. 

To restore food security at household level, and hopefully at the national level as well, the government has launched an ambitious “climate-proof” conservation farming method locally called Pfumvudza that it says would allow rural households to produce enough to feed themselves from pieces of land as small as a 16th of a hectare. 

This Pfumvudza concept is the brainchild of Foundation for Farming (FfF), a local non-profit organization that offered this methodology to the Zimbabwe government free of charge and went on to train – at its own expense – 1,400 government agricultural extension officers to further teach farmers country-wide during the COVID-19 lockdown all in an effort to serve the country and help end starvation.

Maximising Productivity Per Unit Area

The government appears to be serious about this programme. Since the programme’s launch in June this year, in readiness for the country’s cropping season that runs from October to March, more than 700 000 households had as of August, been trained and provided with all the inputs required for their plots.

According to the secretary for the ministry of Lands and Agriculture, Dr John Bhasera, who is the chief driver of this new Pfumvudza farming concept, the whole idea is to maximise productivity per unit area, even in times of drought, which are occurring in increasing frequency in the southern African region.

“The concept, if properly rolled out, can ensure household and national food and nutritional security,” Dr Bhasera said in his outline of the programme.

“It involves the utilisation of small pieces of land and applying the correct agronomic practices for higher returns. The approach can be used in marginal areas and still give high yields allowing smallholder farmers to achieve household food security, while large-scale farmers can produce for the strategic grain reserve.”

1.6 Millions Households Targeted

This programme by the government of Zimbabwe is targeting to benefit over 1.6 million vulnerable households for maize production with a standardised input package of 5kg seed, 12kg lime, 50kg basal and 50kg top dressing fertilizers. According to Dr Bhasera – himself a leading agronomist – this package of inputs is sufficient to cover two 0.06ha plots and beneficiaries are expected to fully and religiously adopt Conservation Agriculture Principles as a way to “climate proof” the programme.

According to results from trials, one plot is enough to feed an average family of five people for a year.

“This programme, however, requires a robust and a ‘well-capacitated’ extension provision system for technical backstopping, tracking and monitoring. Each extension worker will be required to establish as least a one demonstration plot and given targets to train, track and monitor the adoption of conservation agriculture by 350 households.”

Bhasera said for optimum benefits, planting on the food security plot should be done in a timely manner and this requires adequate preparatory activities that include, digging of planting holes before the start of the season and timely acquisition of inputs. The early land preparation (off-season) allows the farmer to plant their crop with the first effective rains. To allow for supplementary watering or irrigation, the food security plots should, where possible, be placed near water sources. It is encouraged that farmers prepare two plots, one for cereals (maize or small grains) and one for legumes thus providing a protein source to complement the cereal. The legume plot is an integral part of maintaining soil fertility through crop rotation which also serves to reduce pests and diseases.

Concept Description

The programme is based on three key basic principles namely: use of minimum or zero tillage; maintenance of organic mulch cover on the soil surface; and use of crop rotations and interactions that include legume crops.

This concept is seen as a sustainable way of crop production intensification, whereby farmers concentrate resources on a smaller piece of land thus reducing labour demand and resulting in higher productivity from lower investment, hence higher profit margins.

The small land size ensures that the farmer is able to provide supplementary irrigation (water by hand) where water is available during dry spells, thus enhancing the resilience of the production system.

Precision is extremely important when marking the planting station, as this will ensure that planting is done at the same spot every year, allowing the plants to benefit from residual fertility.

Demonstration Plot Specifications

The demonstration plot size for maize should be 16m x 39m (624 square metres). Inter-row spacing of 75cm, in-row spacing of 60 cm and row length of 16m, hence digging 28 holes per row, with two maize plants per each planting hole, making it 56 plants per row to give 1456 planting holes with a total of 2 912 plants. A total of 52 rows, with each row producing a 20-litre tin of maize grain (one 20-litre per week for 52 weeks equals to one year) is based on the test results that each maize plant produces at least one cob (15 ton/hectare).

Emphasis on Conservation Agriculture

First Principle: Reducing tillage operations has an impact of reducing moisture loss from inner soil layers (which are not exposed through tillage) and improves the soil structure in the long term, resulting in improved water infiltration.

Second Principle: The presence of leaves and grass (mulch) minimises impact of intense rainfall on the soil thereby reducing water run-off and soil erosion, as well as reducing evaporation from the upper soil layers. All this has a net effect of increasing water infiltration.

The mulch also minimises compaction by intense rainfall, reduces temperature fluctuations at the soil surface and also smothers weeds.

Third principle: Inclusion of legume-based rotations helps to improve soil fertility, reduces pest infestations and minimises total crop loss during severe weather occurrences.

Zimbabwe is adopting this smart farming concept at a time when most countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region and beyond are feeling from the adverse effects of climate change that have, among other things, seen output in the agriculture sector declining.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
This year alone, more than half of Zimbabwe’s 16 million citizens are languishing in the throes of what the United Nations has described as a man-made hunger.
Embed from Getty Images
The government disagrees, blaming the now perennial hunger on climate-change related poor rains in the past few years.
Embed from Getty Images
This programme by the government of Zimbabwe is targeting to benefit over 1.6 million vulnerable households for maize production.
Call to Action
Transforming agriculture in Ethiopia
Support now