Approximately 4.5 million people, over 30 percent of Zimbabwe’s population, will be in need of food aid by next March, according to recent estimates by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The government’s own numbers, released in March, say that 4 million already require it as the country struggles to recover from a severe drought that has devastated its staple maize crop.
President Robert Mugabe declared a state of disaster following widespread crop failure, the death of thousands of livestock and near destruction of many rural people’s way of life. The drought is the worst to hit Zimbabwe in two decades.
In the hard-hit rural districts of Masvingo province, the drought has severely affected women, many of whom bear economic responsibility for their families. Neliet Mupinga of Tsvovani village in Chiredzi District said she had to sell her six cattle at a giveaway price of US$60 after her other three cattle perished. For her, this is the third disaster she’s faced in three years after floods in 2014 and 2015. Each year, food for her and her family is harder to come by.
“The water situation here is pathetic as most water sources have already dried up. We did not manage to receive enough rains even for the pastures. Our cattle started dying as early as March so we had to sell them to some buyers who were dictating the price to us. It’s a loss but there is nothing we could do,” said Mupinga, who has four school-aged children.
But under increasingly desperate conditions, families are hoping that indigenous knowledge about their environment may be the key. Each morning, Mupinga said her family of two boys and two girls now travel to the nearest forest where they pick up wild berries commonly known as nhunguru, nyii, tsubvu and matamba, which they then soak and combine with pounded grains to make porridge.
But they’re not the only ones there.
“My children get into the forest as early as possible to pick berries because we are competing as a community. Moreso the monkeys and baboons also feed on these berries, so it is survival of the fittest,” said Mupinga who was already pounding some grain.
While the process may be foreign to her children, Mupinga said this method of preparing food is not anything new. The porridge was formerly a delicacy in the region, a form of indigenous knowledge passed from generation to generation that all but disappeared with the modernization of some African dishes.
The traditional berries are highly drought resistant as they survive under minimal rainfall and high temperature. In fact, according to a traditional leader in Sengwe, the berries are typically an indicator of an upcoming prolonged dry season.
Farmers getting smarter on agriculture
With little available water for agriculture, farmers in Masvingo province are turning to less water-reliant crops to sustain them through the drought. According to community leader Muripi Bhaloyi, this practice of climate smart agriculture has cushioned him from the prevailing poverty.
“Nowadays we are being trained on climate smart agriculture. For this part of the country we are encouraged to grow drought resistant traditional crops such as sorghum, millet roundnuts and groundnuts,” he said.
A visit to his field showed the difference. Though crop yields have greatly diminished, there was enough for his family to eat. Bhaloyi urged other farmers to take heed of the calls by agricultural experts and environmentalists to move from the water-dependent maize crop to small grains as the rainfall patterns continue to shift.
Though the drought and water situation in Masvingo is dire, a local community organisation, Chibhememe Earth Healing project is training farmers on sustainable land use and management. Project director Norman Chibhememe said the community empowerment programme is meant to raise awareness amongst farmers on environmental conservation and climate smart agriculture. Many of his students, he said, are women.
“We hold training workshops with farmers from different wards across Chiredzi where we teach them about climate change and ways of adapting and mitigating to the prevailing scenario.
“We have realised that women are more responsive to education than their male counterparts,” Chibhememe said.
Chibhememe also holds seed fairs and traditional food expos where people showcase their foods and crops. During these events, farmers who harvested different varieties of traditional crops are then certified as sustainable farmers. This occasion normally attracts officials from government departments of agriculture and environment.
While some people of Chiredzi District are excelling in smart agriculture, a distinguished farmer in nearby Chivi District has boosted his livelihood through water harvesting. The farmer, Amon Maseko, said it is imperative that farmers now adopt water harvesting as this is the only way to capture rain water and preserve it for garden use.
A visit to his communal farm revealed an oasis of green in the middle of the desert. Through field visits, famers across the province are now drawing lessons from Maseko’s approach.
“I have dug infiltration pits in my field area. I have made channels across my farm to direct all rainwater to the various infiltration pits and to the small dams that I constructed.
“I have worked hard to make sure all rainwater is harvested as we normally receive it in the form of flash floods,” he said.
Maseko’s fields visibly show that the idea bears fruit. His garden appears lush and the family is making a living from the sale of vegetables, fruits and vattiva grass.
Long-term solutions needed as rural poverty on the rise
While the drought in Zimbabwe is affecting the entire country, the areas with the highest projections of food insecurity are in the south of the country. A local development organisation ActionAid Zimbabwe is already working with communities in some of the worst affected areas.
“We will be scaling up our work in the next few weeks to ensure we’re supporting more people, particularly expectant mothers and women with young children,said Takaitei Bote, an officer with ActionAid.
Zimbabwe Civil Society Climate Change working group chairman Shephered Zvigadza said that governments must mobilise sources of substantial long-term climate finance to help developing countries to adapt and embark on low carbon development paths. Zvigadza believes that political and policy changes in Zimbabwe’s farming industry over time have affected its capacity to respond to a changing climate.
In recent years, food production in Zimbabwe has been devastated by a number of factors including natural disasters, and economic and political instability. Recurrent drought due to increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, a series of poor harvests, high unemployment, restructuring of the agriculture sector and a high adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate – at 16.7 percent – have all contributed to increasing levels of vulnerability and acute food insecurity since 2001. This situation has necessitated large-scale humanitarian food relief operations in the country.
Rural poverty increased from 63 percent in 2003 to 76 percent in 2014, according to the World Food Programme. Most households in the rural areas are net food buyers, meaning that they do not produce enough food to meet their needs through to the next harvest season. As a consequence, they must rely on markets and other non-farm sources such as part time menial jobs in towns to bridge the food gap to the next season.
According to a report published in July 2015 by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC), some 1.5 million people - 16 percent of the rural population - will have insufficient means to meet their minimum food needs during the 2015-16 lean season, that period prior to the next harvest when domestic food stocks tend to become depleted.
With rural poverty already on the rise, farmers in Southern Africa say they are already experiencing climactic changes that are different in magnitude to what they have experienced in the past. According to recent reports from the IPCC, change will likely reduce the length of the growing season as well as force larger regions of marginal agriculture out of production.
Projected reductions in yield in some countries could be as much as 50% by 2020, and crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90% by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most affected.
For Neliet Mupinga, harvesting berries each morning is keeping the family fed, for now. She can only hope that shifting to more traditional rural practices will prevent her family from hunger and her four children from facing an extremely uncertain future.