ESIGODINI, Zimbabwe – Whether rotating her crops, sowing seed from previous harvests or gathering rainwater, Susan Gama is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to keep her livelihood going.
Subsistence farmers like Gama in this southern African nation are reverting to traditional farming knowledge and local experimentation to cope with the challenges of poor and unpredictable rainfall, which experts believe is linked to climate change.
That is producing mixed results – and considerable frustration for government agricultural experts, who believe traditional knowledge alone will not be sufficient to protect farmers against changing rainfall conditions.
"We have always known that our grandparents kept seed from the previous harvest for planting in the new season, but… some people were instead advising us to buy what they termed drought-resistant varieties," Gama said from the small plot of land where she grows maize and groundnuts in Esigodini, 43 km (27 miles) from Bulawayo.
But Gama said that the newer varieties have not consistently produced a good crop on her community’s land, apparently because of very poor rains. So she and other local farmers are conducting their own experiments on what seed works best in poor rain conditions.
“What we do is mix our planting and combine the harvested seed from the previous year and what we buy from the shops and compare outcomes," she said.
According to villagers, this mixing of seeds has helped improve the harvests.
Where Gama’s plot previously produced 50 bags of maize at 90 kg each, last season she harvested 70 bags, spurring others in this small farming community to experiment with her method.
REJECTION OF NEW METHODS
Government officials say that although rural women farmers are being advised about new farming methods to deal with climate change challenges, many still prefer to use their own traditional knowledge systems.
"There is still a lot of convincing to be done in some parts of the country," said Thelma Ruvimbo, an officer from the Lands and Agriculture Ministry.
"If farmers try something on their own and it works, how they do you convince them about the effectiveness of new technologies?" Ruvimbo asked.
Government agricultural extension officers have encouraged farmers to practise conservation farming, for example, by using hoes instead of oxen to work the land in order to conserve both soil and water.
But farmers have in some instances opted to explore other options. While crop rotation has been practised for years, the new challenges posed by changing weather patterns have driven farmers such as Thandekile Sibanda, also from Esigodini, to do it with greater frequency, and with a wider variety of crops.
Now, each planting season, she ensures that she plants a different crop – maize, groundnuts, watermelon or pumpkin – in each area of her field, to help ensure something survives the dryer conditions to produce a harvest.
Sibanda believes her program is producing more consistent harvests as rainfall reduces. But Ruvimbo says wider crop experimentation has sometimes led to further losses when the farmers are unaware which crops are best suited for their regions.
"The frustration of the rural women is understandable as climate change is essentially volatile," Ruvimbo said.
Zimbabwe’s Meteorological Services Department had predicted that this season’s rains would peak in late December 2011. But while heavy rains came in December and January to the provinces of Midlands, Harare, Manicaland and the three Mashonaland provinces, areas such as Matebeleland, where Gama lives, are threatened with drought.
While the government's Civil Protection Unit announced in early January that it was placing some parts of the country on a flood alert, the continued absence of rain in other areas serves to highlight the climate-linked problems that are impoverishing rural communities.
One consolation for Gama and her colleagues is that when the rains do come, they will be able to harvest the water.
The hard red earth of Gama’s land does not retain much water, and she has built furrows along her plot to control run-off. At the same time she uses tanks donated by a non-governmental organisation to harvest water from her rooftop.
Here, each drop counts.
"A nongovernmental organisation donated some plastic drums and water harvesting equipment (such as) pipes connecting from our roofs, and we have been able to use this for our plots," Gama said.
But this is not enough to allow her to fully irrigate her crops, she added.
According to the Plan International, an international children’s charity that works with subsistence farmers in Matebeleland, rainwater harvesting is a good option for millions of poor farmers across Africa and has helped improve yields despite persistently low rainfall.
"We only hope something can be done to make the rains come," Gama said, recalling the times when the government carried out cloud seeding programmes as the rainy season approached.
But Zimbabwe’s government suspended this and other agricultural programmes, citing a lack of resources, when the country’s agricultural production began to plunge a decade ago following a government land redistribution effort.
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.