HARARE, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) - Olivia Chitingo has been a farmer most of her adult life.
As a communal farmer in Murehwa district, approximately 120 kilometres east of Harare, the 46-year-old over the years grew maize, both as a cash crop and for her own consumption.
From her two hectares of land, she managed to produce 16 tonnes of grain each season, which was then ground into sadza, Zimbabwe's staple food.
Most of it she sold to Zimbabwe's Grain Marketing Board and mobile milling companies, and from each harvest she earned an average of $4,240, enough to meet most of her and her family's needs.
Over the past seven years, however, Zimbabwe's rainfall pattern has become inconsistent, and Chitingo has lost most of her crops to wilting, though she planted at the usual time.
"We have always known that the rains would come on the 15th of October and every farmer plants around that time. But we have been losing our plants because the rains continue to come late and we don't quite know what has been happening," she said.
To cope, Chitingo has resorted to spending more and more time living in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, at her late parents' old house in Kambuzuma, a densely populate small township. There she has found small pieces of land on which to grow maize.
Because more and more people are growing crops in the city, to support themselves through Zimbabwe's long period of economic crisis, Olivia could only find available land near an industrial area and on a hill near her parentÂ?s house.
Her pieces of crop land are just a few of the many carved out in Harare in recent years. Hills stripped of trees have become a common sight as farmers clear any possible land for agricultural purposes.
FERTILE CAPITAL ATTRACTIVE FOR FARMERS
The capital, with its rich soil and location on a watershed plateau between two major rivers, the Zambezi and the Limpopo, continues to entice communal farmers trying to escape losses from persistent droughts and erratic rainfall.
The steady migration is pushing up Harare's population, now about 2 million, by about 5 to 7 percent annually, experts believe.
Open spaces account for 10 percent of land in the city but are inadequate to meet the rising urban population. Some of the new small farming plots are located near streams, leading to water pollution and leaching through runoff, particularly of the chemical fertilizers farmers use.
Although the government has officially recognised urban farming, it has not put in place measures to regulate it and oversee the management of the land. As a result, because of a growing demand for urban agricultural land as one of the few ways of escaping growing poverty in the country, most urban farmers farm anywhere that there are open spaces.
That includes places where land is unstable or in industrial areas where manufacturing chemicals in the soil make the resulting crops dangerous to eat.
"I see that my maize has a lighter colour in comparison to other maize and I think its because I planted close to a factory. But what else can I do? Because if I go back to the rural areas I will not produce even enough to eat," Chitingo said.
Many families like hers are therefore between a rock and hard place, forced to migrate to town in search of more fertile soil that is able to retain a little moisture even if rains fail. Harare often receives more rainfall than rural areas.
In Harare, most urban farmers grow maize, potatoes, groundnuts, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and a variety of green leafy vegetables. Some are consumed by the farmers while others are sold to the public and small retailers.
From her two pieces of urban land, Chitingo is able to produce at least 3 tonnes of maize annually, a better yield than the half tonne of maize that her field in the rural areas had produced in recent years after insufficient rain.
From the food produced on her urban small plots, she is able to feed her family of five, including her three children and her unemployed husband. She also earns at least $1,800 annually from selling some of her maize, which augments a small income her husband brings in from doing odd menial jobs.
That puts her family well below the poverty line, which stands at $552 per family of five per month, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe.
She says that she is not likely to return to the rural areas to farm.
"We can no longer live on the little produce which we have been harvesting in the rural areas. So we will continue to stay here and farm here, because without enough money it is difficult to survive in Zimbabwe these days," she said.