On a warm summer day, Shallon Mutakiwa, 34, is out of bed hours before first light in Paneshamba Village in Gokwe South, some 347 kilometres away from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. She has to work in the fields early before it gets hot around mid-morning.

Most mornings before she goes to the fields, smallholder farmer Mutakiwa first walks to the broiler rearing house to fill up feeding troughs with feed and chicken waterers with water. Mutakiwa, a medium build woman, is running this poultry project as part of her farming at her house in Gokwe South, about 70 kilometres away from Gokwe Centre.

The roads that lead to her house from Gokwe Centre are rugged, making the area difficult to reach. Gokwe has one of the remotest areas in the country, but off-road cars can navigate through.

In this part of Midlands Province, it was – until a couple of years ago – not common for women to venture into a vibrant farming enterprise, such as what Mutakiwa is doing. She used to grow sunflowers for family consumption and is now growing them for sale. In the 2019/2020 season, her sunflowers covered 1.3 hectares and produced about 635 kilograms.

Mutakiwa received training on drought-resilient crops farming in May 2018 from Agricultural Business Center (ABC); ABC is a pro-business investment vehicle that capacitates smallholder farmers through contract farming on identified value chains with high income-generating potential. The European Union-funded project is being implemented by the German charity “Welthungerhilfe” (WHH) with support from Empretec Zimbabwe, a capacity-building programme of the United Nations’ (UN) trade agency UNCTAD.

A sunflower disk in one of Shallon Mutakiwa_s fields in Gokwe South

In a fragile Zimbabwe’s economy, smallholder farmers struggle to buy inputs, but with sunflower and other drought-resilient crops, the farmers can still have a bumper harvest without applying any additional nutrients. “Sunflower is good in dry parched areas such as in Gokwe South. Mostly, I do not apply fertilisers to the sunflowers. They just use the nutrients already available in the soils,” states Mutakiwa while wiping away sweat that is dripping down her face due to the extreme Gokwe high temperatures. She says she gets inputs and other financial support from ABC, which also buys her produce after harvest.

Market linkages amid unaffordability of inputs is a setback to smallholder farmers in Gokwe.

“As for logistics, the ABC always comes here to collect the produce when we harvest,” adds Mutakiwa while holding a sunflower disk on one of the stems in her field.

Mutakiwa while holding a sunflower disk on one of the stems in her field.
Even though there has been unusual rains this season in Gokwe South, the water tables at her homestead are low. “Climate change has been affecting us here. We even struggle to access drinking water. The water tables are deep here,” says Mutakiwa.

Mutakiwa lives with her mother-in-law, their four children and her husband who is unemployed. They all look up to her for survival. “From my  income, I get from sunflowers; I can now manage to give three meals per day to my family. I am also paying school fees for my children,” Mutakiwa tells proudly while standing in her sunflower fields.

“Besides getting cooking oil from the sunflowers, I also use the sunflower seeds to feed chickens. I have since ventured into a poultry project using funds from sunflower farming,” she explains.Other drought-resilient crops Mutakiwa is growing include millet, sorghum, bambara nut and groundnuts.

At the end of 2020, the UN World Food Programme estimated that the number of food-insecure Zimbabweans was 8.6 million people – a staggering 60 per cent of the population.  

There are a combination of factors to blame. Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades with a three-figure inflation rate leading to an increase in the cost of living. As a result, the prices of basic commodities including maize, the staple cereal, have gone beyond the reach of many.

Furthermore, lack of rain in the past five years led to drought, which has been hitting subsistence farmers like Mutakiwa’s family hard. They account for three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s population. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the southern African nation which was once the breadbasket of the continent will import an estimated 1.1 million tonnes of grain in the 2020/2021 marketing year to meet demand.

Smallholder farmer, Kephas Safakwenda.

Another smallholder farmer, Kephas Safakwenda (50) from Paneshamba Village in Gokwe South, says he ditched other crops such as cotton and maize for business, because their produce had been impacted by the effects of climate change.

“Here, in Gokwe South we do not receive good rains. I have since realised that drought-resilient crops such as sorghum and millet are the best for this area. These crops survive droughts,” he explains.

The father of four tells us that he had to embrace drought-resilient crops to safeguard his family from hunger. “With sunflower and bambara nut farming I can manage to put food on the table for my family as well as buy other essentials,” he adds.

Africa contributes 43 billion tonnes of CO2 which accounts for 2.73 percent of global emissions, according to Energy For Growth Hub.But poor communities on the continent, such as Mutakiwa’s and Safakwenda’s in Gokwe, are the ones who are paying the price of these greenhouse gases that are being emitted in the skies mainly from developed countries.

There have been unusual rains in the 2020/2021 season in Zimbabwe and in Gokwe in particular. Shumirai Mabeka, an Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (Agritex) supervisor in Gokwe South, reports that they are expecting a better harvest this season as compared to the previous two. “This year even those smallholder farmers who were not part of the ABC project also grew drought-resilient crops in their fields. Our crop harvest this year is promising because we even had flash floods for the first time in two seasons,” she says.

Compared to the last decade, the current season has performed better in terms of cumulative rainfall and distribution.

Compared to the last decade, the current season has performed better in terms of cumulative rainfall and distribution, according to Benjamin Kwenda, an agriculture meteorologist who works for the Meteorological Services Department of Zimbabwe. “The currently accumulated total of 1240 mm to date is at least 100 mm more than any other record for the location. In the 2019/2020 season, the area reached 490.2 mm,” Kwenda  says.

A Spar supermarket staff in Gokwe Centre looking at Bopoma peanut butter that is processed by ABC.

ABC general manager Vernon Mushoriwa states, even though they are targeting 15000 people with their project, they have already reached out to 5200 farmers and 4800 youths have been capacitated with entrepreneurship skills.

Zimbabwe Farmers Union executive director Paul Zakariya explains climate change requires farmers to innovate around production techniques. “This entails researching on the best crops to grow, as well as the best varieties. Drought-tolerant crops have been known to do very well in most parts of the Midlands Province, Gokwe in particular,” he says. “Produced on a large scale, the crops can financially sustain those rural communities and ensure better living standards.” According to Zakariya, the first round of the Crops and Livestock Assessment has already shown that the area planted with crops is larger than the previous seasons.

Zimbabwe Farmers Union executive director Paul Zakariya explains climate change requires farmers to innovate around production techniques. “This entails researching on the best crops to grow, as well as the best varieties. Drought-tolerant crops have been known to do very well in most parts of the Midlands Province, Gokwe in particular,” he says. “Produced on a large scale, the crops can financially sustain those rural communities and ensure better living standards.” According to Zakariya, the first round of the Crops and Livestock Assessment has already shown that the area planted with crops is larger than the previous seasons.

A woman passes through placards at the entrance of Spar supermakert with one marketing Bopoma peanut butter processed by ABC.

WHH’s head of the project, Thomas Heyland, affirms when the project ends in December this year, ABC working with the farmers will continue generating enough profit to at least cover the running costs of the business. “Farmers will be shareholders through the ‘Farmers in Action Cooperative’ and thus have the possibility to guide the actions and decide with the other shareholders on how to reinvest profits,” he says.

The smallholder farmer Mutakiwa hopes to grow sunflowers for commercial purposes at a large scale if she receives sufficient support. “I already have land covering about 15 hectares; what I still need is a solar-powered water pump for irrigation so that I can grow sunflowers and other drought-resilient crops on a large scale,” she expresses with a ray of hope in her voice.