Lighting a dark corner

Posted: 27 November 2000

Ray Choto reports on a women's garden club in Zimbabwe.

As the dust from the desiccated rural road curls into the sky, a group of women farmers cuddling their babies raise their heads, peering in the direction of the approaching vehicle and when a white Toyota twin-cabin truck stops a few metres from them, there are smiles all over the faces of the Chivi peasants, inhabitants of the Karanga community, situated some 410 km south of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.

"Every time we see this car coming here, we welcome it with an air of hope. In fact, we perceive it as a symbol of unity, self-reliance and above all, our messiah," explains 32-year-old Mrs Sarudzai Muteuri.

Muteuri is a member of Rodonevhu vegetable garden club in Chivi's Ward 21, one of the two wards in Magwiro village in Masvingo province that have benefited from the Intemediate Technology Development Group's (ITDG) farming project aimed at improving household food security.

"When ITDG came here, they encouraged us to work together to ease labour on land tilling. Work together has brought us closer to each other. We now have mutual respect for each other. Over the years, crop production has increased due to group work and improved farming methods. But before the project, our village was one of the poorest areas which people used to refer to as Chemira (The Dark Corner)," says Muteuri. She says her ward's success story to achieve food security is one which cannot be told without mentioning ITDG.

"It encouraged us to embark on vegetable garden clubs after harvesting crops, thus keeping ourselves busy throughout the year. Today, we have 35 productive garden clubs in our ward and we sell our vegetables to needy communities," she says.

ITDG's rural communities programme manager, Kudakwashe Murwira, says the objectives of the Chivi project were, among other things, to enhance household food security through improved agricultural production and a process of participatory technology development, building upon local farming skills and experiences.

© Heine Pedersen/Still Pictures

When the programme started in 1991, Chivi farmers were less organised than they are today, although there were farmers' clubs, mainly dominated by men, and the district was facing a devastating drought. In 1992, one of the worst droughts on record took hold in Zimbabwe leaving many families unable to feed themselves. Over 770,000 people in Masvingo province relied on drought relief. The province received only 28 per cent of its normal rainfall. Gardening projects were abandoned and 90 per cent of arable land had dead crops. More than 30,000 cattle died, leaving most families without draught power.

Like millions of other drought stricken Zimbabweans, Mrs Muteuri had to register for food aid to feed her family of three children. But today she is self-reliant, thanks to the ITDG project which has helped her community to identify strategies that enhance food security.

Before the project, state extension workers had a top-down approach which generally failed to consider whether suggested farming methods fitted the needs of local farmers. Farmers, in turn, tended to wait for external help to change their lives and this eroded their traditional knowledge of land management.

ITDG staff had to change this orientation among all concerned. They came up with a bottom-up approach which, in the following years, proved to be more successful.

The project re-introduced intercropping and integrated farming systems since most households have very little land. In Chivi, with a population of 200,000, the average household of six people has only about one hectare of land, and numbers are increasing nationally by three per cent a year.

The indigenous concept of intercropping onions and other vegetables is also being tried in vegetable gardens as a way of managing pests, which are discouraged by the scent of onions, hence reducing chemical inputs. Vegetable gardens are proving a valuable contribution to household food security. The vegetables, fertilised with chicken and goat manure, are highly nutritious and a valuable source of Vitamin A.

During the 1997 crop season, Muteuri harvested 4,500 kg of shelled maize, 600 kg of sunflowers, 900 kg of millet and 500 kg of sorghum - enough food to see her family through to the next harvest while the surplus will be sold. Being able to feed her family and sell the surplus means food dependence-syndrome that used to characterise the people of Chivi is now a thing of the past.

Ray Choto is People & the Planet correspondent based in Zimbabwe.