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For Caritas Dube, growing cotton for export used to feel like winning a lottery. Prices were good and the 70-year-old farmer made super profits from cotton farming. But in 2006, dry spells started to hurt cotton farmers like Mr. Dube. Global prices flopped, forcing many farmers out of the crop.
Mr. Dube explains: “Before 2006, the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe bought cotton from us at $0.90 US per kilogram. The prices fell to $0.36 US per kilogram. We were devastated. Buyers simply said there was an oversupply of cotton on global markets and our crop was no longer so important.”
Mr. Dube lives in northeast Zimbabwe’s Gokwe district. He tried to continue growing cotton, hoping that prices would improve. But that didn’t happen. Instead, income from the crop kept decreasing, with many farmers unable to repay farm input loans.
He recalls, “I still remember how our cotton debts led to contractors grabbing our livestock, household bicycles, and irrigation water pipes.”
In 2012, Mr. Dube abandoned cotton and started growing bird’s eye chilies because the crop was fetching better prices. At the time, farmers were selling the chilies at $3 US per kilogram and many cotton farmers made the switch.
The European Union provided grants to help farmers grow bird’s eye chilies with practices such as zero tillage, a method where farmers grow crops without tilling the soil, and a practice often associated with conservation agriculture. To grow bird’s eye chilies with zero tillage, Mr. Dube says he digs planting holes in his field and doesn’t use a plough.
Innocent Chifamba is another bird’s eye chili farmer in Gokwe District who used to grow cotton but switched in 2012 after prices dropped.
Mr. Chifamba says, “Agriculture technicians taught us how to plant and care for the bird’s eye chilies. Its profits are three times more than cotton. Bird’s eye chilies need fewer pesticides than cotton.”
Mr. Dube and Mr. Chifamba sell their chilies to an organization called Better Agriculture that ships the crop to Nando’s, a restaurant chain based in South Africa.
Michael Dawes is the Director of Agriculture Partnership Trust. The organization was funded by the European Union to support rural farmers to switch from crops with poor markets like cotton to profitable crops like bird’s eye chilies.
He says the organization encourages farmers to dry their chilies well before taking them to market because wet chilies fetch prices as low as $0.80 US per kilogram.
Mr. Dawes explains: “In Gokwe, we bring agriculture technicians to check soil moisture, seeds, and soil [acidity] before farmers can plant. During ripening, we pair each farmer with a reputable chilies buyer.”
According to Mr. Dawes, farmers are making more profits by growing bird’s eye chilies. He says the good prices eventually changed farmers’ attitude toward growing the crop, with dried chilies selling at $2.85-$3 US per kilogram.
Each plant produces about 800 grams of dry chilies, and Mr. Dube has 750 plants in his farm. Last year, his family harvested 600 kilograms, which he sold at $3 US per kilogram, earning $1,800 US.
Mr. Chifamba says he has benefitted a lot from growing bird’s eye chilies. He has drilled and repaired a borehole, constructed a fence, and built a kitchen and a hygienic toilet. These are tasks he couldn’t manage with the income from cotton.
This year, Mr. Chifamba will plant 2,000 bird’s eye chili plants on a 1,080 square-metre piece of land. He says, “Bird’s eye chili income has allowed my family to buy a brand new motorcycle and venture into chicken rearing and piggery. We can now diversify our family food diets.”