Swaziland: Farmers boost income with Katambora grass

| February 22, 2016

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Charity Gceba is a 41-year-old farmer from Lapa village, in the Manzini district of central Swaziland. In 2013, she started growing Katambora Rhodes grass. The perennial grass has fine, leafy stems that grow from half a metre to nearly three metres high.

Few farmers in Swaziland were familiar with the crop until larger-scale white commercial farmers who had migrated from nearby Zimbabwe started growing it in Swaziland.
Now, small-scale farmers like Ms. Gceba are growing Katambora to feed their dairy cattle—and because it is profitable.

She explains: “A dozen white commercial farmers [who were] chased [away] from Zimbabwe settled here and cultivated 30 hectares of Katambora. [At first] we thought it’s madness to grow this wild grass.”

But, intrigued by the success of the white farmers, Manzini district agriculture staff trained 390 women farmers from different districts in Swaziland who wished to grow the grass. Ms. Gceba was one of them.

Dino Patrao is the government’s Chief Farm Technologist in Manzini district. He explains: “We contracted the white commercial farmers to teach rural women about the right seeds, water conditions, and correct pesticides to successfully plant Katambora grass.”

Kondo Mleya is a small-scale farmer from Lubombo district who participated in the training. She says: “At first, I planted one hectare of Katambora and harvested three tonnes of grass. Katambora makes good money. My earnings [in a year] are $2,400 U.S. It is better income compared to [harvesting mangoes], which only gave me about $1,500 U.S. in a good year.”

Katambora fetches good prices. Ms. Gceba admits that marketing is still a challenge, but hopes that markets will soon expand. She explains: “Dairy farmers in the capital, Manzini, buy our grass quickly. The Chinese mining companies too are raising dairy cattle here in Manzini. The price is more than $500 per tonne of good Katambora grass.”

Ishmael Gezi is a farmer from Dalibazimu village in eastern Swaziland’s Lubombo district and has been growing Katambora since July 2014. Mr. Gezi sees a bright future for his harvest. He says: “Most of the big commercial farmers who grow Katambora ship their produce to dairy farmers in far-off Dubai and South Africa. In the future, we want to partner with them and export too.”

Katambora grass farmers Credit: Wonder Chinhurst

Katambora grass farmers Credit: Wonder

Gladman Stuart is the head of rural livelihoods skills with a charitable organization in Manzini district. He warns that growers of Katambora grass face some challenges. He explains: “Katambora is a sensitive grass. Increasing droughts, obsolete grass-cutting machines, and poor roads in Manzini … means the quality of the harvested grass [is] unsuitable for consumption by dairy cows. Farmers lose money.”

But Ms. Gceba is ecstatic about growing Katambora. She explains: “Before Katambora, [I was growing] peas and groundnuts. Floods, market competition, and poor soils meant that I never managed to make more than $700 U.S. profit per year.” With Katambora grass, Ms. Gceba can even afford to pay secondary school fees for all her kids.