Zimbabwe’s ‘farming wizard’ grows bumper crop during worst drought in years (Trust)

| April 11, 2016

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To his neighbours, 67-year-old Phillip Tshuma is a wizard who commands the rains with the help of goblins. How else could he grow a bumper crop of maize, sorghum, millet, and groundnuts in a season when many farmers in Zimbabwe have written off their crops?

Mr. Tshuma lives in Gavu, a village in arid Hwange District about 450 kilometres north of Bulawayo. In truth, he cannot control the weather. But he can predict it fairly accurately.

Mr. Tshuma uses a well-worn record book, a green plastic rain gauge, and a mobile phone on which he receives climate-related information via SMS. With these tools, he makes farming decisions based on the weather patterns in his area—including when to plant, how to till the soil, and how much fertilizer to apply.

Mr. Tshuma is one of a thousand small-scale farmers in southern Zimbabwe who are benefiting from a three-year-old project that focuses on adapting to climate change.

The project is part of Zimbabwe’s plan to manage threats such as droughts, and aims to strengthen systems to provide early warnings about risks to agriculture from climate change and related weather problems.

It also aims to maintain food security in drier parts of the country by teaching farmers to use weather-monitoring techniques and climate-smart agricultural practices.

Last season, Mr. Tshuma and his wife Simnai harvested 1.5 tonnes of millet, one tonne of sorghum, and a quarter-tonne of groundnuts. This season, he expects to increase his harvest to four tonnes of millet and nearly 2.5 tonnes of sorghum, despite a drought that has slashed his neighbours’ maize harvests.

He says, “This year, I have done so much better in my fields than some of my neighbours that some people say I am irrigating my crops—or I have goblins who work magic.”

The project that Mr. Tshuma is involved in teaches farmers techniques to improve their harvests while cutting costs. These include mulching fields to save water, planting crops in dug-out basins filled with manure, planting different types of crops together in a field, and using small doses of fertilizer just where they are needed.

The project also aims to convince farmers to swap their traditional crops for more drought-tolerant ones, no easy feat in a region where maize is a dietary staple.

David Bergvinson is the director-general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT. He says: “Sorghum and millet are not only climate-smart but nutritionally smart. We call them smart foods because they are good for us, good for the environment, and good for smallholder farmers to manage climate change, diversify their income, and increase their profitability.” He adds that switching to more resilient crops is crucial because “climate change is hitting us hard and fast.”

The current El Niño-induced drought in Zimbabwe is one of the worst in a quarter century. More than three million Zimbabweans are facing hunger because of a maize shortfall of more than one million tonnes, about half of what the country requires each year.

Zimbabwe has been forced to declare a state of national disaster and is appealing for $1.6 billion in food aid.

A recent study says 30% of sub-Saharan Africa’s maize-growing areas, including in Zimbabwe, must switch to different crops within the next decade.

Danisile Hikwa is the principal director of the Zimbabwe agriculture ministry’s Department of Research and Specialist Services. She says: “Climate change is reducing the viability of maize production and, increasingly, we are envisaging that semi-arid regions of Zimbabwe could only be growing drought-tolerant grains in the near future.”

Mr. Tshuma has already seen the benefits of changing what and how he farms. After joining the agricultural adaptation project three years ago, he now earns an average of $300 per season from selling his farm crops once he has fed his family.

He has cut back on growing maize and now harvests enough sorghum and millet to sell to his neighbours and to a small grain processing plant. An association of farmers runs the plant, which grows, processes, and markets products made from drought-tolerant crops.

Mr. Tshuma is so convinced of the need to adapt that he is mentoring 20 farmers in Hwange District through one of the climate field schools run jointly by ICRISAT and other partners.

He says, “Millet and sorghum are the crops for survival in this time of drought. Farmers have to work hard to survive—it is not magic.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, Zimbabwe’s ‘farming wizard’ grows bumper crop in worst drought in years, go to: http://www.bdlive.co.za/africa/africannews/2016/03/23/zimbabwes-farming-wizard-grows-bumper-crop-in-worst-drought-in-years

Photo:Farmers Simnai and Philip Tshuma check their sorghum crop in Gavu, in Zimbabwe’s drought-stricken Hwange District. Credit: RF/Busani Bafana