LUPANE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ticky Mletshwa, a 46-year-old small-scale farmer, has always done the same thing in his plot deep in the dry rural areas of Lupane, about 175 kilometres north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.
Here each year, with the regularity of clockwork, he plants maize, waits for the rains, then “cries” as he watches his crops fail after yet another period of unreliable rainfall.
“It has become a cruel cycle,” he says, of repeating the same thing and expecting to get different results.
Mletshwa, like many smallholder farmers in the area, used to barter his excess produce to city dwellers in Bulawayo. Now he does not remember when he last had a full silo.
“Now we find ourselves having to ask our children working in South Africa to send us mealie meal (maize meal),” he said.
Lupane is one of numerous areas in Matebeleland, in the southwest of Zimbabwe, from which hundreds of young people have fled increasing hardship to seek employment outside the country, including as farm labourers in neighbouring South Africa and Botswana.
But help finally may be on the way, as Zimbabwe’s government, hit by worsening food insecurity, moves to adopt more hands-on assistance to farmers, particularly those on small rain-fed plots of land.
Last month, President Robert Mugabe launched the country’s first Food and Nutrition Security Policy, which aims to address climate change and other environmental problems that have vexed farmers like Mletshwa.
EXPORTER TURNED IMPORTER
The launch comes as the Zimbabwean government has asked Zambia for 150,000 tonnes of maize, a radical reversal of the situation before Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme of 2000. Until that time, Zimbabwe had been a net food exporter, including to southern African countries such as Zambia.
According to Mugabe, the new food security policy is a response to “recurrent and intermittent droughts” that have resulted in spiralling food prices and have left many Zimbabweans increasingly food insecure.
In March this year, the World Food Programme announced that up to 1.7 million Zimbabweans would require food assistance this year, up from 1.3 million last year, as smallholders who previously produced the bulk of the country’s maize continued to suffer from uncertain rainfall and lack of infrastructure.
“The food and nutrition security policy provides a framework for a cohesive multi-sectoral action programme with a shared vision and strategy for improved food and nutrition security,” President Mugabe told journalists at the launch.
The policy is aimed at “especially small-holder farmers and women so that they (can) access cheap finance, knowledge on climate and the environment, smart farming systems, infrastructure and farm machinery,” he said.
Critics and farmer representatives, however, say the policy is late in coming. The country has largely failed to address the impacts of climate change and other environmental issues, they say, and this has worsened food production with each cropping season.
ACTION LONG OVERDUE
“It’s been left until too late,” said John Hwalima, a Bulawayo-based agriculture consultant.
“The signs have been there since the turn of the century that some serious thinking must be done in the agriculture sector but this has not happened. What we are seeing now is government reacting to the hard times, when there was ample time to be proactive,” Hwalima said.
“Climate change is real and will require more than a talk shop. For example, what should be happening, or should have happened, is investment in infrastructure for small-holder farmers, something like small dams and irrigation schemes, which as we know some white commercial farms had before the land seizures,” he said.
The announcement of a national food and nutrition policy comes after the government last year announced it was working on climate change policy research. The findings or recommendations, however, have not been made public.
Admire Mare, a development consultant in Harare, says the government will need to invest in and include smallholder farmers in its plans if it hopes to restore crop production in Zimbabwe.
“Solutions lie in the capacity building of small-scale farmers through the resuscitation of agricultural extension services and subsidised input schemes,” Mare said.
To ease the impacts of climate change, investment in fast-growing maize varieties and in dam construction and irrigation projects are an “indispensable necessity,” he said. “Any food security policy that ignores investment in irrigation and water harvesting techniques is bound to fail,” he warned.
In March, the government announced it was crafting legislation aimed at boosting irrigation that would compel financial institutions to make more money available to agricultural producers, who were once the country’s largest foreign currency earners.
Meanwhile, farmers in hard-hit areas are still waiting for help, with little understanding that climate change may be contributing to the worsening extreme weather.
Nomathemba Mthimkhulu, 54, another smallholder in Lupane, blames the region’s increasingly poor rains on social aberrations.
“We cannot have enough food from our fields with all these loose morals and Satanism around,” she said from her homestead, where she looks after seven grandchildren.
“You see these children? They will never know all the traditional food I grew up eating because the gods are punishing us by withholding the rains because of all these bad things happening,” she said.
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.