By Busani Bafana
GAVU, Zimbabwe, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Among his neighbours, Phillip Tshuma, 67, is considered a wizard who commands the rains with the help of goblins. How else could he grow a bumper crop of ripening maize, sorghum, millet and peanuts in a season when many farmers in Zimbabwe have written off their crops?
In truth, the farmer from Gavu, a village in arid Hwange District, about 450 km north of Bulawayo, can't control the weather. But he can predict it fairly accurately.
Using a well-worn record book, a green plastic rain gauge, and a mobile phone on which he receives climate-related information via SMS, Tshuma makes farming decisions based on the weather patterns in his area, including when to plant, how to till the soil and how much fertiliser to apply.
Tshuma is one of a thousand small-scale famers in southern Zimbabwe benefiting from a project called Climate Smart Agriculture: Combating the El Niño Phenomenon.
Launched in Jambezi ward in 2013, the project is part of the nation's plan to manage threats such as droughts by strengthening systems to provide early warnings about risks to agriculture from climate change and related weather problems.
Bringing together the Ministry of Agriculture's Department of Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and local telecommunications services provider ECONET, the project teaches farmers to use weather-monitoring techniques and climate-smart agriculture practices to maintain food security in rain-scarce parts of the country.
Last season, 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 harvest four tonnes of millet and nearly 2.5 tonnes of sorghum, despite a drought that has slashed neighbours' maize harvests.
"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. But that is not true," Tshuma said.
With $30,000 of funding from ICRISAT, the project teaches techniques to help farmers improve their harvests while cutting their costs. Those includes 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 fertiliser in small doses just where it is needed.
It 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 diet staple.
"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," said David Bergvinson, ICRISAT's director general.
Switching to more resilient crops is crucial because "climate change is hitting us hard and fast," he said.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, climate-smart agriculture can help farmers produce more and become more resilient to shocks, boosting food security even as climate change-related extreme weather strengthens.
The practices and techniques the project promotes are part of Zimbabwe's plan to deal with climate change, submitted as part of a new global climate deal agreed in Paris last December.
The current El Niño-induced drought in Zimbabwe is one of the worst the country has seen in a quarter century. More than 3 million Zimbabweans are facing hunger due to a maize shortfall of more than 1 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.
HARD WORK, NO WIZARDRY
A recent study by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security says global warming will continue to affect staple food crops like bananas, maize and beans in sub-Saharan Africa unless farmers learn to adapt.
According to the study, 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's maize-growing areas, including in Zimbabwe, need to switch to different crops within the next decade.
"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," Danisile Hikwa, principal director of the agriculture ministry's Department of Research and Specialist Services, told farmers in Hwange District recently.
In Gavu, Tshuma has already seen the benefits of changing what and how he farms. After joining the agriculture adaptation project when it first started 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 Jambezi small grain processing plant, run by an association of farmers that grow, process, and markets products made from drought-tolerant crops.
Tshuma is so convinced about the need to adapt that he is mentoring 20 farmers through one of 50 climate field schools run jointly by ICRISAT and AGRITEX in Hwange District.
He admits some of his neighbours have been reluctant to adopt the changes, particularly the labour involved in digging basins.
But his success is winning them over, he said.
"Millet and sorghum are the crops for survival in this time of drought," he said. "Farmers have to work hard to survive - it is not magic." (Reporting by Busani Bafana; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)