Zimbabwean rural farmers learn `Diversify or Die’ as rains dwindle

PUBLISHED: Thu, 08 Sep 2016 13:48:30 GMT

After a second consecutive sub-par cotton crop and yield Gift Nyanyiwa was open to a new challenge.

Last January, Nyanyiwa turned to sesame seeds, a crop he had never heard of before after 16 years of diminishing maize, sorghum and cotton returns. Nervously, he is now awaiting pricing for his crop, though he remains encouraged by the shorter farming period and lower input costs.

“I really like the fact that it’s different from cotton as we can also use it for oil,’’ Nyanyiwa said. “I have spoken to a lot of other farmers who want to try the seed after suffering from cotton.’’

READ:Zimbabwe’s child marriages on the rise as food runs short 

Cotton prices, along with other commodity prices have tumbled amid the global economic downturn and agricultural subsidies in rich countries, leaving farmers poorer and thousands of workers jobless in the developing world.

READ:23 million farmers in drought-hit Southern Africa

However, prices have started to climb in the past two months after production drops in China and Pakistan and renewed buying by trading companies. The United States Department of Agriculture has also noted clothing production has been higher than cotton demand for a second year in a row. It also estimates that global stockpiles will drop by 9 million bales to 91.29 million by July 2017, according to California Apparel News, a U.S. weekly clothing news newspaper.

For local farmers, that has come too late after they saw farmgate prices plunging by half from around 60 U.S. cents a kilogramme in 2015 to around 30 cents a kilo now, according to Nyanyiwa who stopped growing the crop two seasons ago after suffering heavy losses.

“The prices kept getting lower and lower while the input and labour costs kept rising,’’ said Nyanyiwa, also contrasting the six months it takes to grow and harvest versus the seven to eight months for cotton. “I was making huge losses and I had to get out.’’

After planting 3 ½ acres of sesame seed this year, he plans to expand production next year as buyers in the area had promised him about 50 to 60 cents a kilo for his product. His neighbor Gwatipedza Zvekare, who resettled in the area from Zaka, Masvingo 21 years ago, also plans to venture into sesame next year after abandoning cotton and watching Nyanyiwa’s experiment.

“It seems easier to grow, is less expensive and appears drought resistant,’’ Zvekare said. “We found cotton expensive. It was like working for nothing.’’

The farmers have also found a buyer in Jacob Smit, the area manager for carbon trader Green Carbon Africa. Smit says farmers have enthusiastically taken up his offer of 50 cents a kilo at the farm and he already has about 50 committed to selling their produce to him. Sidela, a Mozambican company, had also promised to buy some of the crop.

“There has been a good uptake of the crop,’’ said Smit who sees sesame eventually overtaking cotton as a cash crop for the farmers. “It does very well in this area. Even this season, without a lot of help they have managed to a get avgood crop. It fits in very well in rotation of either legumes or sorghum.’’   

Tendekayi Kazembe, a district agriculture officer, said the district was losing farmers to neighbouring Guruve while among those farmers that stayed, the trend was to diversify to sesame and hardy animals like goats and sheep.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is also working with local farmers to help them diversify after the devastating impact of two consecutive bad seasons. It estimates some 23,000 farmers will need help to plant for the next agricultural season.

David Phiri, FAO’s Southern Africa head says the agency needs $109 million to help farmers in Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“We must make the most of this small window of opportunity and make sure that farmers are ready to plant by October when the rains start,’’ Phiri said in a statement cited by Reuters. “The main way people are able to access food is through what they themselves produce. Assisting them to do this will provide lifesaving support in a region where at least 70 percent of people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.’’

A similar message is disseminated by other UN agencies like UNICEF who say capacitating farmers enables them to look after their children better, reducing the need for foreign interventions.

*Godfrey Mutizwa is an African journalist and broadcaster

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