Farmers at Amazon and Mosenthals community irrigation schemes in Insiza District, Matabeleland South province, have undergone an intensive 10-day agro-ecology training that was designed to support their food sovereignty, while reducing their dependence on costly and difficult-to-access chemical inputs.

The workshops which ran concurrently at the two projects were conducted by staff from Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre (FPC) and coordinated by Zimbabwe Project Trust (ZimPro). Both organisations are supported by Trócaire Zimbabwe.

Insiza district falls in agro-ecological region four, which on average records annual rainfall of between 450 to 650 millimetres and is prone to droughts.

Given the country’s heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture, drought has serious implications on food security and the agriculture-based economy, particularly with increasing weather and climate variability.

The training thus encompassed both theory and practical sessions covering the main elements of agro-ecology that include water and soil conservation in nutrition gardens, the cycle of degradation, conservation measures in gardens, liquid manure making, collective composting, principles of plant nutrition, pest and disease management, side effects of agro chemicals, cultural methods of controlling pests and diseases and cropping and management of crops.

With the growing attention and interest in using poultry as a tool in poverty alleviation in villages, the workshops also imparted knowledge on how to improve village poultry production systems with relatively few inputs with specific focus on rearing of indigenous chickens.

One of the key practical sessions which the farmers undertook was how to make composts.

“From now on we’ll not use fertilisers that we have been applying to our soils and we’ll instead use composts to nourish our soils,” said one of the trainings beneficiaries, Ms Bongani Ndlovu.

Ms Ndlovu of Mosenthals irrigation scheme said she was excited to learn about how composts help in enriching soils that had been degenerating due to overuse of fertilisers.

Another farmer, Mrs Mavis Moyo, said before the workshop, farmers had been burning maize stover due to ignorance.

“All along, we had been burning maize stover as we thought it was useless at the irrigation scheme, but we’ve now learnt that we can use it for compost-making and mulching,” she said.

Materials that the farmers used on the composts were dry organic matter that include grass, weeds, dry leaves, stem of cereals, green matter that ranged from fresh vegetables, leaves, weeds, legumes, and animal manure from cattle, goats, poultry and sheep, wood ash and water.

Mosenthals irrigation scheme was established in 2014 by the small-holder farmers who had been settled in the area by the government as part of the land reform programme. The first 64 farmers, however, only started production in 2016 after receiving assistance towards the setting up of infrastructure that included fencing, canals construction, installation of a water pump and getting connected to the electricity grid.

The farmers suffered a major setback in 2017 as a result of destruction of infrastructure by storms.

Lessons under the agro-ecology training also included the cropping calendar, timing for planting, traditional seed varieties and how they are planted. A cost benefit analysis lecture enlightened the farmers that they could earn more from diversifying into cash crops instead of concentrating on the traditional maize crop.

Mr Chrispen Dungeni, the facilitator from Fambidzanai said the project primarily looked at the health of the people against the background of synthetic chemicals that they had been applying which he said were a threat to their health.

The project also looked at the environment, considering that soil at the irrigation scheme was being exposed to various forms of erosion, which would deprive the coming generations of any benefits from the same soils.

“Through the adoption of organic farming, we’re also preventing siltation of Insiza River. If we preserve the environment, the source of water will be perennial hence there’ll be sustainability,” said Mr Dungeni

For the 60 farmers of Amazon Irrigation Scheme whose journey began a decade ago with 16 elders coming together to discuss the idea of harnessing water from Insiza River to enable them to cultivate crops under irrigation and remove them from the list of people that depended on hand-outs, the training came in handy.

“We’ve been working on the land for many years now but until we attended this workshop, we never realised that we could improve our production in this manner,” said Mr Mikayeli Sidambe, Amazon project chairperson and founder member.

“When we were allocated the land in 2007, we started clearing the bush using hand tools that we brought from our own homes. In 2008, we then started planting and watering the crops collecting water from the river using buckets. It was hard work and some members gave up,” he said.

Mr Sidambe said the situation suddenly changed when ZimPro offered to assist with infrastructure development worth US$500 000.

“We could hardly believe it when we were informed by officials from the District Administrator’s office that ZimPro had offered to help us develop the project. For seven years we had been struggling to raise money to fence off the area, and all that was to be taken care of under the assistance programme we were offered.”

Mr Sidambe said by organising the agro-ecology workshop for the farmers, ZimPro had lived up to its promise of not abandoning them when they officially handed over the project in March 2017.

“We’ve learnt the importance of organic matter towards compost-making and mulching and as a result we’ve banned the burning of organic matter at our irrigation project,” said Mr Sidambe.

Crops that the farmers at Amazon initially produced included maize, sugar beans, tomatoes, onions and cabbage before they diversified into production of potatoes and butternut. The farmers, just like their colleagues at Mosenthals have also attended courses in value addition of their produce after receiving processing equipment from ZimPro and being assisted in the construction of drying sheds and storerooms.

At the end of the agro-ecology workshop, the farmers were divided into groups where they came up with action plans. The action plans encompassed most of the lessons learnt to support their production using locally available resources and these included application of indigenous pesticides on crops, production of liquid manure, compost making, ridging and intercropping.

Ms Lester Sibanda, one of the group leaders at Amazon said her group had resolved to embark on foul rearing as one of the group members had offered to provide chicks for the project.

Mr Shepherd Mudzingwa, Fambidzanai project coordinator said the action plans produced demonstrated that the farmers had grasped the concepts and were ready to implement what they had learnt particularly with the regards to soil and water conservation and management.

He said his team would be monitoring the progress on the action plans outlined by the farmers and will assist them where they face challenges on implementation.