In September 2005, Ransam Mariga took a drive through Mudzi, an arid zone spotted with sun-baked rocky cliffs in the northeastern region of Zimbabwe. What he saw really worried him.
September is the end of winter in Zimbabwe. After four years of erratic rains and low yields, many farmers were desperate as they headed into another growing season. Most had no money to buy seeds, fuel, or fertilizer—or if they did these essential farming supplies were simply not available due to the economic crisis gripping Zimbabwe.
Many families in Mudzi were caring for people living with HIV and AIDS, which is infecting more than 20 percent of Zimbabwe's population. This took away the time they needed to travel in search of seeds to plant and grow corn.
"For the last five years, few had been able to produce a crop," Mariga said. "People were surviving on wild fruits, and they did not have access to any grains or other sources of food."
Mariga, Oxfam America's humanitarian program officer, had no time to waste. He immediately started working with representatives from a local development organization called Single Parents and Widows Support Network, carrying out a rapid assessment of the most vulnerable families. Coordinating with special committees comprised of local volunteers, Oxfam and Single Parents surveyed the population in Mudzi and identified 5,000 families that needed help the most.
"Our criteria prioritized families with chronically ill family members," Mariga said, "Households taking care of more than two or three orphans, women-headed households, child-headed households, and those with older grandparents taking care of the young."
"Mudzi is a dry area of Zimbabwe," Mariga explained on a visit the following May. "It only gets between 300 and 350 millimeters (1.2 to 1.5 inches) of rain during the growing season. It's not ideal for agriculture and there are a lot of people living here who have to scrounge for a living, and grow what crops they can."
In consultation with farmers, Oxfam and Single Parents devised an agricultural support program that would get families the seeds they needed to plant before the rains started in November. The priority was on drought-resistant small grains like sorghum, as well as corn, pumpkins, and groundnuts (peanuts).
It was a race against time: Oxfam America and Single Parents procured the seeds and distributed them to the 5,000 project participants just in time for the rains. Suddenly, the most vulnerable families had a glimmer of hope.
"The seed package was really well received by the farmers," Mariga said. "They had something to grow, they would not have to scrounge for money to buy these inputs, and they could use their money for school fees, and health care for those who are chronically ill."
By the middle of April, the results were clear: farmers grew substantially more than in previous years, and would have more food to eat in the coming winter. "Our final round of monitoring indicated that about 40 percent of the participants harvested a crop that would sustain them until December," Mariga said. "Another 20 percent will have food until the next harvest in May 2007. This is a milestone for an area that has not been able to produce much in the way of crops for the last four to five years—it is a real achievement."
Bridget Masarauru, the program director for Single Parents, said that the agriculture program is making a big difference for the people they work with in Mudzi. In the previous years of low rainfall, Masarauru said it was common to see people faint during community meetings as the lack of food caught up with them. "People can now confidently say that they can have two or three meals a day, at least during the rainy season," Masarauru said. "This is something really tangible we can do."
David Kanjere, the elected councilor for Masahwa ward in Mudzi, was enthusiastic about the seed program. On a late-May tour of Masahwa, the second-largest ward in Mudzi with more than 24,000 people, Kanjere said this year's harvest was significantly larger thanks to the seeds and a bit of rain. "People started harvesting last month, and they are still harvesting now. Right now, people's lives are changing with this yield."
Oxfam and Single Parents are now turning their attention to helping farmers in Mudzi to store their seeds for the next season, and create ways for them to sell or exchange seeds and make them more widely available to other farmers. They will also look at ways to help the minority of participants who had trouble maximizing the potential of their seed basket in the 2005-2006 growing season.