In Zimbabwe, testing new approaches to growing food turns a struggling farmer into a leader.
When Calista Maguramhimga shows visitors a section of her half-hectare—about 1.2 acres—farm, she keeps a small notebook clutched in her hands, to which she refers for details on how she is growing her food here in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province.
In this area, the maize plants are tall, with green leaves and chunky cobs nearly ready to harvest. She points to one section: “Maize variety 633,” she says, reading her notes. “Plot prepared with ripper tine plow, planted December 20 with organic compost, fertilizer applied on January 3, and again on January 20.”
In one of the four small maize plots, she dug “basins” into which she added a mix of manure, fertilizer, and soil before planting her seeds. She goes on to cite all the methods she used on her sorghum, including specific fertilizer types, when she weeded, and in which plots she applied mulch around the plants to reduce weeds.
For two years, Maguramhimga is practicing “conservation agriculture.” It’s an approach that minimizes disturbance of the soil in order to reduce erosion and loss of moisture, and to conserve nutrients. It also saves labor, an important factor for a single woman like Maguramhimga, who is the head of her household and lives with her 78-year-old father. She is also raising four children, ages six to 22, all orphaned by her late brother and sister.
Oxfam’s partner, INSPIRE, recruited Maguramhimga to volunteer as a “lead farmer” after she received training through a program designed to help families improve their agricultural production, thereby improving their diets and reducing malnutrition, especially among young children. Typically, when training opportunities arise, it’s men who get to take advantage of them despite the fact that women do most of the work in the fields during the growing season. And single women are routinely overlooked.
But INSPIRE, with Oxfam’s support, is working to promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. And together, we are ensuring women get the skills and training they need through programs like the one Maguramhimga participated in. It is funded by the British government and implemented by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Learning and sharing
As a volunteer lead farmer, Maguramhimga helps train others in her village, a place called Muzenge. She tests different methods on the demonstration plots, and local farmers come to see what she is learning. She has basically set up a research station at her home, and she says she’s learning a lot from the process.
“Both men and women come and learn from her,” says Clever Maguramhimga, Calista’s father. “Experts consider her one of the best farmers here. They recognize her for her hard work.”
Maguramhimga points out two of the things she has learned that are making a big difference for her now: The first is using an ox-drawn ripper tine plow, which is easier for oxen to pull and more efficiently turns over the soil. “When you use the ripper tine, your yield is much higher, and it is faster,” Maguramhimga says. The other major improvement is the use of mulch–made from dead grass and leaves–around the base of her maize and sorghum plants. The mulch cuts down weed growth and helps the soil retain moisture. Both crops have improved.
“Before, using a regular plow, I used to get a ton of maize on this half hectare. I had to keep most of it because I have a big family,” Maguramhimga says. Since she started conservation agriculture practices two years ago, she’s seen a big difference. “We can now manage 2.5 tons on the same half hectare.”
And where she has applied mulch to her sorghum, she has also seen the yield improve. “It’s a better crop, and I did not have to weed it,” she says. “The heads are bigger, the grains are darker, and it’s taller and greener.”
Groundnuts are an important source of protein for families in this area, and Maguramhimga says she wants to increase the land she devotes to them since INSPIRE helped her and other farmers negotiate an affordable fee for using a nearby mill to shell the nuts, another way to save labor for her and her family. She then plans to make peanut butter, again for a reasonable cost at the same mill operation.
Maguramhimga’s status in the community is changing. Her father, Clever, has noticed: “The other farmers respect her because they learn a lot from her, even though she is a single woman,” he says. “She’s very different now.”
Oxfam is dedicated to creating lasting solutions to poverty, as well as responding to emergencies. Right now, millions of people are on the brink of starvation. Meet a few of the individuals working hard to overcome hunger, and find out how you can help.