By Moses Ziyambi
With climate change increasingly becoming mankind’s greatest existential threat, climate smart agriculture has become a buzzword but effective responses to the crisis remain dispersed and far between.
In Zimbabwe, as in every other developing country indeed, sustainable responses to climate change and the grave threat it poses to livelihoods in general and food security in particular are even less convincing.
It is in light of this gap between problems encountered and solutions offered that Aquaculture Zimbabwe, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) based in Masvingo, is making a notable difference in the most vulnerable communities through a multi-pronged approach.
Through its Integrated Agriculture, Aquaculture Production System, the organisation is implementing diverse projects in three districts namely Bikita, Gutu and Masvingo Rural.
The programme encompasses assisting communities to set-up combined projects comprising the raising of small livestock, building of gardens and planting of orchards at the same piece of land.
In Masvingo Rural Ward 18, Aquaculture has assisted the Njovo community to build a dam which supports over 500 villagers through a scheme called the Food Assistance for Assets Programme.
With either direct or indirect support from the World Food Program (WFP), the United States Aid for International Development (USAID) and other partners, Aquaculture has facilitated natural resource reclamation and conservation in a manner which supports livelihoods for the Njovo community under Chief Shumba.
The project begins in Zezai Village with a water harvesting exercise involving the building of a 186 metre-long trench along the Mashate-Veza-Jerera gravel road.
The trench will harness water which perennially gushes down the adjacent Mashate Mountain and floods the road every rainy season thereby eroding all the gravel downstream and making movement harder for children attending the nearby Njovo Primary School.
By reducing the erosion of gravel and other top soils from the road, the trench will significantly contribute to broader efforts to reduce siltation of the nearby small river thereby protecting a massive weir that has been constructed a short distance downstream.
When this writer visited the site, many villagers were busy at work, putting final touches to the trench which channels the water to a wetland further down the road.
“We will be done with this section of the project by September. I am glad that we have received so much buy-in from community members who appreciate the project’s worth,” says Food Assistance for Assets field officer John Shumba.
At Njovo Primary School, a few metres away, an even bigger project to harvest run-off water is being implemented by another contingent of enthusiastic villagers with Aquaculture technical support.
A massive water tank with a holding capacity of 8 000 litres is being built at the base of a hillock which overlooks the school to the north. The tank will receive water channeled into it by a network of strategically-built stone kerbs that will offload into a funnel which runs into the tank.
The stored water will be accessible to the school for gardening and sanitary purposes thus ending decades of water poverty.
What is more striking about all this work is perhaps the fact that much of it is being done using locally-available resources; both human and materials – stones uprooted from the hillock and quarry obtained by hand-crushing the same.
The school has all along operated a garden on the wetland, on which makeshift structures of poles and wire had served to protect vegetables from roving village livestock every dry season.
At the edges of the school beyond the road sits the wetland, itself another flagship section of the project where some 20 beehives stand secluded in verdant thickets of wild bush and grass.
The place has since been neatly-fenced as part of the reclamation process and to ensure that livestock and humans do not pound its sodden ground with hooves and feet at will, and neither will they be able to trample on its delicate vegetation again.
The contrast between the overgrown protected area and its heavily trodden, overgrazed immediate environs cannot be starker, with the fenced area’s vibrant vegetation providing cover for delicate soils beneath.
“This dekete (wetland) had traditionally been considered sacred and the myths associated with it helped keep it a bit safe for some time. However, as times began to change, people started to have little regard for it.
“Trees were cut down randomly, with pollutants from the school and the greater community finding their way here. It is heartening to know that all that defilement is now being reversed. We are now conserving this wetland and we are adding value into it through the bee-keeping project which will soon give us enormous rewards,” said Modrick Taruvinga, the wetland conservation committee vice chairperson.
Sitting on a 2.5 hectare piece of land, the wetland’s vegetation is thriving once again. School authorities will no longer run a garden on the wetland as they will soon be doing it right in their yard using water from the new tank.
The wetland’s new custodians say it is becoming a budding haven for diverse flora and fauna; such herbs as moringa/marenge which have medicinal properties, as well as the feared and almost mystical python which itself is an endangered species.
It is onto this wetland that runoff water from Mashate Mountain, as channeled by the new trench, will be seamless released to aid infiltration and help feed into its ecological balance.
The committee, which hopes to increase the beehives to 500 in the year 2021, has already prepared an adjacent piece of land which has been earmarked for a banana and citrus grove.
Members of the committee say the grove will provide abundant flowers from which the bees will extract ingredients for their cryptic yet sweet recipes.
More importantly, the wetland thicket and the envisaged banana-citrus grove are part of the watershed management upstream, which involves reducing soil erosion which leads to siltation of the water body.
The wetland is bound by Masvora River at its southern edge down which Aquaculture has facilitated the construction of the giant Njovo Weir which has already spurned new agricultural activities by hundreds of villagers.
This is a place which clearly captures the Integrated Agriculture, Aquaculture Production System which combines market gardening, tree planting, poultry farming and fisheries.
The combined projects, which are dominated by women, have incarnated the kind of hope that all people need to get by.
Irrigation water is released from the weir and travels by gradient into an underground storage tank downstream, from where it is hoisted by a solar-powered submersible pump into huge overhead tanks (colloquially known as Jojo tanks).
A labyrinth of piping delivers the water to the length and breadth of the garden which boasts a variety of vegetables including beans, sweet potatoes, king onions and covo. The vegetable beds are interspersed with fruit trees which get watered the very moment that the vegetables are watered.
A borehole was also drilled to supply potable water to the poultry project which raises the Sasso chicken breed.
“Sasso chickens are a duo-purpose breed which can be used for both eggs and meat. It grows faster than the traditional chicken breed and is less expensive to feed than the broiler. The manure generated here is used on the vegetable beds,” said project secretary Angeline Kamheni.
A fisheries industry is also taking off after Aquaculture invested 30 000 fingerlings into the dam, with the Zimababwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (Zimparks) adding a further 15 000.
For US$1, one earns some four hours of fishing rights on condition that only two fishing rods are used at a time. Profits realised are kept by the Asset Regulatory Committee for use in maintenance and sustainability work around the dam.
The weir, which has a capacity of 40m3 at a full supply level of 1.5m, has a masonry spillway wall bound by earthen embankments on each side, all built by villagers who receive food incentives in return for their labour.
On the embankments, vetiver and sisal grass nurseries are being prepared as part of measures to forestall erosion and siltation. These measures are complemented by an over 1.5km fencing around the dam which provides an orderly restriction of access to the dam by livestock.
The barbed wire fencing has already helped to spare some healthy undergrowth from the pounding hooves of livestock thereby complementing efforts to preserve the pristine state of the water body.
More interesting is that the set up at Njovo has its lookalike a few kilometres away in the Tadzembwa community of Ward 17 where the Chebvute Weir, Community Garden and Fish Ponds project – which now sustains over 500 households – has also taken shape.
The Chebvute Weir, which appears to be a replica of the Njovo Weir, was built along Nyamangure River which flows south-westwards through several villages.
From its depths flows the precious liquid running through a piping system which branches onto the 3.5 hectare plot which in turn hosts a vegetable garden, a fowl run and a goat pen housing 24 goats.
People from such villages as Shumbayaonda, Maregere, Murambwi and Tadzembwa have found succor in this project which has given rise to hope that it is possible to mitigate the worst of climate change.
“I feel we have survived a desperate situation as a community, thanks to the intervention by Aquaculture. This is not a haphazard project as it took a lot of planning and consultations to implement.
“We realised that the rains we received per year were no longer enough to support our agricultural potential and sustain our livelihoods so we proposed this kind of a project. The support from Aquaculture has been overwhelming and I am glad that barely three years after construction work began, we have realised a profit from this work,” said project chairperson Julius Swadi.
Aquaculture’s support for the project begun with the provision of funding and technical support for the construction of the dam, laying down the piping network, installing the solar-powered system, building the infield canals, setting-up the water tanks and supporting the project’s production systems.
A solar-powered borehole also provides potable water for dozens of households that had hitherto relied on unprotected water wells dotted along the river bank.
The goats, which were bought using profits realised from the other projects being undertaken on the piece of land, produce manure which helps to fertilize the vegetables growing on this otherwise barren piece of land.
Project members are also indulging thoughts of a lucerne grass nursery which would not only help reduce soil erosion and siltation of Nyamangure River, but will provide nutritious feed for their goats as well.
In between the Chebvute and Njovo projects exists many households that are making use of new climate-change mitigation agricultural knowledge acquired from Aquaculture’s training programme which began a few years ago.
One beneficiary of this knowledge is Elimon Mawire who is practicing a dry-planting method known locally as pfumvudza. The practice involves making composite heaps from which manure is obtained to fill small, dry holes prepared in the fields.
At the onset of the rains, maize seeds are planted in those holes and covered with a mixture of top soil and the manure.
Mawire says this method helps to conserve both manure and whatever little moisture that the soil could retain with every rain drop.
“By filling manure directly into the hole, little of that manure is wasted and this also helps to improve moisture retention when rainfall is erratic. This is a more conservatory method of farming than the traditional practice of spreading manure all over the place,” said Mawire.
He said he would also be eager to participate in Aquaculture’s envisaged plans to promote the farming of small grains which are more drought-tolerant.
Several other villagers in both wards 17 and 18 have embraced another relatively novel initiative known as the key-hole garden which is a brilliant method of growing vegetables right on the homestead using little water.
Keyhole gardens provide for water recycling since even waste water that is normally thrown away in a rural household can be ‘dumped’ onto them, with remarkable blossoming effect on the plants.
On average, a keyhole garden can last up to four years without having to re-dig it, and their plants last longer with little water than plants in a more conventional garden set-up.
Getting an opportunity to see these initiatives give one an opportunity to appreciate how ordinary people, with capacitation from capable partners, are working to make Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Number 1 ‘Ending Poverty’ and Number 2 ‘Climate Action’ a reality.