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In Zimbabwe, Low Cost Technology Saves Poor Farmers

Drip KitMost Zimbabweans –  about 70 per cent of the population – live in rural areas and are engaged in smallholder agriculture. These smallholder farmers, particularly in the country’s low rainfall areas, are extremely food insecure and have little or no access to new technology.

They suffer from low incomes and a generally low standard of living, poor health and nutrition, poor housing and an inability to send children to school. Soil degradation and outdated farming methods have kept rural families trapped in poverty.

Inadequate and unreliable rainfall and the recurrent threat of drought also restrict the potential of rain-fed agriculture, on which the livelihoods of most smallholder farmers depend. In a word, access to water for irrigation is one of the most critical constraints that small farmers face.

Making matters worse, AIDS is undermining agricultural systems and affecting the nutritional situation and food security of rural families. As adults fall ill and die, families face declining productivity as well as loss of knowledge about indigenous farming methods and loss of assets.

The devastating consequences of the epidemic are plunging already poor rural communities further into destitution as their labour capacity weakens, incomes dwindle and assets become depleted, with the latter affecting mostly women and children who have few property rights.

According to a survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union, agricultural output in communal areas has declined by nearly 50% among households affected by AIDS in relation to households not affected by AIDS. Maize production by smallholder farmers and commercial farms has declined by 61% because of illness and death from AIDS.

Women and girls are especially vulnerable. They face the greatest burden of work – given their traditional responsibilities for growing much of the food and caring for the sick and dying in addition to maintaining heavy workloads related to provisioning and feeding the household. In many hard-hit communities, girls are being withdrawn from school to help lighten the family load.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) describes household food security as “the capacity of households to procure a stable and sustainable basket of adequate food” (IFAD, 1996). It incorporates: (a) food availability; (b) equal access to food; (c) stability of food supplies; and, (e) quality of food. All aspects of this are affected by both the household-level impact of HIV/AIDS and the wider impacts of a generalised HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In households coping with HIV/AIDS, food consumption generally decreases. The household may lack food and the time and the means to grow and prepare some food. For the patient, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS can form a vicious cycle whereby under-nutrition increases the susceptibility to infections and consequently worsens the severity of the disease, which in turn results in a further deterioration of nutritional status.

The onset of AIDS, along with secondary diseases and death, might be delayed in individuals with good nutritional status.

Nutritional care and support may help to prevent the development of nutritional deficiencies, loss of weight and lean body mass, and maintain the patient’s strength, comfort, level of functioning and self-image.

In effect, the nutritional status of HIV/AIDS patients can also help improve the effectiveness of antiretroviral therapy, when it does become widely available to poor rural people.

In such a context, labour-saving technologies that will adapt agriculture to new conditions generated by HIV/AIDS can help to compensate for the depletion of labour caused by sickness and death.

Drip-irrigation is a low pressure, low volume irrigation system suitable for vegetables, shrubs, flowers and trees, and can be helpful when water is scarce or expensive.

Already popular in countries such as Israel and India, drip-irrigation has been gaining attention because of its potential to increase yields and decrease water use, fertilizer, and labour requirements, if managed properly.

Drip irrigation (sometimes called trickle irrigation) works by applying water slowly and directly to the soil. It is the slow drop-by-drop, localised application of water at a grid above the soil surface. Water flows from a tank through a filter into lines then drips through emitters into the soil next to the plants. The high efficiency of drip irrigation results from two primary factors. The first is that the water soaks into the soil before it can evaporate or run-off. The second is that the water is only applied where it is needed (at the plant roots), rather than sprayed everywhere as in sprinkle or furrow irrigation systems.

Nutrients can be applied through the drip systems, thus reducing the use of fertilizers. Soil is maintained in a continuously moist condition. With a 100 square meter garden, equipped with low cost drip kit technology, a family of five can grow nutritious vegetables for consumption throughout the year.

This inexpensive kit offers a 50 per cent savings on water, over 80 per cent yields, and better quality vegetables and herbs. Because of its minimal labour requirements, the kit is well suited to serve HIV and AIDS affected households headed by orphans or their grandparents, where labour maybe in short supply.

In Zimbabwe’s rural areas, HNGs are widespread, yet they are largely neglected in spite of their potential to cushion disadvantaged and AIDS-affected families from food insecurity. Ordinarily, a HNG is cultivated close to home, thus eliminating the need for farmers to travel to distant fields.

HNGs can play a significant part in enhancing food security in several ways, most importantly through: 1) direct access to a diversity of nutritionally-rich foods, 2) increased purchasing power from savings on food bills and sales of garden products, 3) availability of food throughout the season and especially during seasonal lean periods, and 4) savings on water, time and labour.

Improving household gardening requires the optimal use of land and irrigation, as well as a dynamic integration of additional crops and crop varieties with specific value and uses. A well developed HNG has the potential, when access to land and water is not a major limitation, to supply most of the non-staple food that a family needs every day of the year, including roots and tuber, vegetables and fruits, legumes, herbs and spices.

Roots and tubers are rich in energy and legumes are important sources of protein, fat, iron and vitamins. Green leafy vegetables and yellow-or orange-colored fruits provide essential vitamins and minerals, particularly folate, and vitamins A, E and C. Vegetables and fruits are a vital component of a healthy diet and should be eaten as part of every meal, and are highly recommended for people living with AIDS

Smallholder farmers generally grow three cycles of crops per year. Typically, this includes at least one cycle of vegetable crops during the winter months, and an early maize or bean crop that can be harvested in December. The exact cropping cycles and systems will depend on regional climate, soils and input availability, in conjunction with the specific skills and nutritional needs of the household.

Farmers are encouraged to grow locally available indigenous crops that are highly nutritive but often neglected. The crops contain good nutrients and often require low labour-input. They represent a flexible source of food supply and can be easily preserved. Besides providing a source of income, they are adapted to cultural dynamics and local food habits.

They produce ample seeds without creating a dependence on external resources. Because the technology is new, smallholder farmers require technical support and training to help them tap into the full potential of the kit.

By strengthening the capacity to produce food at household level using low-cost technologies, negative impacts can be mitigated for AIDS-affected communities. Labour saving technologies and improved seed varieties can help to compensate for the depletion of labour caused by sickness and death, and assist farm-households to survive prolonged crisis, such as that caused by AIDS. Through agriculture and rural development, resilience against HIV can be built.

Drip irrigation technology offers much promise for landholders in the communal areas of Zimbabwe, where water application has traditionally involved the use of surface irrigation and “bucket watering”. Both methods are inefficient and waste a lot of water. Using the bucket involves hard work especially when the water is far away and scarce.

With drip irrigation, communal farmers, especially women, who are the primary carers and pillars of the community, can be able to maintain their gardens with ease, efficiently and at a low cost.

Also, drip technology will give quick returns on a small investment, and growing vegetables will provide both nutrition vegetables and year-round incomes.

As the old Chinese saying goes: “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”