Changing weather patterns in recent years have greatly altered Zimbabwe’s and the global hydrological regime. The frequent occurrences of natural disasters like low rainfall, drought and cyclones have led to severe hardship and farm distress, with devastating impacts on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, threatening food and nutrition security in the country.
Currently Zimbabwe is in the throes of its worst humanitarian emergency in a decade. Prior to the outbreak of the COVID‑19 pandemic in the country, the number of people assessed to be food insecure in the February‑June 2020 period was estimated at about 4.34 million, accounting for 45 percent of the rural population. Subsistence farming families who make up three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s population and produce most of its food are also hurting because of a third successive drought-hit harvest this year. Zimbabwe yielded only 1.1 million MT of maize, the staple cereal, less than half the national requirement. This, in turn, presages even more severe food insecurity in early 2021, the peak of the next “lean” season.
In response to the impact of climate change and the drought hit harvests, starting the 2019/20 agriculture season, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Zimbabwe, through the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) funded Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP) decided to actively promote low input climate proofed sustainable agriculture to enhance household food security in the country. This intervention together with other interventions by FAO aim to support, reinforce and strengthen government’s efforts to achieve zero hunger. From January 2015 to date, FAO has been working with consortia led by Welthungerhilfe, Practical Action and World Vision as implementing partners to reduce poverty amongst 200,000 rural farming households through improved food and nutrition security, under the LFSP programme.
During the 2019/2020 farming season, LFSP partnered with the country’s leading agency in the provision of effective agricultural extension services, AGRITEX to train 53,004 farmers from 10 districts across three provinces on the Pfumvudza Concept. The Pfumvudza concept, which is characterized by intensive crop production on a small piece of land with less inputs, falls under low input sustainable agriculture (LISA) in the LFSP programme.
Lurching from the adverse effects of climate change that have seen agricultural output plummeting over the years, the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) has widely adopted this (Pfumvudza) climate proofing agricultural practice for the 2020/2021 season. In addition Zimbabwe’s smallholder farmers hope that this conservation farming concept will maximize agricultural productivity and provide the much-needed relief against climate change-induced food shortages. In this article, we share our experiences, lessons learnt and the potential impact of Pfumvudza on food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the country.
The Pfumvudza Concept
“Pfumvudza” or “intwasa” in the local Shona and Ndebele languages respectively refer to the blossoming of fresh leaves of the Zimbabwean spring signaling the arrival of the new season. This concept which is designed to meet cereal needs for an average household of six members over one year, applies basic conservation agriculture (CA) principles and provides families a fresh new start, hence the name Pfumvudza. All the CA principles are applied “on time, at standard, without wastage and with joy” on a plot measuring 39m x 16m, which represents 1/16th of a hectare. The 0.0624 hectare plot has 52 planting rows each with 28 planting stations holding 2 maize plants per station. The 56 maize plants in each row will give 56 cobs which give one bucket (20 litres) of shelled grain. Each bucket can provide grain to feed a family of six for one week. The 52 buckets from the 52 rows will feed the family for 52 weeks, which is one year. The typical Pfumvudza input pack consists of 2kg maize seed, 12kg lime, 16kg basal fertilizer and 16kg top dressing fertilizer.
The components of the Pfumvudza practice are:
- Minimum soil disturbance, with farmers only digging planting basins and leaving the rest of the land untilled
- Maintaining permanent soil cover through use of mulch. Dead mulch in the form of crop residues, grass, leaf litter, other organic matter and live mulch/cover crops intercropped with the main crop can be used
- Observance of crop rotation
These practices are done on time and to the expected precision resulting in a predetermined plant population.
Out of the 53,004 farmers from the three LFSP clusters in Manicaland, Midlands and Mashonaland Provinces, trained on the Pfumvudza concept 9,281 went on to apply the concept under the maize crop at their family farms. The farmers applied the different components of the Pfumvudza package to varying degrees. An assessment of the performance of Pfumvudza in the 10 LFSP districts was undertaken to evaluate the performance of the concept and its contribution towards household food security.
Farmers who followed the recommended Pfumvudza practices (full mulch cover, recommended fertilizer application levels, timely crop planting, pest and disease management, recommended crop spacing leading to optimal plant populations) achieved an average of 7.8 tonnes per hectare – which is 700% more than yields from conventional farming (1 ton per hectare), guaranteeing household food security for 33 weeks. The performance of Pfumvudza thus points to the huge potential to turn around the food and nutrition security status of rural households and indeed the whole country.
Mulch effect on yield
The importance of mulching was all too clear across the clusters. Farmers who mulched their crops realized significantly higher yields than their non-mulching counterparts. Dead mulch performed best, followed by live mulch. Applying mulch before planting led to significantly higher yields than when applied later. Use of live mulch did not only enhance maize productivity, but also provided a diversified food basket from pulses and the gourd family (pumpkins and squashes). This also contributed to household nutrition security through making diverse nutritious foods available to the household. Crop residues from live mulch also contributed to livestock feed
Due to the shortage of dry mulch in most areas farmers used live mulch. The Midlands Province was particularly exceptional in promoting live mulch and the results are very encouraging.
Although generally live mulch seems to be providing reasonable crop performance in the Pfumvudza plots, further analysis shows that different plant species provide different results. Current evidence suggests that cowpeas and velvet beans performed best. Trailing cowpeas had a better mulching effect than the bushy type.
The recommended use of mulch produced high maize yields in areas where cumulative rainfall was low, as well as areas that suffered prolonged dry spells. This goes to show the potential of Pfumvudza, and particularly the significant role of mulching in ensuring high yields under adverse moisture regimes.
Farmers applied a combination of organic (compost and animal manure) and inorganic basal a fertilizer and top dressed with inorganic fertilizer. There was no profound relationship observed between rate of fertilizer application and expected/achieved yield. Use of organic fertilizers needs to be promoted more in line with the low input sustainable agriculture focus being promoted by LFSP.
To sum up Pfumvudza offers a solution to the daunting and recurring climatic, economic challenges experienced by small holder farmers in Zimbabwe; through climate proofing the farming practices using low cost materials and locally available inputs. The use of appropriate cover crops is an opportunity for crop diversification on the same Pfumvudza plots, which helps increase the variety of foods available for households to eat. It is on this basis and encouraged by the promising results of Pfumvudza in the 2019/20 season that LFSP in the 2020/21 season is set to promote the production of nutritious crops such as Vitamin A biofortified maize, Iron and Zinc fortified sugar beans and climate resilient crops such as traditional grains and fruit trees. This will also help support government led initiatives to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition, particularly undernourishment (stunting, wasting, underweight) and micronutrient deficiencies.
LFSP has also set out to enhance the performance of Pfumvudza during 2020/21 through incorporation of more nature based practices such as water harvesting and moisture conservation, sustainable soil fertility management through use of organic fertilizers as well as integrated pest management.