After her husband died ten years ago, Martha Gurure came to live in Mutoko, a district of Mashonaland East. She inherited a small plot of land on Nyaitenga Irrigation Scheme, land her late husband had obtained before they were married when the scheme was first established. She has only half an acre of land, but thanks to a fairly steady supply of water, she fares better than many rural farmers.
Her legs outstretched in front of her, Martha sits effortlessly on her olive green cloth, which she spread out on the ground, and invites us to join her.
Only 28 years old, Martha has two young children of her own and takes care of three other children who were orphaned as a result of the death of her brother and sister. Her deep brown eyes well up when she mentions her siblings’ deaths, but she stoically holds back her emotions. Raising five children while running a farm is not easy, but Martha is energetic and hard-working. She gets help from one permanent worker who stays with her, as well as from casual labor she hires during periods of intensive work such as planting and harvest times.
This season, thanks to support from USAID and other partners, Martha is cultivating carrots, rape, and peas. “I decide what to grow depending on the market,” she says. She gets market information by making periodic trips to Mbare market, where she meets with various buyers to get their advice on what to grow. Soon her rape crop will be ready to harvest. She expects to get around $200 for the first harvest, and more from subsequent harvests. A single planting of the rape crop yields 3-4 harvests.
If last year is any indication, Martha will earn considerably more from her carrots once they mature in two months’ time. The buyers at Mbare seem to have an insatiable demand for carrots. “Carrots are good for your eyes,” she says. It seems Zimbabweans have caught on to their nutritional benefits. She tells us that while carrots fetch a good price, they are harder to prepare for market as they require scrubbing off all the dirt on every bunch.
Last year, Martha estimates she earned $6,000 from the sale of her farm produce. Depending on market prices, she may earn more this year. Out of this, she must pay for electricity, seeds, and fertilizers, all of which can add up. Martha has been lucky the past few seasons: she received a loan to purchase fertilizer, which she repays in installments to the fertilizer company. She is on her third loan, having already repaid the first two in full.
Like in much of the world, smallholder agriculture is too risky and costly a venture for financial institutions. But with support from USAID’s Feed the Future program, over 1,500 smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe accessed some form of credit for seeds and fertilizers. While this number is not large, the experience demonstrates that lending to smallholders is a viable business. Without quality seed and fertilizer, farmers on irrigation schemes cannot capitalize on their access to water. USAID works with Zimbabwe’s financial institutions to develop and market products that are a win-win for both the farmer and the financial institution.
While glad to have obtained credit for seeds and fertilizers, enabling her to increase her yields and sell more produce, Martha wishes she could obtain a cash loan so she can complete the house she wants to build. She already bought bricks from last year’s earnings. Some financial institutions, such as the one lending to Martha, are not yet comfortable providing cash loans, as they fear repayment rates will drop.
Access to a reliable supply of water makes an enormous difference to the lives of smallholder farmers. Keeping the water running is vital. Nyaitenga farmers have a spare motor in case the water pump needs to be repaired. This ensures they are never without water, except on those occasions when there are rolling black-outs, which happens all too frequently.
After talking, we walk over to view Martha’s fields, dashing past the tall rotating sprinklers to avoid getting drenched. All her land is under cultivation, save a small parcel on which she’d recently harvested maize. Martha poses proudly for a photo shoot amid rows of her hearty green rape. Her toddler daughter, Ropafadzo, runs to greet her mother and Martha picks her up. A frown on her face, she is wary of strangers. “My biggest hope,” says Martha “is that my children get a decent education so that they will be able to make wise decisions in life.”
We are sad when it is finally time for us to return to Harare but feel heartened knowing that the ingenuity, hard work and commitment of these farmers will enable them to feed and educate their children and maintain hope for a still brighter future.