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September 07, 2008

Irrigation scheme an oasis in arid Zimbabwe province

by Kennedy Mavhumashava

Valley Irrigation Scheme, a 200-hectare community project in the Matobo District of Zimbabwe's Matabeleland South Province, is a virtual oasis in the generally arid province.
Rolling fields of lush green crops stretch in all directions as overhead sprinklers water wheat and horticultural crops in the scheme, so big that it had to be subdivided into three blocks, A, B and C to facilitate easier management.

A total of 400 households have half-hectare plots each on which they grow different crops all year round under irrigation. This has boosted household food security and beneficiaries are able to feed their families, clothe them and pay school fees for their children, among other social and economic benefits.

The plotholders are the envy of their neighbours, who were not so lucky to get plots when the scheme was established. While some villagers who do not have plots are struggling to buy maize, Mr Malinganiso Khumalo (67), of Block A just recently harvested enough to feed his family. The elderly man, who is a pioneer beneficiary of the scheme also had surplus to sell. He describes the scheme as the most sustainable empowerment initiative that the government has provided to him and his colleagues.

Mr Khumalo recently harvested one-and-a-half tonnes of maize from part of his plot. The other half is now under wheat. He sold the bulk of the harvest but kept enough to feed his family for the next two seasons in the unlikely event that his work on the plot is interrupted and he fails to harvest anything.

“As you know,” he adds, “Matobo district is generally dry. As rain-fed crop production is impossible, the surest way to grow food is to do so under irrigation. Because of this scheme, I would say our life is far better and less stressful than our neighbours who are not part of us. Those who are not with us here, mostly depend on remittances from relatives based abroad, especially South Africa, and handouts from non-governmental organisations. While such support is appreciated, it is not as good as someone fending for himself. It can be erratic here and there, but when you work for yourself, it is always predictable.”

Valley Irrigation Scheme is one of the country's biggest irrigation projects both in terms of size and social impact. It was set up in 1997 as a joint venture between the Government and China.

Valley Irrigation Scheme is very well-organised, with administration offices on site and committees that run it on a day to day basis. For technical advice, the Ministry of Agriculture seconded an Agritex official to the scheme. The community project draws water from Valley Dam.

Mrs Gladys Nkomo (37), a mother of four, says she cannot imagine life without the scheme.
“Our life and this scheme are intertwined,” she notes. “Remove Valley Irrigation Scheme, you virtually strangle life out of this community. Without it we cannot function. We grow crops, sell them and earn a living. This is our place of work, as a family. It is different from formal jobs where the employed person can be the father or wife. With this irrigation scheme, the whole family is at work, the whole family is empowered.”

Mr Morgan Mhlanga, another plotholder says he has used the proceeds from his plot to diversify into poultry production.
He has 167 layers and 65 broilers.
“We can do a lot from this,” notes Mr Mhlanga, the chairman of the tillage sub-committee.
“While this scheme is good to sustain households, it can help a farmer to have a starting point for better things in life. Now I am rearing poultry. I want to grow bigger with time, doing other businesses apart from farming this plot.”
In an effort to improve their work through mechanisation, he says, plotholders pooled their resources together and bought a tractor in 2004. This year, they received a second one from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe under the ongoing Farm Mechanisation Programme.
The Agritex official, Mr Loness Ndlovu, estimates that 45 percent of the maize delivered to the local GMB depot at Maphisa Growth Point comes from Valley Irrigation Scheme.
“So in other words, this scheme is not just benefiting plotholders here, but also the whole country,” said Mr Ndlovu.
“They feed their families and sell surplus to the GMB and other Zimbabweans can then buy from GMB. They are contributing to national food production.”
Like other farmers countrywide, Mrs Nkomo is looking forward to the bonuses that the central bank has promised farmers.
While the scheme is improving livelihoods of the 400 plotholders and their immediate relatives, Mr Mhlanga observes that the community project is operating at less than 50 percent capacity because of breakdowns of pumps and lack of equipment.
The pump station at Valley Dam has four engines but only two are working. At the second station, which is on the irrigation scheme, four out of eight pumps have been working since 2005.
Faced with reduced pumping capacity, the farmers have drastically reduced their irrigation cycles. They take turns to irrigate their plots and on the day of our visit to the vibrant project, it was the turn for farmers at Block A to water their fields.
“There is need for a huge amount of money to fix the six engines,” Mr Mhlanga laments.
“We cannot raise that much, so we appeal to the Reserve Bank or central Government to help us mobilise money to repair the engines. If the irrigation scheme was operating at full capacity, we would be producing much more than we are now, perhaps doubling or even trebling the yield.”
Plotholders also appealed to the Government, through the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe to provide them with subsidised fuel.
Last week, Mr Mhlanga says, the farmers bought 2 000 litres of diesel, which they are using to till their plots as they prepare for the summer farming season.
“We need a permanent and predictable allocation from NOCZIM for us to operate viably,” he notes.
He says their tractors require ploughs and disc harrows.
At the time of our visit, Mr Ndlovu was using one tractor fitted with a disc harrow to till the plots instead of using a plough.
The other tractor cannot be used because it does not have a disc harrow or a plough.
“These are the challenges we are facing,” says Mr Ndlovu. “If we get these right, Valley Irrigation Scheme would be one of the biggest food producers in the country because our farmers are committed to their work.”
During the past season, he adds, the most productive farmer harvested about two-and-a-half tonnes of maize from his half-a-hectare plot. He could have produced more were it not for the challenges, he reckons.
Mrs Agnes Sibanda (66) another farmer, thanked the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority for maintaining uninterrupted supply of power to the irrigation scheme.
“I know some farmers elsewhere are complaining about power cuts, but here we are pleased that the problems we have are local, so to speak. Despite the reduced irrigation capacity, resulting from broken down engines, we are still able to irrigate more regularly. We take turns to irrigate, but we have a proper schedule which we follow.”

The Bulawayo Chronicle

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