Monthly livestock auctions at Holomoka village under the Gomoza Ward of Lupane district, about 220km west of Bulawayo bring cheer and at flurry of activity that sees most farmers reaping a harvest of joy.
Livestock auctions have become so popular and attract huge numbers of farmers from across this drought-prone district. Sales figures vary from season to season. And recently, the total sales value of cattle hit the $30 000 mark sending a ripple effect across the Lupane rural economy.
Buyers pay cash and money changes hands fast bringing brisk business to all, from food vendors, vegetable sellers, grocery vendors, hardware traders, cosmetic and wares of all sorts to welders and craftsmen. Everyone gets a slice of the auction sales cake.
"Livestock auctions are getting bigger and bigger all the time," says Nomagugu Sibanda, a food vendor, from Holomoka village in the Gomoza area of Lupane district. If we can be a part of that, it's a great thing. I can make as much as $70 on a good day. It's a lot and I can buy food, clothes and pay fees for my children."
Sibanda sells the popular 'isitshwala samabele' (millet) or 'Inyawuthi' (sorghum) served with the 'road-runner' chicken and goat meat. Sanele Ncube, a clothing vendor from Pupu Ward says she can get as much as $150 a day depending on the number of cattle sold.
"Cattle auctions are our own life blood here. They are a hit and every month we always look forward to the opening of the auctions. The mean a lot to us as rural people. They give us a reason to smile despite the difficult economic situation we are facing as rural people," she says.
Sibanengi Ndlovu, a welder from Dlanimbili village, says livestock auctions bring business and life to Lupane district.
"Cattle is a critical asset for us," he says. "The linkage between livestock sales and business activity is all too clear for anyone to see. When a farmer sells his animal, he gets money and goes to buy goods and other services helping to spread the benefits to all."
The Gomoza auction pens have a solar water pump which installed through the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in partnership with Lead, an international NGO. The livestock weighing scales, poles, dip tank and other infrastructure has enhanced the livestock facility, eliminating the labour intensive task of hauling water from far distances.
The installation of solar water pumps at Gomoza has brought the gift of water, health and a thriving vegetable and fodder gardens which are improving household incomes and food security.
Competition for water for livestock and humans was so stiff and disputes were a common problem in Holomoka village and other villages dotted around Lupane. Lupane district continues to experience severe and back-to-back droughts which has led to clashes for water, deaths of livestock and poor harvests.
The district has gone for more than 10 years experiencing below -- average rainfall and several consecutive years of drought leading to the drying up of rivers, reservoirs and wells.
And, the Making A Living from Livestock project, implemented by the FAO in partnership with LEAD with a US$9,2 million fund from the EU, has seen more than 40 000 Zimbabwean smallholder farmers increasing their household food, income and nutrition security. The project has implemented actions to assist farmers to boost their livestock productivity and drive towards commercial agriculture.
In addition, the project has helped to remove market access barriers by establishing agriculture marketing infrastructure, providing marketing information and access to markets. Lucia Mwanyisa, a LEAD program manager in Lupane says cattle auctions are improving livelihoods and boosting earnings for farmers.
"On average, farmers sell more than 60 cattle a month earning money to sustain their livelihoods. During peak periods (March - July), they can sell up to 80 or 100 cattle, but prices will be lower than the August - December, when a farmer can fetch up to $700 or more for a beast weighing more than 400kg," she says.
She says farmers they are supporting at Gomoza have 30 cattle for breeding purposes.
"Cattle is an important asset for farmers and the auction is an important event in their lives," Mwanyisa says. "Livestock is transforming their livelihoods and they need training on how to manage animal diseases through dipping, frequent health checks and feeding and even on how best they can fetch more on the market."
Livestock auctions are giving credence to the role smallholder farmers in the overall growth of the economy. Rural cattle marketing has been transformed in recent years and major wholesale and retail abbatoirs have moved from sourcing animals in large numbers from single ranches to various cattle pens in drought - prone areas where cattle do well.
They now employ buyers scattered across rural areas, working under area coordinators to source animals from cattle pens such as this one in Gomoza. And, when the buyer has sufficient animals in an area, they will call the abbatoir who will send a truck to collect 35 or so, for a trip. Cash is then paid on receipt on the basis of estimated weights as recorded by a police officer and veterinary extension worker at the auction.
Farmers say the livestock auction system is better than dealing with the "Makoronyeras" (middlemen) who rip them off. With the presence of the police, veterinary extension workers, development partners and people at the auction, at least, they say, they feel protected.
"Even though prices are not the best at times and that some complain that weight estimates are not accurate, it's still much better than dealing with Makoronyera," says Samuel Sibanda, a farmer from Pupu ward in Lupane.
"Those ones are ruthless. They will reap you, especially when you are desperate and you want money to cover emergencies such as funerals and illness. Livestock auctions are still at least a better way of getting a reasonable deal."
When a farmer sells his animal at the auction, a fee is levied, but also the owner must present his/her stock card to have the sale registered by the police and the veterinary department. Both charge fees, around $2 and $10 respectively while the council also gets a small fee.
Mobilising farmers to bring larger numbers of animals for sale is important for bulk marketing and the protection of farmers against unscrupulous dealers. A livestock development expert aptly sums it: "Our smallholder farmers really need to get together and put together bigger numbers to get really worthwhile prices," he says.
"Having small and fragmented sales will open them to abuse and unfair trade practices. The Makoronyeras are ruthless and have no heart for the smallholder farmer. A functioning livestock pen facility like this one here at Gomoza is a good starting point. It enables farmers to participate in the economy. It makes them to feel that they are part of Zimbabwe and can make a more meaningful contribution to the economy."
When farmers benefit from livestock auctions, bigger business also benefits. Rural people, also then buy items from such things as tooth brush, tooth paste, soap, cooking oil, bread, beverages, fruits, clothes, margarine, mosquito repellants and coils and agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizers,pesticides, cattle feed and machinery.
All this has a potential for growth in the rural market, even though big business downplay the rural economy. The earning of rural people is increasing day by day, helping to send ripple effects across various sectors of the Zimbabwean economy. The rural economy has lots of untapped economic opportunities.
Most farmers aregetting aware of what is happening around them and with advent of information technology,they are keeping eye on new trends and innovations that could help them increase productivity and enhance their earnings.
One of the best ways to capture the attention of the rural consumers, is through livestock auction events. Conducting an event at livestock auctions can bring a good response from farmers who are keen to learn and adopt anything that could enhance their livelihoods.
"The auction is always very rewarding," says Matron Dube of Holomoka village. You can earn a lot of money which you can use to buy food, clothes and send your children to school."
Aside from the serious business of livestock auctions and trade, the event has also become a place for fun, dance and music with buyers and sellers walking through the crowd, chatting and sharing the latest gossip in the area.
"I love it," says Dube. "It's exciting to mix with people and I look forward to the auction every month."