Zimbabwe: Breath of Fresh Air for Rural Women

A fleet of SUVs race down the road from Bulawayo to uMzingwane, giving occupants a comfortable country ride as they buried rustic villages behind.

The comfort is to be traded in radical and dramatic fashion.

At about the 60km peg, the vehicles take an abrupt westward swing, abandoning the smooth tarred road to take on a dirty way which tore into thick green summer forests.

In the wake of the current rains, environment is serene as the land is clothed in a perfect blend of natural flora and blooming crop fields.

Drivers sweated as they negotiated the steep slopes, haunted on each side by occasional basalt outcrops, and often descending sharply into stone rivers.

At some point, the cars suddenly halted: large outcropping of bundled roots from the remains of a dead tree had broken free from the hard pack alongside the road and needed to be skillfully negotiated.

The first sign of human existence in this outback came in the form of ecstatic singing which drifted into the ears once the vehicles were on the verge of completing yet another rough stretch of the dirty road.

These were villagers who had gathered to welcome their guests for the day.

Having waited all day long, the visitors' arrival was signalled by a cloud of fine dust tossed over the hazy horizon.

Few cars ever come to Ntabemnyama village of uMzingwane district in Matabeleland South province.

It is a far flung settlement situated by both geography and sociology far from modernity.

Forgotten by both politicians and government bureaucrats, it is one area whose people have had to live with nagging poverty and hunger throughout their lives.

That is however dramatically changing change due a US$7 million facility for income generating projects by the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF) in partnership with local NGO, Melana.

The ecstatic singing came from a group of women who had already gathered to welcome delegates from ZRBF and Melana who had come to assess progress on a an industry-scale stock feed manufacturing project.

The project is being undertaken by 12 villagers, eight of them being women and the driving force behind the success of the project is the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

"We were not like this before. We were suffering a lot but we can now afford to eat well, send our children to school and even do corporate social responsibility programmes in our communities," chairperson of the association, Thembi Mlilo said.

From the US$7 million grant, ZRBF and Melana fund development projects in Umzingwane, Bubi, Nkayi and Umguza districts, the majority of beneficiaries being women working in community groups of no less than 12 each.

Through the use of ICTs, the beneficiaries are able to communicate to each other about the essentials of business.

For Mlilo and her Ntabemnyama group, their phones have become very important communication gadgets; always stuck around their necks.

They have become their links with friends, relatives and above all the markets.

"We can easily inquire what is selling and not on the market," she said.

ICTs have become a mainstay of development giving hope to previously marginalised communities, who before their advent had no other means of accessing information.

"By just a click of a button, they are now able to influence their destinies, choose who to do business with and look for other opportunities across the region. Having embraced technology, they say it has made it easier to conduct business within the confines of their homes and at their convenience. They actually can multi-task while doing house chores, and they receive and send money and orders to their clients," Melana head of projects Kudzai Nyengerai said.

"They have created Whatsapp groups for faster dissemination of information and they use it so effectively. Even those who are not really digital literate can benefit from it because we encourage them to find a reliable point person with the specific role of explaining things to them. They also interact with those in other districts on the trending market and business projects," he said.

Through funds provided by ZRBF, of which Melana is the implementing partner, the women at Ntabemnyama managed to establish a stock feed mill in October last year and are producing up to 35 tons of stock feed per month which they sell at ZW$100 for a 50kg bag.

They stock feed is made using locally available resources, with the main ingredients being wild fruits, acacia twigs, carefully selected tree leaves.

"We grind each of them separately and then mix them together following appropriate measurements to produce stock feed which cattle and goats love so much," the group's secretary Mercy Nyoni said.

"So far, business is good. We supply up to 350 farmers around the district and also supply Mzilikazi Stock feed company in Bulawayo. The company takes up 7,8 tonnes every month," she said.

Melana project markets linkage advisor Rodney Mushongachiware said they are working towards ensuring that the groups would continue operating even in the event of the funding initiative lapsing.

"Our projects are modelled in manner that would allow them to continue well after Melana has left. So we are training them to properly model their business and run it more professionally so as to ensure that it is sustainable," he said.

For now, the intervention has brought huge relief for previously marginalised rural women, whose renewed hope can only serve to spur them to greater productivity.

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