Zimbabwe: Solar-Powered Irrigation Schemes Transform Lives in Dry Region

Dropping out of school at a tender age has not extinguished Rosemary Nkala's dream to send her children to school and one day buy a car.

The 35-year-old Nkala believes that through hard work her, destiny is still within her own hands.

She is now a mother of four, the eldest in Form 5, and the second in Form 4 while her last born twins are in Form 1 at Selonga High School in Gwanda South.

Nkala, a Form 2 drop-out, said she was no longer struggling to send her children to school, courtesy of a solar-powered irrigation scheme supported by Practical Action, a non-governmental organisation supporting agro-ecological farming in the arid region.

Her husband is not formally employed and the family now depends on the Phakamani solar-powered garden in Selonga, funded by the Swedish government with Practical Action as the implementing partner.

"I used to struggle to send my children to school, but all that is over," Nkala boasted.

"We are 46 in this garden project and since Practical Action drilled a borehole and installed this solar-powered drip irrigation system, our yields have improved and so have our sales.

"Life has changed."

She added: "We used to do the laborious manual watering of the garden, but the drip irrigation has made life easy for us.

"It was no joke carrying water from the canal with buckets to water the garden.

"It was the most difficult and painful thing we endured since the garden was set up in 2012 by Care International.

"But when Practical Action came to revive it in 2017, our lives have changed."

Nkala said Practical Action did not only provide the irrigation system, but also conducted several field schools to educate the smallholder farmers running the various solar gardens in Gwanda South.

"I am the production secretary for the Phakamani solar garden and we have been taught to manage our project professionally" Nkala said.

"Others do marketing, accounts and so forth.

"We have been taught how to conduct professional gardening. Government-employed agriculture extension workers are also supporting us."

The excited Nkala said they no longer have to sell their livestock to send their children to school.

"Schools have been closed and are due to open soon, but I don't have any headaches, I have the money to pay for the fees.

"I also don't have difficulties in providing food for my family," she said.

"We have fresh vegetables here and we buy mealie-meal and other goods from the money we realise from the garden.

"We have food and it's good for our health. During this Covid-19 lockdown, from my small portion, I managed to personally raise R7 000."

She added: "In three to five years, I want you to come back here and see a car that I will have bought.

"I have always had a dream to own a car and with this project, my dream will come true."

"Dropping from school in Form 2 will not stop me from dreaming of owning a car; money comes from the soil and with the gift of water we got from Practical Action, I will buy it.

"I have a lifeline and I will see all my children through college.

"I have already established a goat project out of this garden."

Nkala's story resonated with those told by several other villagers in Gwanda South, who have benefited from solar-powered gardens funded by Practical Action.

Gwanda South lies in the country's lowland area, up to 900 metres above sea level, and falls into ecological region 5 characterised by poorly distributed rainfall.

The district is also dominated by Kalahari sands with poor

water-holding capacity.

The soil type has low plant nutritional levels and hardly sustains crop life without augmentation from either chemical or organic fertilisers.

Due to poor rainfall, high temperatures and poor soil type, the district is always food-insecure with limited alternative livelihood opportunities for communities.

But non-governmental organisations such as Practical Action have been helping smallholder farmers to adopt various

in-situ water harvesting techniques in the form of mulching and pit planting to address the effects of climate change.

Practical Action, under the theme "Enhanced Agricultural Productivity and Resilience to Climate Change through Solar-Powered Irrigation", has assisted several communities in Gwanda South's wards 1, 2, 3, 5, 14, 15 and 18 by setting up four irrigation schemes and 15 solar-powered gardens funded to the tune of $2,3 million, which have helped transform lives.

In the past, the irrigation schemes and gardens have been supported by dam water, and could not run all year round due to dwindling water levels in the reservoirs, high cost of diesel to pump water as well as obsolete infrastructure, disrupting farming activities in the gardens.

But with the drilling of boreholes and solar-supported drip irrigation by Practical Action, smallholder farmers have been enabled to produce throughout the year.

Drip irrigation also requires less labour, apart from increased production.

Practical Action has been implementing its project in Gwanda under the Resilience Enhanced through Agriculture Productivity (REAP) programme, funded by the embassy of Sweden in Zimbabwe through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to the tune of US$2,3 million.

REAP was running parallel to Renewable Energy Empowering Women Farmers Project (REEWF), funded by the Isle of Man government to the tune of £1 527 for implementation in Gwanda South and Matobo.

Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre is the implementing partner for the REEWF projects where smallholder farmers are required to contribute about 10% of the total cost of the project in both the Gwanda and Matobo projects.

To date the projects have facilitated improved access to water through support in the drilling of 28 boreholes in the seven project wards of Gwanda district.

These boreholes were equipped with solar-powered water pumping and drip irrigation systems to supply water for agricultural productivity to support 74 hectares.

Farmers have received training on good production practices, production planning, disaster risk reduction and farming as a business as well as marketing since October 2017 when the project, which ended last month, but has been extended to January 2021, was introduced.

Sukwe irrigation scheme, the biggest in Gwanda South, according to Practical Action project officer Sukwe cluster, John Siambare, operates with nine boreholes and solar and irrigation systems installed at a cost of US$196 000.

The project was started in 1963, drawing water from Sukwe Dam, but could not run all-year round due to fluctuating water levels in the dam.

But the project, with 48 members on a 23-hectare piece of land, has a thriving maize crop on 13 hectares while the remainder has horticultural crops, courtesy of Practical Action's solar-powered irrigation system.

"I joined the project in 1986. We often skipped one or two seasons due to poor water levels in the dam.

"This is our first season using the solar-powered system and things have changed," Peggy Moyo (60), a farmer at the Sukwe irrigation scheme, said.

"Look at our crop, our life is going to change significantly.

"If the water level is low, we can now use boreholes and plant throughout the year.

"We used to produce for subsistence farming, but we will now be able to produce some for sale."

Sibongingosi Dube (42), a member of Zenzele solar-powered garden, said solar irrigation had transformed her life and now hopes to build a retail shop and bottle store at the nearby shopping centre using money realised from the garden.

"Poverty pushed us to join this project," Dube said, showing off the garden with ripe tomatoes.

"I used to struggle sending my children to school, selling goats each time schools open, but the narrative has changed.

"My husband works in South Africa, he was out of employment during Covid-19 lockdowns in that country and could not even come home.

"I supported the family from this garden.

"In October alone, I raised about R8 000 from the sale of tomatoes."

She added: "Together with my husband, we are putting up a shop and beerhall at the shopping centre and we have finished constructing the foundation.

"In three years' time, that shop, to be named Bambanani, and the beerhall will be running, courtesy of this garden."

Duduzile Muza (31), a mother of four who is also a stall holder farmer from Zenzele garden, has a different dream.

"In five three to five years, when you come back here, I will give you a lift back. I will be driving my own car," Dube said.

Last month alone, Zenzele garden realised over R22 000 from the sale of tomatoes and the cooperative hopes to raise more money to buy a diesel engine to pump water to some areas not powered by the drip irrigation system.

Most of the members of the

solar-powered gardens are also supporting the elderly and vulnerable members of the community, handing them free farm produce.

Jelvee Dube (63), who is a member of Titsweletsi garden running under the REEWF programme, said: "We started off with 40 members, but others failed to raise the 10% required, which amounted to US$76 per person. We are now 33.

"We are excited about our project.

"The garden has changed our lives. We used to sell goats to send our children to school, but now, we will be replacing them.

"Also, the drip irrigation system is user-friendly, imagine at my age, I used to fetch water using buckets to water the garden."

Silalele Moyo, of Mwamusisi garden in under REEWF, said: "Solar has changed our lives, no more tough labour; we no longer sell our goats.

"I sold four goats to raise the money needed for the 10% contribution. I will work hard to recover the goats and do more."

Practical Action communications specialist Innocent Katsande said his organisation was already working on REAP 2, to ensure that smallholder farmers have continuous support.

"We are working towards securing more resources to scale up our work to improve the livelihoods of people.

"We want farmers to increase resilience to be able to fight disasters.

"We will continue to successfully secure funding to scale up the project.

"We are planning Reap 2, and at the same time, we are starting a new project, Planting for Progress, that will give us the opportunity to keep supporting the farmers."

He said Planting for Progress would be rolled out in Gwanda and Bulilima districts.

The World Food Programme estimates that this year until the lean season is over, over eight million Zimbabweans will be in need of food aid due to repeated droughts, putting a strain on donors.

But Katsande said teaching the farmers "how to fish" was the only way to ensure sustainable development.

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