Transcending Boundaries, women in Zimbabwe taking over farming
Picture a farmer.
I am pretty sure you are visualising a man, probably a rich man commandeering some workers.
In this article I am presenting to you a different picture.
Married women with children on their backs.
Young women with little or no resources.
During my regular tours of rural communities as part of my quotidian work I always give myself time to observe and understand communities. Recently in Zvishavane I saw how alcoholism is causing poverty, in other communities I have seen how rural youths are being left behind by NGOs and government efforts to alleviate poverty. In Mashonaland Central Province recently I saw a story of hope, women transcending patriarchal boundaries, women creating new possibilities for themselves and their families.
Women make up 70 percent of the rural population in Zimbabwe and 86 percent of them are involved in farming, most of which can be categorized as small holder farmers.
Although smallholder farmers play a critical role in food security in Zimbabwe, they themselves often struggle with poverty and food insecurity. FAO in 9 years ago during the betr days of the Zimbabwean economy in the past two decades found that 76 percent of rural households in Zimbabwe lived below the poverty line and 32 percent of children under the age of five were stunted as a result of malnutrition.
Smallholder farmers struggle to make a living from their labor because of a consortium of reasons including inadequate access to markets, low soil fertility, reliance on rain-fed systems and limited access to financial services.
Inadequate market access limits their capacity to sell their produce in order to buy inputs for the next farming season or by other household needs.
Most communal lands where small holder farmers operate from are significantly infertile leading to high labor and resources inputs and low yields.
Over-reliance on rain-fed systems makes smallholder farmers vulnerable to regular climate shocks which are being exacerbated by climate change.
Limited access to financial services constrains their ability to acquire productivity-enhancing inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and labor-saving technologies.
In Mashonaland Central Province of Zimbabwe a group composed of a dozen young women is trying to be productive despite these challenges, they are trying to redefine farming in an overly challenging environment.
I followed the work of two of them and this is the compte rendu of their experiences, innovations, challenges and fears.
The first one is Constance Mushayi, a young farmer with ambitions. Constance is a dynamic woman, with a wide range of responsibilities in her life. In addition to working on her piece of land, she provides food for her family, cares for her children, and tends to the day to day tasks of managing her household.
In the 2020/21 farming season she planted soya-beans, sorghum and ground nuts early only to be disappointed by high volumes of rain which affected specifically her sorghum.
She told me her choice to plant sorghum was driven by an understanding that due to climate change, droughts are likely hence small grains which are drought resistant would produce better yields compared to maize and other cereals.
The unpredictability of the climate patterns saw heavy rains due to the la nina effect this year leading to more challenges for the young farmers who tried to adapt to the usual droughts caused by changing climate.
As FAO has noted rural people in Zimbabwe, as in many parts of the world, often have no other means of recovering from natural disasters that affect their livelihoods than by selling their productive assets, such as their livestock or land.
Luckily for Constance the effects of heavy rains did not affect her to the extremes.
She planted maize as a counter plan in December 2020 and as of January the crops are looking promising.
She had plans to sell some of the produce to the Zimbabwe Grain Marketing Board however due to likely low yields than expected she is thinking about other ways to maximize her profits, she is planning to source funding to have a processing plant at home. Her immediate plan is to produce and brand peanut butter at home and send it to major markets in Harare.
I also followed the work of Gean Kasukuwere, a young woman working on a small piece of land she have acquired from her in-laws. Just like Constance, she has a wide range of commitments from raising her children to day to day household tasks.
In a phone conversation with her recently she decries the numerous problems faced by smallholder farmers, which range from produce rotting in the fields due to the heavy downpours the country experienced this year, to a poor road network that restricts their access to markets in small towns around.
Following the work of these young women I have noticed that the labor burden of rural women exceeds that of men, and includes a higher proportion of unpaid household responsibilities related to preparing food and collecting fuel and water. For some days I have closely observed the day to day work of the other two women not mention in this article, every day when they come back from the fields they are the ones responsible for preparing food whilst men are resting. In some days they return to the fields later after lunch without having a chance to rest.
The Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Survey report of 2017 found that the agricultural models used in many farming communities are labor intensive and that means in addition to highly demanding household tasks, women are participating in highly demanding farming activities leaving them with limited time to rest.
I also have seen that decision making power alone is not enough to reduce the labor burden of women in agriculture. As the Zimbabwe Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Survey report of 2017 noted, more women in Zimbabwe unlike most places in the world are responsible for decision making (54%) most of the women I followed were responsible for decision making on what to farm and how to farm however that did not reduce their labor burden.
Commenting on their ability to be key in the decision making process, the women I talked to said regular women empowerment trainings on different topics including political and economic participation enabled them to have a voice within their households and the community at large. The women I talked to most of them are connected to a fervent civil society organization Institute for Young Women’s Development (IYWD) which has been operating in Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East and the Midlands Provinces of Zimbabwe since 2009. The feminist organization defined itself as “… a movement of young women (…) committed to mobilizing and strengthening our voice and power to challenge oppressive systems to live a life of out choices.”
The organization has organized several trainings set to strengthen political participation, entrepreneurship, self-care and improved organizational development over the years and most of these women have attested to have benefitted from these trainings a lot.
The trainings and other social engagements helped them to claim autonomy and societal power however some challenges remain. Land ownership is one such challenge, Constance for example highlighted that they cannot massively invest on their pieces of land due to lack of solid ownership.
Zimbabwe Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Survey report of 2017 found that a massive 80.1 percent of the parcels of land in Small Scale Commercial Farms had no documentation. Young women I talked to indicated they were given farming land by their in-laws, parents or village heads. This non official land leasing gives them uncertainties and that uncertainty affects their decision making on what to farm and how to invest for forthcoming farming seasons. Reports of land sequestration have been awash from the stories I have been told by young female farmers in Mashonaland Central Province. In addition to lack of legal ownership of land and also as a consequence of it most young farmers I talked to indicated that they have not been accessing finances from banks. As the Zimbabwe Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Survey report of 2017 noted less than six percent of the households in the smallholder agricultural sector were able to access agricultural credit loans with 2.1 per cent in communal lands where most of these young women reside.
The women I talked to indicated that their previous attempts to get loans from banks were not fruitful due to lack of collateral security and lack of guarantors a finding consistent with the findings of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Survey report of 2017. A study by the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce in 2016 on Women Agribusiness Entrepreneurs revealed that fewer women smallholder farmers meet the banking sector’s stringent borrowing requirements, and women are more likely to operate informally as we have seen with these young women.
Oxfam 2017 analysis finds that governments and donors are failing to provide women farmers with relevant and adequate support for farming and adapting to climate change. Data from the Zimbabwe Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Survey report of 2017 showed that communal lands women who benefited from the Zimbabwean government’s land reform program were only 12 percent. The recent command agriculture also leave out those from communal lands with only 1.9 per cent benefiting a majority being men. Understanding the Zimbabwean government’s pledge to go with the United Nations Sustainable Goals mantra to #LeaveNoOneBehind it is imperative that considerable efforts be made to improve the conditions of young female farmers like Constance and Gean who despite the challenges continue to try to be productive.
This is not just for their good but for the public good. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2017 report on Small Holders and Family Farmers, if women farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20- 30 percent, lifting 100-150 million people out of hunger. Isn’t that good?