How potatoes are paying for children’s education in Zimbabwe


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ZIMBABWE – Food shortages are not a new phenomenon for the people of Zimbabwe, but the crisis today is much worse than previous years.

Jane Adisu, who heads our work in southern Africa, explains how we’re helping people overcome erratic rainfall and El Niño.

Zimbabweans sow their seeds in November and pray for a good rainy season. After a succession of disappointing harvests, those prayers will be even more desperate.

Recurrent food shortages over the last few years have left communities in a precarious situation, particularly in the west and south of the country.

More than half of the population (58 per cent) currently has to make do on two meals per day – meals that are high in carbohydrates and with limited protein.

There is food in Zimbabwe, but supply and demand economics mean that many people cannot afford it.

Take maize as an example. Maize is a staple food across southern Africa. The 2014/15 maize harvest in Zimbabwe was nothing short of disastrous, as indeed it was across the whole region.

The late onset of rains, coupled with flooding and erratic rainfall, resulted in a 49 per cent decline in maize production from the previous year.

When crops fail, the demand for food in markets goes up, but the supply goes down. Inevitably food prices increase.

Trapped in a vicious cycle  

But that’s not the end of the matter. When food is scarce, people skip meals and eat their food reserves. This may mean eating seeds intended for the next planting season.

They may also slaughter or sell their cattle. The going rate for a cow in Zimbabwe is usually around $500USD. That price has dropped as people slaughter and sell their livestock to get food.

They are forced to sacrifice their assets and their livelihoods to survive in the short term.

So when it comes to the planting season in a few weeks’ time, many people will be without seeds to sow and food reserves to take them through the lean season (January to March).

There’s also the added issue of El Niño this year, which could lead to drier conditions in the coming months.

It’s predicted that 1.5 million people in Zimbabwe will face food shortages in early 2016.

In the short term, we’re supporting the Zimbabwe Red Cross in using mobile technology to transfer cash to families in need of support.

This gives them the autonomy to buy food according to their own priorities. It also helps to stimulate the local economy.

But the long-term underlying issues around the food crisis also need addressing.

The humble potato

This year saw the culmination of our five-year food insecurity programme in the provinces of Midlands and Mashonaland West.

The aim of the programme was simple: help people to grow crops they can sell and ensure they can keep hold of their livestock.

I visited Zimbabwe a few weeks ago and saw the difference it has made to people’s lives.

Working with the Zimbabwe Red Cross, we’ve helped to set up community gardens and trained people to grow a variety of nutritious crops such as sweet potatoes, cassava and cow peas.

Increased crop production means households are able to sell surplus vegetables to local supermarkets.

One group of women I met had sold their potato crop for $3,000USD. They told me how they will use the money to pay for school fees and health care.

But they’re also reinvesting the money into the community garden.

Some of it will go towards buying seeds. The rest will go towards new piping for the community dam that provides a regular supply of water for their crops.

Eventually they’re hoping to invest in a pump so water flows from the dam to the garden more readily.

Securing livelihoods

What was really interesting to see was how the women are planning from a business point of view. They want to strengthen their business opportunities.

They’ve already struck up a good link with a local supermarket, but it’s no good if everyone grows the same crop. You need to know the market demand and how you can get a good price for your produce.

The Red Cross has also provided households with goats of breeding age. When they produce kids, the original household keeps the kids and passes the breeding goats to another community member.

This helps to strengthen livelihoods. Prices for goats and chickens tend to remain stable as they’re not usually affected by seasonal conditions in the same way as cattle.

It’s heartening to see that the community gardens have become self-sustaining and that people’s lives have genuinely changed as a result of our time and investment.

The programme has reached around 45,000 people – a small drop in the ocean – but you cannot underestimate the long-term benefits that it brings.

For the next phase, we’re going to take the programme to communities in Masvingo Province. Work on the community gardens should begin when the rains (hopefully) come in late November.

  • Part of our food security and livelihoods project in Zimbabwe has been funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Players have awarded £200,000 to our work in Zimbabwe.
  • What is El Niño? Find out more in our QA.
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