When crises multiply: entrepreneurship and survival in the Zimbabwean countryside

Written by Annelieke Duker, on 25 August 2020

One can find so-called sand rivers in many dry parts of Africa. They are an important source of water for farming families in Zimbabwe, who invest in a pump and irrigation. But how do those families survive in a country wrestling with drought, persistent economic crises, and increasing food insecurity? Researcher Annelieke Duker shows how families, without outside support, (not always) manage to keep their pumps operational.

In the dry winter months, me and my Zimbabwean colleague Mehluli, from Dabane Trust, are traveling over washboard roads through the sloping landscape, traversed by sand rivers. Baobab trees that are meters wide offer shade to cattle, function as a bus stop, and provide a source of vitamin C for the population. In this part of southern Zimbabwe, the wide, meandering sand rivers are a reliable point of orientation. I have come back to visit the farming families who grow vegetables, fruit, and maize along the Shashe and Thuli rivers. 

The pumps are running, and clear water flows between cabbage and tomato plants. Beans, which will serve as cattle feed, have just been harvested and are lying in heaps along the field. But this idyllic picture is not the norm. I pass many fallow fields, and meet farmers who have taken their pumps back home. Due to the economic slump, they’ve chosen to leave their fields behind. This perfectly exemplifies two concurrent trends: on the one hand, an increasing number of families is moving towards the sand river. On the other hand, keeping a farm in operation requires a tremendous amount of flexibility – an undertaking that often ends in deception.

Avoiding a sluggish system

Individual farming is on the rise. Our research in Zimbabwe shows that families have various reasons for starting such a new way of life. By growing their own food, they become independent from uncertain salaries in times of economic crisis. Others have stepped out of collective irrigation systems, often fed up with continuous conflicts between farmers, or with restrictive government policies. They are looking for a way to independently grow crops that have a higher market value, both for their own consumption and for the local market.

Both groups are looking for independence from a system that suffers from inadequate agricultural and economic policies. As a consequence of that search, dozens of new fields have been developed along the shores of the Shashe and Tuli rivers over the past few years. Families cultivate small plots with an average size of 0.2 hectare. A family can manage such a field by themselves, without having to hire extra labour. They themselves invest, often step by step, in a pump and other means to irrigate, without help from governments or NGOs. Among each other, they work together to expand their knowledge and resources.

Moving to the water

Families move to the sand rivers because of the ample amounts of water available there. Several farmers were already growing crops further inland, using groundwater from deeper aquifers. Those wells have since dried up, causing the farmers to move their farms closer to the shallow waters of the sand river.

Growing crops without a reliable water source is impossible in these parts of the country. An analysis of the wet season, based on satellite data, shows that the total amount of precipitation is very low: an annual average of over 300mm. And perhaps even more important are the unpredictability and large fluctuations:

  1. The monthly quantities of rain vary greatly, making it hard to assess whether and when to sow new crops;
  2. Each month of the growing season, which lasts from November to February, has a period of on average 18 days without any rainfall. Such a long period of drought is disastrous for the harvest.

These numbers illustrate how incredibly important the sand rivers are for these communities.

Developing a farm during crises

Zimbabwe is not doing well. Economic mismanagement and several disappointing wet seasons have increased food scarcity, both in cities and on the countryside. Predictions estimate that most of the country will encounter an even greater food crisis during the rest of 2020. The official annual inflation increased to nearly 800% in May of this year.

The economy has collapsed. And this also effects the families on the banks of the sand rivers, far away from the capital Harare. Satellite images, combined with intensive fieldwork, reveal that only half of the newly emerged fields are still being used. This is due to the lack of a stable market to sell produce and, even more significantly, due to the persistent shortage of petrol and diesel. Transferring to solar power would solve the fuel problems. Unfortunately, this technology is not accessible to most farmers. The initial investment is prohibitively expensive, costing about three times as much as a pump that runs on petrol.

There are also farmers, often women, who do own a field, but lack the funds to make their initial investment in a pump and irrigation materials. They can’t afford the approximately 450 dollars they need to get started. Despite their hardship, not a single farmer refers to their field in the past tense. Nobody is selling their pumps or pipes. They keep the door ajar to make sure they can get back to pumping water once the possibility arises.

Adaptive strategies

Those farmers who manage to keep their head above water are creative, and often take risks. To get their fuel, they use smuggling routes and informal trade networks across the nearby borders with South Africa and Botswana. This means the availability, price, and quality of fuels often fluctuate. They adjust their farming methods on a daily basis, aiming to have a constant supply of cash to buy fuel, while at the same time minimising their energy consumption. For example, they grow crops that can be harvested quickly and continuously. They also arrange their fields such that the distance from the river to the crops is minimized, and they plan their crops to avoid the peak water requirements in the hottest months.

These adaptive strategies are of vital importance. Approximately half the families depend on irrigated farming as their main source of income. And although a large majority (81%) sells their crops on the local market, these are not commercial farmers. Feeding their own families and local friends is most farmers’ priority, leaving little produce to be sold. However, a few individuals manage to sign contracts with schools, supermarkets, or seed companies – sometimes for a single season, sometimes for a longer period.

Developmental perspective

The core of the problem these farmers face is outside their influence. That’s why farmer families, scientists, and others who are involved face such a challenging and interesting search to find solutions that can help them progress – while maintaining their independence. This search spans technical, organizational, and financial solutions, such as practical tests on adjusted forms of irrigation.

Although both science and policy are paying more and more attention to this bottom-up form of agricultural development, this trend also has its downside. This so-called farmer-led irrigation is becoming increasingly popular, but still has to avoid the pitfalls that troubled collective irrigation systems. Investment programs often lead to a dependency on external funders, as I described in my previous blog. While the farmers along the Shashe and Tuli rivers have demonstrated their tremendous motivation to make their own choices.

Annelieke Duker works as a researcher and lecturer at IHE Delft. She is focused on the socio-technical side of irrigation development, especially in Africa. One of the questions that occupies her is the extent to which these forms of small-scale irrigation can reduce poverty, and which forms of support can improve the resilience of farmer families. In one of the projects in which she is involved, farmers, local and international partners, and researchers of the IHE experiment with the use of solar pumps.


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