ZIMBABWE: Survival farming

"We call it chera udye [dig or starve], meaning one must dig the sun-hardened earth with bare hands and then plant the limited seed available. If you fail to do that you will die of hunger," said Evelyn Imbayago, 44, a mother of four.

Every day, on her way to tending a tiny plot of germinating groundnut plants, she walks past a large portion of her land that lies fallow. This year she had no fertilizer and only a small amount of seed; there are no oxen to pull the plough. So, to make what she does have count, she has dug a shallow hole with a hoe for each seed, she told IRIN.

Lack of draught-power and essential inputs are common problems in the drought-prone region, and this year’s growing season promises to be a testing one for most farmers in the area.

Sauros Debwe, 52, who also farms in Mandamabwe, told IRIN that the farmers who had oxen now demanded as much as US$25 to till a single acre (0.4 hectare), which was unaffordable.

"In the past we could pay those who had animals for draught-power in kind, but this time there has not been much in the granaries – we had to depend on grain assistance provided by [donors] to survive. Now there is nothing to spare and exchange for tilling."

Debwe said most farmers could not afford to wait until assistance arrived, and had been digging small planting holes in anticipation of the first rains.

Expect a rough season

This year Imbayago decided to switch from maize, the traditional staple, to groundnuts, which thrive in the sandy soil, even without chemical fertilizers. "I can sell the groundnuts or make peanut butter for sale, then use the money to buy mealie-meal [maize-meal]," she said.

She has not received any assistance this year. "Our traditional donors have not been forthcoming, while government has also failed to assist since the rains started falling. I really don’t know how I will cope."

Last season, when most subsistence farmers struggled to feed their families and aid agencies had to step in with food assistance, she received support from Care International, a humanitarian aid organization working to enhance food security and alleviate poverty in the area. The seeds and fertilizer they gave her got her and her family through the year.

After months of procrastination, the Zimbabwe government announced a new input subsidy scheme in November. According to the state-run Herald newspaper, the initiative would make seed available at a highly reduced price of US$1 per kilogram of maize or sorghum seed, and US$7 for a 50kg bag of fertilizer through the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), a parastatal monopoly.

"We don’t know whether that will help," said Kainos Muponda, the Mandamabwe village head. "Not many of us have that kind of money. Moreover, one has to travel to Masvingo town, where the GMB depot is, incurring additional costs in fares and carriage."

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has estimated that some 1.9 million Zimbabweans will need food assistance during the peak hunger season from January to March 2010.

OCHA launched an international appeal on 7 December 2009 for US$378 million to buy food and medicines, and bolster health, education and sanitation in the economically crippled country.