A program funded by USAID and the EU has helped small-scale farmers in dry areas of Zimbabwe ward off hunger and generate income by commercializing indigenous plants. The outcome has exceeded expectations.
In the bushes of Chimanimani, about 400 km (248 miles) southeast of Harare, Marcia Matsika collects baobab fruit in the scorching heat. She is one of 8,000 small-scale farmers in dry land areas of Zimbabwe who have benefitted from a program designed to teach harvesting and production skills and to link collectors or farmers to buyers and markets.
"I collect some wild fruits which I then sell," Marcia Matsika told DW. "The project is assisting me quite a lot. I can now pay school fees for my six children and I can now buy food. We have since bought a water pump."
The underlying idea of the project was to concentrate on indigenous plants that had a high nutritional, pharmaceutical or other value but were not being used to their full potential. They include baobabs, devil's claw, rosella and chili peppers.
The three-year program has just been completed.
It was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Union and was implemented by several partner organizations.
Getting the ball rolling
Melissa Williams, who heads USAID in Zimbabwe, said the goal of the project was to increase income for people who were in very dry land areas. "We have been here to get things started," she added.
When the project began, USAID and the EU were targeting about 4,000 people. But over the past three years, more than 8,000 smallholder farmers have become involved.
Private sector business people were showing interest. "A lot of products they are exporting are going to the European market," Melissa Williams said. "One of the partners has European linkages. Hence that is their initial market."
In the beginning, the project had been all about fighting hunger and not about business – let alone exporting.
Yet that is now a reality, and life has changed not only for Marcia Matsika, but for people like Gilbert Chakasikwa, who cultivates chili. Before the EU-USAID project, chili was also an underutilized high-value plant.
Gilbert Chakasikwa confirms that the project has improved people's lives. "Now we can pay for our children's school fees, we have a decent life and we have managed to acquire livestock," he told DW.
"I'm hoping to get enough money to buy a water pump so we can continue farming in the dry season," he said.
Although it was USAID and EU funding that enabled partner NGOs to work with the farmers and increase food security, Caroline Jacquet of Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe, one of the partner organizations, is not worried. "We have made all the plans for the coming rain season and have managed to link producers to the market - so our job is sort of done," she told DW. "The local private companies now know where to source the raw material. … So we do not really need it anymore."
The success of this project may help to reduce food shortages and poverty in the country in the long-term as more Zimbabweans become self-sufficient. At the height of Zimbabwe's hunger crisis in 2011, more than a third of the population of 13 million people were affected. Thanks to projects like this one, it is hoped that such grim figures will soon belong to the past.