Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Armed with only a pickaxe and a shovel, Sylivia Maipisi (53) a farmer from Hikwa village in the Dombodema area of Bulilima rural district, does not regret having joined other farmers to dig a nearly one-metre deep tunnel some 1,3km long to bring water to their community garden.
She and members of her community burrowed through soil and rock to cut a tunnel through a bush to a community garden close to Mnigau Primary School.
“I am a widow and no stranger to a life of hardship. Digging such a tunnel was not an easy task. It needed patience and a strong mind,” Maipisi said.
Taking up the herculean task of digging a 1,3km tunnel to help bring water to the garden was an arduous task mixed with joy and pain.
The Hikwa village community provided labour for trenching and excavation into the ground for the laying of water pipes from a borehole about 1,3km away.
Bulilima district is in a dry and arid region where the availability of adequate water of appropriate quality has for years been a limiting factor for development.
Maipisi and most farmers in her area often fight food insecurity in the face of harsh climatic conditions in their district which is prone to back-to-back droughts.
The frequency of droughts have increased the households’ vulnerability to food insecurity due to water scarcity.
Before the establishment of a solar-powered garden, Maipisi and other locals used to travel for long distances to fetch water to irrigate their small gardens.
Typically, like other women in her community, she would carry a bucket on her head tops from down the river to the crop gardens at a distance.
“This was quite demanding and exhausting,”Maipisi said. “We could lose water while walking with our buckets on our head tops. All this reduced our productivity. Women bore this huge burden alone.
“Water conflicts were rampant. Humans and animals would compete for water at sources along Thekwane River.”
But the coming in of the Planting for Progress project implemented by Practical Action in Gwanda and Bulilima rural district has soothed her pain.
The £1,49 million (nearly US$1,95 million) project implemented by Practical Action and funded by the UK Aid –a fund by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the United Kingdom, has supported the setting up of solar powered systems in 14 gardens, installation of 12-solar-powered incubators for indigenous poultry projects and two sand dams for beneficiaries in Gwanda and Bulilima districts to empower women and improve livelihoods.
The project has helped to improve agricultural production through increased supply of water for irrigation to gardens and irrigation schemes through solar energy.
The aim of this 29-month project is to increase agricultural productivity and incomes for 1,310 smallholder farmers in the Bulilima and Gwanda districts through adoption of agro ecology, solar irrigation and sand dams as well as access to finance and markets.
“We illuminated with joy when Practical Action approached us to set up the Manake Community Garden,” said Mphathisi Ndebele, leader of the Manake garden project.
“We received tremendous support from the project. We got trained to do basic maintenance to ensure sustainability of the project. As members we also contributed money and our labour for the success of the project.
“The solar-powered community garden is a gift to us farmers who have struggled for a long time to have a steady and perennial source of water.”
Even though there were huge practical difficulties in digging up the tunnel to supply water from the borehole which had been sunk some 1,3km away, the flowing of water through pipes to the garden shone brighter and fuelled hopes for Maipisi and other farmers.
The installation of a solar-powered watering system and drip irrigation system has made it easy for the farmers to grow more crop varieties all year round, without completely relying on the rains.
They are now planting vegetables for their own consumption and for selling to meet their family needs.
The pain of digging the tunnel illustrates the ingenious complexity of delivering water to communities in dry and arid regions.
“Water is life my son. ‘Takahana kwazvo,’ said Maipisi in her local Kalanga language.
Roughly translated, it means, she was overjoyed by the project that has brought clean and safe water for consumption, for animals and for watering their crops.
“Digging the tunnel ‘Kwakakulema kwazvo’ (was tough) but now it’s ‘Manake manake’ (we are happy that water is flowing),” said Sukoluhle Nleya, 46, a widow from Hikwa village.
“We didn’t have anything to feed our families. This garden with flowing water will change our lives. We are busy planting cabbages and onions and I am optimistic that we will earn something to pay school fees for our children, to buy food and other needs and more importantly to feed our families.”
Under the Planting for Progress project, about 14 gardens have been established in Gwanda and Bulilima rural districts.
The solar powered irrigation systems at the gardens have technology that includes a solar pump, panels, 10 000 litre tanks complete with tank stands and drip kits.
A solar-powered submersible pump was put at boreholes to supply water into the big tanks that then irrigate the farmers crop.
“This is a miracle to us. We never thought we could have solar-powered irrigation gardens in our lifetime. Water is precious for us and I am certain that these gardens will lift us out of poverty,” said Andrew Ngwenya, leader of Mvuselelo Community Garden at Mabungwe village in the Gwame area of Bulilima district.
Zenzele Community Garden project, at Ndibe village close to Sinai Dam in Gwanda south is thriving and members sold cash crops worth R180 000 in 2020.
However, in 2021, the farmers lost their tomato crop worth R180 000 to the Tuta absoluta pest-commonly known as tomato leaf miner which tunnels through leaves.
“We had a thriving tomato crop in 2021 and it was destroyed by this disease called Tuta absoluta. In 2020, we earned R180 000 as a group of farmers but in 2020 we had a disaster. This disease wiped out our crop. We were hoping to get more than R180 000 this year,” said Loveness Ndlovu, leader of the Zenzele Community Garden which was supported with solar-powered irrigation by Practical Action.
The disease which mainly targets tomatoes, tobacco, eggplants and cabbages is spreading rapidly in most parts of the country, leaving farmers distressed.
Despite this challenge, community gardens in Gwanda and Bulilima districts are now providing a significant source of income for farmers.
“Metsi kiona afileng bathu matla ahulima,” said Loveness Ndlovu of Ndibe village in seSotho.
Roughly translated it means – having improved access to water has empowered us to do farming.
“Husina metsi asihose ukasilimang (without water you can’t do anything).”
Some farmers have bought cows, goats, chickens and other household assets from crop sales. Many of them were now dreaming big.
They now aim to buy trucks and solar systems for their homes while others want to build houses in their villages.
“Poverty is rough and tough. Water is an important resource for us. With improved water availability we are using our community gardens to chisel the rough edges of poverty away from our community,” said Nathaniel Moyo ,75, a village head of Ndibe.
“We are now growing potatoes, vegetables, tomatoes, beans and carrots. The income we are getting from selling produce from the garden is transforming our lives. Farmers can earn up to US$500 or more from crop sales.”
Farmers are now able to produce green vegetables throughout the year. This has increased their incomes and farmers have organised marketing committees which have been trained in financial literacy and market engagement.
All this will certainly bring the dollar they need to improve the quality of their living.