On June 5, 2020, the world celebrates World Environment Day as COVID-19 continues to cause challenges and restrictions. Existing threats of climate change with the new challenges of a global pandemic adversely affect the agricultural sector, a mainstay of most sub-Saharan African economies. This situation calls for increased attention to how agriculture is practiced and natural resources — such as soil and water — are cared for.
Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe are custodians of these natural resources, yet climate variability of shifting rainfall seasons, El Niño and droughts threaten successful rain-fed farming. Coupled with conventional farming practices such as tillage and deforestation, the soil structure and chemical quality are gradually degrading. Each passing year has resulted in declining yields, food insecurity and increased household vulnerabilities, particularly in drought-prone, low rainfall areas of southern Zimbabwe.
With support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative, led by the World Food Programme (WFP), aims to enable vulnerable, smallholder farmers to increase their food security, income and resilience by managing climate-related risks. Building on R4, WFP has just launched the Zambuko Livelihoods Initiative, focusing on social cohesion of communities, improved crop and livestock production and improved access to finance, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is a partner to implement the project component on appropriate seeds and agricultural practices.
We discuss the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative with Christian Thierfelder, the Principal Cropping Systems Agronomist and a Strategic Leader for Africa at CIMMYT, and Munaye Makonnen, the Project Lead from WFP in Zimbabwe.
How is the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative responding to climate change challenges in the sites of intervention – Chebvute and Mwenezi?
Thierfelder: The R4 and Zambuko initiatives pursue an integrated approach to increase resilience of smallholder farming communities. Different partner organizations have come together in these projects to pursue different interventions such as building dams and vegetable gardens as community assets, financial education, promotion of improved climate-smart technologies such as drought-tolerant seed in combination with conservation agriculture, insurance, and linking farmers to markets. The combined actions address all needs and shortfalls in the target communities. We see a transformational change from mere subsistence farming to a more commercially oriented farming by targeted smallholders.
Makonnen: Recognizing the need to address livelihoods holistically, R4 offers farmers a set of integrated tools so that communities can better manage climate risks. Farmers participate in activities that enhance the natural resource base at watershed level, helping them adapt to climate change. They also benefit from a weather index insurance cover that protects them against drought and incentivizes them to engage in high-risk high-return investments. In the case of minor shocks, farmers have their savings groups to draw up on and can access small credit for income generating activities. With the aim of increasing productivity and income, conservation agriculture practices are promoted. For their surplus production, participants are also supported in accessing markets. The project also plans to include a component on climate services that will allow communities to mitigate the impacts of disaster risk, increase production and enhance adaptation to climate change.
Since inception, how have the farming communities responded to the technologies and practices introduced in their respective sites?
Thierfelder: Farming communities were very skeptical initially about this new approach. However, the varieties and cropping systems displayed in our 10 mother trials showed dramatically higher yields than farmers observed in their own fields, so it was not difficult to get 200 baby trial farmers to experiment with the technology. During the 2019/2020 cropping season, farmers got even more excited to see maize and legume yields thrive in their baby trials while crops planted under conventional agriculture failed. In the next cropping season, we hope to reach the tipping point of farmers trying and experimenting with these climate-smart agriculture technologies to achieve a transformational change towards more resilience.
Makonnen: Looking at the performance of the trials, farmers can see for themselves that the agricultural practices promoted by the project result in higher yields. They also get practical experience by trying these out on their own fields. Such an approach has worked well in terms of getting farmers to become interested in and eventually adopt conservation agriculture principles because it is not just based on theory — farmers can actually see and experience the change for themselves.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and disturbance to agri-food systems, how is the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative addressing the emerging challenges?
Thierfelder: We have created the base of more resilient farming systems that should positively respond to all external shocks – droughts, floods and maybe a virus as well. In our technology package we do promote self-pollinating legumes such as cowpea and groundnuts which can be grown even when farmers are cut off from supply chains for seed and fertilizer. We therefore hope that this can be a contribution to reducing the negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
Makonnen: As COVID-19 is compromising food security, it is now more important than ever to ensure that agricultural production continues to function smoothly. R4 continues to provide all the services in its integrated risk management package despite the pandemic. As farmers face challenges in production, including limited access to labor, we hope that high yielding and less labor-intensive conservation agriculture practices promoted by R4 really come into their own. Ensuring the safety of our beneficiaries, staff and partners is a priority for WFP so we have developed guidelines for R4 implementation in the context of COVID-19. For instance, trainings are taking place in smaller groups, social distancing is observed in all activities, messages on COVID-19 prevention are shared with beneficiaries and we are also looking into digital solutions to continue implementation during these unprecedented times.
Looking ahead, how will the adoption of appropriate agricultural practices and seed varieties strengthen the resilience of the farming communities?
Thierfelder: Our approach has been multi-faceted addressing different areas of concern to the farmers: income generation, credit, improved productivity, insurance and marketing. We believe that with this mix of interventions farming can more effectively withstand external stresses. However, we also realize that adoption does not happen overnight and requires a significant experimentation and learning process with farmers. WFP has seen the need for longer term investments, and this is now beginning to pay off.
Makonnen: Adoption of appropriate agricultural practices and seeds is just one of the components of R4. We know resilience requires a holistic approach which is why we have a set of interventions within R4 involving multiple partners. R4 will continue to work across the entire value chain bringing together natural resource management, access to financial services, access to inputs and markets and promotion of appropriate agricultural practices so that the farmers we work with are well equipped to manage risks and become resilient to the changing climate and risks to their food security.
Cover photo: Kiyasi Gwalale stands on her baby trial plot.