The Sunday Mail
Small-scale farmers in communal areas are struggling to adapt to climate change due to declining extension services over the past three years, something highlighted in the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVac) annual report on rural livelihoods.
The report shows that the number of households that registered extension visits stands at 31 percent.
The need for extension services could not have been greater this past summer cropping season, which was characterised by a long dry spell and then a long wet spell punctuated by pestilence and animal disease.
“The climate has become a little irregular and perfect seasons are gone,” Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union president Mr Wonder Chabikwa says.
“You can experience drought and abundant rains in the same year. So to cope, communal farmers now need weather and extension services more than they did before.”
Mr Chabikwa said without extension officers, communal farmers cannot break the available weather and agro data into useful information.
With about 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s population living in rural areas and dependent on subsistence farming, experts emphasise the importance of extension services.
Deputy Minister for Agriculture Davis Marapira says the number of extension officers has started improving since the coming in of a new Government led by President Mnangagwa late last year.
“We are closely looking into the matter to see how we can help the situation but in this year’s Command programmes, we have people who are working with the farmers on the ground to give us accurate figures. I’m not so sure about the numbers but we have a significant number of extension officers in all farming districts.”
Mr Chabikwa said the country used to produce quality yields by using demonstration officers, widely known today as “madomeni”, to teach subsistence farmers good agricultural practices and environmental conservation.
“We may take it for granted but it used to be a very effective system back then,” he says.
“The demonstration workers used to stay among the people and they led them by example so the communal farmer then was an informed and productive one.
“We still have Agritex officers, about four for each ward as well as at least one district extension officer, but they are not empowered and their impact is minimal.”
Mr Chabikwa adds that Government should invest in community-based extension services.
“The officers would organise communities to set up contour ridges and waterways, and devise plans to combat soil erosion and overgrazing.
“But most importantly, they were giving people advice in terms of farming, they knew how to explain weather reports, planting time frames and crop dressing to villagers. The field days created a culture of oneness and working together.”
Many State extension officers fail to discharge their duties because of inadequate resources such as transport and training equipment.
The decline in extension services is also reflected in relatively low livestock vaccination levels.
While about 62 percent of rural households with livestock reported that their cattle were vaccinated against foot and mouth disease, and 55 percent reported vaccination against anthrax, the deficit is still high and can cause rampant outbreaks.
Only 41 percent of households with cattle had training in participatory disease surveillance between April 2016 and March 2017.
The ZimVac report shows that about 39 percent of households with chickens reported their flocks were vaccinated against Newcastle disease.
Zimbabwe has over the years used various approaches such as the training and visit system, the radio listening group approach and the master farmer approach to provide extension services.
The master farmer approach was one of the most popular and arguably the most successful extension service system.
Its objective was to spread modern farming techniques in communal areas.
“Master Farmer certificates and badges were awarded to communal farmers who adopted and practiced improved methods,” said the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“This extension approach was based on the ‘trickle-down’ theory of extension, in which a few progressive farmers receive extension and information, which they are expected to pass on to other farmers through farmer-to-farmer dissemination and demonstration.”
Farmers, too, are to blame as many do not seek relevant training and information tool kits.
Only 26 percent of rural households sought advice on their own according to the ZimVac report. Also, NGOs have only contributed seven percent of extension services in communal areas.