Irrigation changed my life in times of El Nino

By Sithembile Mwamakamba

20 June 2016

“The drought is there but we cannot complain and say we have been severely affected, infact we have been helping our neighbors by employing them as general hands in our farms”.  This was one general sentiment I heard when I visited farmers in Silalatshani in Filabusi, Insiza District less than a 100kms from Bulawayo in  south of Zimbabwe, a country that is suffering the worst  drought since 1992  and exacerbated by one of the most extreme El Niño impact in past 15 years.


According to the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCH), El Nino has left an estimated 31.6 million people across Southern Africa food and nutrition insecure. In Zimbabwe approximately 3 million rural Zimbabweans —almost a quarter of the country’s population—are in need of food aid as the drought has adversely affected crop supplies. In February this year, the Government of Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster and issued a 2016-2017 Drought Disaster Domestic and International Appeal for assistance.

It was then surprising to hear farmers from Silatshani, an area that is subject to seasonal droughts and severe dry spells even during the rainy season, say they have not been affected by the drought. So how have these farmers survived and even thrived to an extent of employing their neighbors?

Agnes Mkhatshwa has weathered the drought quite well she believes, and she attributes this to being a member of the Silalabuhwa Irrigation Scheme, which is arguably one of the largest irrigation schemes in the Matabeleland South province of Zimbabwe.

The scheme boasts of 442.8 hectares of arable land and a ready supply of water from the nearby Silalabuhwa Dam, which when it is full holds 23,454 million cubic metres of water. Crop and livestock production and off-farm employment are the main sources of livelihoods for farmers.

Agnes is one of 845 farmers who farm an average of 0.5 hectares of land through a flood-based system of irrigation. In 2014, Agnes was selected to be part of a group of 20 farmers participating in a project, funded by the Government of Australia’s Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and implemented by a consortium of partners who include the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), which is cushioning the effects of the drought. The project “Increasing irrigation water productivity in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe through on-farm monitoring, adaptive management and Agricultural Innovation Platforms” aims to find means of meeting the African government’s plans for greater food security while using limited water resources more sustainably.

“I long stopped dryland farming because the crops dry up and I was always making a loss. I now do all my farming under irrigation because with irrigation there is no loss. This past year was declared a drought year, but as a farmer in the irrigation scheme, I was not terribly affected by the drought, like my neighbors who practice only dry land farming.” she said as she was cutting and sorting enormous sweet potatoes tubers preparing to take them to the market in Bulawayo.

“Of course we did experience some changes in terms of water distribution and quantities because our dam was not 100% full as with other years. However, the project we are on has helped us to monitor the water in our soils so we do not just water randomly. We use the Chameleon to see if there is enough water in the soil, if not then we water”; she further testified

The chameleon Agnes is referring to is the Chameleon Soil Water Sensor. The sensor measures tension and gives an output resembling a traffic light i.e. green (plenty of water) orange (transition) and red (running out of water) at three depths. The design of the traffic light sensor combines a deep understanding of science in soil water measurement techniques and the social process of adaptive learning, particularly amongst smallholder farmers.


Amidst the worst drought in recent years in Zimbabwe, the project seems to be recording some impressive successes. During the recent project mid-term evaluation, farmers shared how they have made significant increases in yield, they have cut down significantly on the amount and frequency of irrigation, which has resulted in them having more off farm time to focus on caring for school going children.

For Agnes, she has seen the benefits of being an irrigator as she shared that “Irrigation has really changed my life. I now produce high value crops such as garlic, butternut and sugar beans. With the money I get, I am sending my daughter to university, I have never once missed a payment of her school fees and even the boarding house where she stays, I pay the lodging fee on time, and I have never had any problems”.

The ACIAR funded project started in July 2013 and will end in June 2017. It intends to influence national and multi-lateral policies for water, agriculture and food security by providing evidence to enhance sustainability components concerning water and small holder-irrigation.  For Agnes and other farmers in Silalatshani, they hope that the project will be up scaled to include more farmers so that they too can say irrigation changed their lives!

Sithembile Mwamakamba is the Programme Manager for the Climate Smart Agriculture Cluster at the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

Augmenting the Publics’ Knowledge on the Health Effects of Aflatoxin is Key to its Elimination from the Groundnut Chain in Sub Saharan Africa: An Opinion Editorial

Authors: Limbikani Matumba[1], Kerstin Hell[2], Benoit Gnonlonfin3, Mweshi Mukanga4, and Henry Njapau5


Groundnut is an important crop, economically and nutritionally in the Tropics and Subtropics. However, it is one of the most susceptible hosts for certain pathogenic fungi resulting in aflatoxin contamination. Long-term exposure to aflatoxin increases the risk of liver cancer, compromises immunity and interferes with protein metabolism and multiple micronutrients that are critical to health. Importantly, there is substantial evidence that aflatoxins increase the rate of progression from HIV infection to AIDS.


To protect citizens from the harmful effects of aflatoxins, most governments have established regulatory limits for the toxin in food including groundnuts. However this control strategy works principally in countries with a developed quality control system. Developing countries including Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have different trade practices which make the implementation of aflatoxin regulations inherently difficult. Moreover, most SSA countries lack resources for the implementation of aflatoxin regulation,  besides having favorable ecologies for toxin development. Consequently, the aflatoxin health burden is comparatively higher in developing countries. Most economies in SSA countries are predominantly agricultural-based and regulatory requirements are only met on export crops while foods on local/domestic markets are largely uncontrolled risking the health safety of the local consumers. This reductionist approach has left a large fraction of the population of SSA including the groundnuts value chain players ignorant of the health effects of aflatoxins. It is therefore not surprising that 20-30 years after inception of numerous aflatoxin control/mitigation projects in the region, the majority of consumers continue to be exposed to aflatoxin.


It is worth stressing that extensive research work has been carried out and several aflatoxin control and management strategies do exist. These are good agricultural practice, including crop rotation, timely planting, use of agro-ecologically adapted varieties, proper disease and pest management including the use of bio-control agents, breeding for resistance, timely harvesting, proper moisture control, proper cleaning and sorting, improved storage and processing. However, implementation of these sometimes labor intensive techniques demands increased public awareness on the health risk associated with consuming aflatoxin  contaminated food, so that inconsequence intermediate and end-users would be ready to pay a higher price for better quality. Moreover knowledgeable farmers are likely to ensure safety of their own food and in the process make the whole production chain safer and facilitate trade of high quality produce. In this regard, we strongly recommend that future aflatoxin control and mitigation efforts should ensure that all foodstuffs, including those sold in local/domestic markets, are safe. Key to such programs would be capacitating key players with the knowledge of the health impact of aflatoxin to buttress a campaign for the adoption of efficient technologies to reduce toxins from seed to consumption.

[1] Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (NRC campus), Food Technology and Nutrition Group, P.O Box 143, Lilongwe (

[2] International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, P.O. Box 08-0932, Cotonou, Benin (

3 Catholic University of Eastern Africa, P.O. Box 62157, 00200 Nairobi, Kenya (

4Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, P.O. Box 350007, Chilanga, Zambia (

5National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, P.O. Box 310158, Lusaka, Zambia (