From the Field A Ripple of Change: How One Farm's Success Can Inspire a Community

In the heart of Zimbabwe's sun-baked Marange region, where rainfall is scarce and crop failures are common, one farmer is defying the odds. Mr. Maocha's land, once parched and unproductive, has been transformed into a thriving oasis. His secret? A combination of innovative water harvesting techniques and soil health improvements has turned Mr. Maocha's farm into a beacon of hope for other smallholder farmers struggling with drought and low yields.

Smallholder farmers in Africa under semi-arid conditions grapple with harsh conditions that undermines productivity: as well as soil the scarce rainfall water is increasingly lost due to runoff. It is estimated that over 50% of rainwater is lost by surface runoff and evaporation, with only 15-30% retained by the soil. This retained water is insufficient for crop production, and this challenge has increased food insecurity because of the failure of perennial crops; for example, in Marange, maize yields have fallen as low as 0.4 tons per hectare: more than three times lower than the national average (1.39 t/ha). 

Farmers in Marange have tried various adaptation strategies such as infield water harvesting, changing planting dates, using alternative crops, and testing improved seeds. However, these practices alone have not resulted in significant increases in crop productivity. In the face of extreme weather events and climate crisis, enhancing the capacity of smallholder farmers to improve soil health and make the most of scarce rainfall is essential to increase the resilience and absorptive capacity of vulnerable communities. 

Implementing a combination of practices for water capture and soil health improvements could be a solution to these challenges, helping to transform the productivity of farms in low rainfall areas. How can farmers be motivated to try this approach? The most convincing method is through seeing the success story of a neighbor, and here is where the farm of Sadreck Maocha - a local farming champion in Marange - is making a difference. 

A partnership between the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) the Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE), the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and Michigan State University (MSU) has conducted on-farm experimentation of different climate-smart agriculture options in Zimbabwe since 2019, and Mr. Maocha was one of the most eager early adopters.

His farm is located at the edge of a rock catchment, providing an opportunity to direct all the runoff water through runoff channels and ditches, supporting groundwater recharge. To avail runoff water from the rock catchment, a number of systems were implemented, including the diversion of runoff water into the field through contour channels, the installation of cross-ties along contour channel, the fortification of contour channels with infiltration pits, and the use of in-field water harvesting techniques such as ridging and sub-surface waternets. To improve soil health, different techniques were adopted such as intercropping, mixed cropping, the use of organic manures, the 4R principles of nutrient stewardship (right source, right rate, right time and right place), as well as integrated soil fertility management by mixing organic manures with reduced inorganic fertilizers to improve farming outcomes.

Maize cowpea intercrop (left) and a contour ridge with cross ties holding runoff water, 24 hours after a rainfall. 

The Results

After the construction of the various water-harvesting technologies, Mr. Maocha noticed that several springs started appearing on the farm. These springs were perennial and could supply his household's water requirements. Mr. Maocha also decided to construct a farm pond closer to the spring, with the farm pond storing water both from the spring and from excess runoff thanks to the modified contour water harvesting structures. Once the pond was full, Mr. Maocha decided to construct a small earth dam, which filled up in its first season. 

Mr. Maocha standing by the farm pond. Source: YouTube 

Further down from the dams (in the gardens), Mr. Maocha built several perennial wells which supply water for crop irrigation, livestock and household use throughout the year. He also built a community well where all the neighbors could collect water. Lastly, with the extra water accumulated in the wells, ponds and dam, Mr. Maocha started an aquaculture project, supplying his household with fish and selling surplus to the community, thus bringing in an extra stream of household income and nutrition source. 

Community well at Mr. Maocha’s garden. Source: YouTube 

On his farm, Mr. Maocha also established an additional vegetable garden where he has successfully grown a variety of crops including tomatoes cabbages, rice, wheat, yams, sweet potatoes, carrots, peas and maize. The availability of water has allowed him to grow multiple crops and harvest food throughout the year, which has increased his household income and local food security. 

Members of the Maocha family working in the family garden with tomatoes and cabbage. Source: YouTube 

Combining these many climate-smart practices, Mr. Maocha transformed the sandy soils of his farm into islands of productivity. Soil and water loss from runoff on his land are estimated to have reduced by more than 50%and 75%, respectively. The farm has seen maize yields increasing to 4-6 tons per hectare. Vegetable production has also increased 10-fold, and his household has more secure incomes and food sources than neighbors that did not adopt these new approaches.

However, a few curious neighbors did test some of these techniques, though they found several challenges, including lack of availability of necessary equipment and a lack of financial resources, as well as insufficient technical knowledge and information on sustainable, low-cost water harvesting and soil health improvement technologies. 

This is why, after witnessing the success story of Maocha's farm, Professor Jiri - the former Chief Director of the Department of Extension, Agriculture, Rural Development and Advisory Services (ARDAS) - proposed to establish similar systems across the country. The Ministry of Land, Agriculture, Water, Fisheries and Rural Development has pledged to establish 900 pilot and learning sites, to demonstrate the principles of integrated rainwater harvesting and soil health improvements, and to repeat this success across the country; this could be the start of a real agricultural revolution led by farmers themselves. 

Watch the video below: 

Blog written by George Nyamadzawo, Professor of Soil and Environmental Science, a Consultant Agricultural Scientist at Alliance Bioversity & CIAT; with inputs from Job Kihara, Principal Scientist - Alliance Bioversity & CIAT. Edited by José Luis Urrea-Benítez, Science Communications Specialist - Alliance Bioversity & CIAT.