SMALLHOLDER banana farmers strewn across Manicaland province have over the past few years improved management of their agro-businesses through new innovations and farming practices and now enjoy hefty returns.
SPECIAL REPORT BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
Most of them are ploughing their way to healthy bank balances and are enjoying a kind of prosperity that was once foreign to them.
The farmers, working with the Zimbabwe Agricultural Income and Employment Development (Zim-AIED) programme funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), have witnessed an increase in their yield through improved agricultural practices and new technologies such as irrigation systems, better fertilizers and improved post–harvest handling.
In partnership with Matanuska, Zim-AIED has been working with 441 small–scale growers since May 2011, developing 100 hectares of commercial banana production at Mutema, Musikavanhu and Chibuwe irrigation schemes.
Chipinge district, characterised by a hot climate and high rainfall patterns well–suited for agriculture, is traditionally reputed for its abundant tea, coffee and macadamia nuts, but is also home to many small–scale and subsistence farmers in the hot, dry Save Valley, who traditionally scraped a living from cultivating the staple maize.
For many years, however, poverty has cast its long shadow over most families forcing some breadwinners to leave in pursuit of greener pastures elsewhere after the collapse of most of the irrigation schemes.
Among these smallholder farmers is Gwinyai Zikayi (pictured right) of Mutema Village, who saw his home as nothing more than a wasteland before heading for South Africa where streets, according to the proverb, were paved with gold.
“Most of us had given up on agriculture and spent most of our time drinking, before I decided to go to South Africa. As far as I was concerned, nothing short of a miracle was going to bring me back here,” recalls Zikayi.
Little did he know that the “miracle” — whose mere idea he thought was far–fetched back then — was not too far away from his home and would soon lure him back from the Diaspora to strike gold. The banana revolution caught up with him and he soon became a successful banana farmer with much to show for his agricultural enterprise.
Just like many of those that also ventured into the banana production, his life story reads like the famed rags to riches parable.
Zikayi says he is now netting an average of $510 a month from his bananas, a feat that has seen him rebuilding his house which was razed to the ground while he was in South Africa and subsequently buying furniture and other goods he once thought were beyond his reach.
Farmer incomes have been on the rise in response to the increase in banana yields, with farmers realising sales incomes ranging between $5 000 and $6 000 per 0,25 hectare plot. This has been complemented by prices soaring to as much as $0,31 per kg.
The project, in which banana marketing company Matanuska poured in 20% of the funding in partnership with Zim-AIED, has 128 women participating along with 110 men at Mutema irrigation scheme alone.
Skills training part of the package
Tandaanguni said as farmers, they have learnt to work together in groups, helping each other with their fields as part of the programme. She said they had also acquired new business skills such as record–keeping, financial tracking and conservation agriculture.
“There was a lot of fighting at the beginning because we did not understand how business operates. We felt that the money that we were repaying for the loans was too high until we were able to understand that after you pay off your loan, you’ll start getting more,” she says.
At that time, she says she was getting $360 a month after paying for her inputs such as fertiliser.
For Mukupe (pictured left), the secret formula lies in strictly adhering to, and implementing, the recommendations and training at workshops jointly organised by Zim-AIED and FAVCO and information from agricultural extension officers, something she says has “sharpened my mind”.
Gender equality well within sight
Zimbabwe is party to international and regional instruments for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. There have, however, been challenges in ensuring that women had greater access to productive resources, but the women who have benefited from this programme have a different story to tell.
Among these women is Rose Tandaanguni of Mutema, who says women have not been swept aside in the banana revolution as is often the norm with most development programmes.
Tandaanguni says, just like many villagers in the province, Cyclone Eline disrupted her farming activities after sweeping away her irrigation infrastructure in 1999 and she never thought that she was going to rise from the ashes of her loss.
Today, she is a woman on the rise, thanks to her decision to join the banana-growing programme.
“I have been able to upgrade my house from the proceeds from my bananas. I have also purchased a residential stand for $500 at Chipangayi business centre and the project is currently at foundation level,” she says.
Tandaanguni says she is now better paid than a civil servant from her banana earnings and she has become the envy of neighbours who thought the new banana revolution would fail.
“Neighbours now envy us because some of their children are not going to school due to lack of money for fees. It is my hope that this project will be expanded so that they can also participate,” she says.
Although bananas have never been grown on a commercial scale at Mutema and Chibuwe, the experiment has paid off.
Jane Mukupe of Murara Village in Honde Valley is a widowed mother of two adult children. She started growing bananas on a commercial scale in 2011.
She is probably the biggest success story in banana production. She says she started specialising in the crop after FAVCO, a marketing company, was engaged by Zim-AIED to establish contracted outgrower schemes.
“I used to specialise in maize growing and other things such as knitting jerseys, but I am now growing bananas on full time basis,” recalls Mukupe, who now describes herself as “an established businesswoman”.
She says she is now bagging an average income of $7 000 per year and has since bought a residential stand for a 10–roomed house at Hauna Business Centre for $1 300 after building a three–bedroomed house, which she is currently staying in, and a kitchen. This year, she is expecting her net income to scale to $12 000.
She says she received an input loan of $394 from FAVCO in the form of banana seedlings to buy seed and fertilisers and is now selling an average of 5 tonnes of bananas every month.
Agritex supervisor for the Mutema, Bwerudza and Taona irrigation schemes, Naume Mayakayaka, says it is often easier to work with women, who are now presiding over flourishing banana fields, because of their natural endowments.
“We have realised that women are hardworking, patient and as mothers, they had a nurturing quality that has enabled them to preside over their fields with care,” she says. “This is unlike men who have been often erratic.”
FAVCO is currently working with 2 500 banana farmers, of which 600 were supplied with tissue-cultured seedlings and inputs on a cost–recoverable basis with total input support valued at $180 702. The money was used to purchase high quality banana seedlings, lime and fertilisers.
More than 800 tonnes of bananas worth $235 000 have already been harvested from the first phase of the crop. The second phase of 25 hectares is just now throwing its first bunches. Monthly banana purchases by FAVCO increased by 240% from January 2014 to date.
Mechanised agriculture paying dividends
During the first phase of the project, high-quality tissue-cultured plants were imported from South Africa and a banana nursery site with the capacity to grow 75 000 plantlets was established at Mutema to supply all three schemes. Mutema is 235 hectares with a total of 374 plot holders.
To date, 238 Mutema farmers have planted a total of 60 hectares of tissue culture bananas and installed a micro-jet irrigation system and applied specific fertilisers, producing up to 80 tonnes per hectare.
The national average yield is pegged at less than 10 tonnes.
Commercial harvesting on 80 hectares began in January 2013 and the remaining 20 hectares will start commercial production by July 2014. The plantations at Chibuwe and Musikavanhu are flood–irrigated and involve 203 farmers, each with a 0,2 hectare plot.
The programme has significantly contributed to poverty eradication in these rural outposts as beneficiaries have been able to turn around their fortunes.
In Honde Valley, before the Zim-AIED programme, a thousand bananas weighing about 100kg were fetching a meagre $10, but weight levels have since increased to 143kg on average in response to good management, fetching at least $42 when sold FAVCO.
Banana farmers now ‘bankable’, spur businesses
Agribank provincial relationship officer for Manicaland, Reuben Joe, said small–scale banana farmers have increasingly become credit–worthy because of the viability of their projects and this was the first time they were bankrolling the farmers.
Joe said the bank was finalising loan applications for eight Honde Valley banana groups with a combined total membership of 77 farmers valued at $30 264. The loans are for working capital, purchasing tanks and pipes as well as day–to–day operations.
“We pay directly to the suppliers after the farmers would have secured the quotations (for their needs) and a group can get as much as $7 000,” he said.
To ensure the sustainability of the banana project, an arrangement has been put in place with CABS to take over the financing of the project in Mutema through granting loans to farmers for all banana inputs and other farming requirements once the Zim-AIED programme ends.
The successes recorded by the farmers so far have attracted business in the once sleepy rural outpost. Farm and City Hauna branch manager, Maxwell Mupedzi, says they had been operating at Hauna since December 2012. Over the past two years, he said, they have recorded so much business because of the banana project that they has become the company’s best branch in the sale of building material.
“Since I came here, out of all our 43 branches nationwide, we are the best seller of asbestos. Farmers are buying these materials because they are building houses,” he says. “There has been an increase in business.”
Mupedzi said they have recorded a significant percentage increase in daily sales by between 150% and 200%.