BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
GWERU — When maize farming, which had been a lucrative enterprise for many years, ceased to be profitable due to a number of challenges, Francisca Paramu of Umsungwe Block in Vungu Rural District Council thought she was down and out.
From as far back as 1981, when she purchased the farm together with her late husband, their agricultural business was anchored on maize production. Maize was the gold that underpinned her comfortable life.
But when the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) — then the leading maize buyer in the country — caught a cold, the ripple effect saw Paramu’s farming enterprise starting to sneeze.
“For a decade, we realised huge profits, but from 1992, the business was no longer profitable and we started just farming for subsistence,” she recalled, adding that her 210ha farm would consequently lie idle for the next 24 years.
In retrospect, Paramu said if the government had decided to repossess the farm, she would not have cried foul because too much land was going to waste without any productivity taking place.
But the turnaround that would see the “wasteland” transformed into a hub of productivity again came in 2016, and in the most unlikely circumstances.
“I was introduced to the beef-milk project since I already had cattle,” she said.
This was after the USAid-funded Feed the Future Zimbabwe Livestock Development Programme, which would see Paramu and several other villages in Ward 14 in the outskirts of Gweru, become dairy farmers using their beef cattle.
Looking back, Paramu said she would never have imagined her farming business growing to the level it has now reached because she was sceptical at the beginning.
“When they approached me with idea of dairy, I thought they just wanted to make me a model. But their persistence despite my reluctance showed me they were genuine,” said the former teacher.
“Their persistence actually haunted me. Whenever a calf died, they would identify the cause and we have now been empowered with knowledge.”
Within six months, Paramu said she was sold out to the programme and also secured the buy-in of her two daughters who caught the passion for the dairy project.
“Every family member is now involved. It’s actually part of my succession plan. If they (children) let this business collapse when I’m gone, my ghost will haunt them,” said the 68-year-old farmer.
Paramu said she would not allow her age to slow her down because dairy farming demanded commitment, a hands-on approach and hard work. She added that farming had given her another fling with her youth.
“Dairy farming demands hard work but you don’t even feel it because it’s exciting. I feel very young,” she said.
After taking up the dairy project, she said her first cheque from Dairiboard Zimbabwe Limited was of $33.
“It was little but I was so excited,” she said.
As Paramu continued developing her dairy farming skills, her fortunes also picked up. She started cashing in between ZW$100 and $125 upon delivery of an average of 20 litres of milk to Dairiboard. Three years later, she started raking in an average of between $4 000 and $5 000 per month.
“Dairy farming is money every day,” she said. “Feed the Future nursed me and everywhere I go, I tell the story of milk. It’s now my passion.”
Paramu said she had now employed four young men to assist her with the increasing workload on the farm. She also hired casual labourers to help pack the homegrown cattle feed and they are paid for every kilogramme packed.
Feed the Future’s Business Development and Financial Linkages Specialist Costa Tomutomu described Paramu as a shining example of what could be achieved through the programme.
“She always gets A-grade (classification) from Dairiboard because of the high quality of her milk. She has never gone below that,” he said.
Paramu said she would use the additional bonus money, estimated at $2,000, for needs such as fuel, electricity, medication for the cattle as well salaries and groceries to keep her workers motivated.
The major downside to the farming enterprises was the electricity challenges that afflicted the nation following the power utility, Zesa Holdings’ decision to effect a load-shedding regime of up to 20 hours a day, cutting across residential areas, industrial sites and farming communities.
“Unavailability of electricity constantly presents a major headache because we may end up failing to get the optimum temperature (required by Dairiboard) for our milk,” she said. “We bought a generator last year but accessing fuel is now a major challenge.”
According to Feed the Future provincial supervisor for Midlands, Meynard Chirima, there was need for Paramu and other programme beneficiaries to have adequate power back up to sustain their operations.
“Cold chains also need to be dealt with. She (Paramu) needs a solar system to work in the absence of (electrical) power,” he said.
Another beneficiary of the programme, Metron Gavi, said when the idea of dairy farming was first touted, just like Paramu, she did not think it was feasible.
She said she had always viewed dairy farming as highly mechanized, with high-cost machinery and equally expensive dairy cattle as well as intensive labour, something she felt was beyond her capacity in the backwaters of Gweru.
“As far as I was concerned, dairy farming was the preserve of white commercial farmers, and I didn’t think I had the capacity to do it,” she said. “Just the idea to stop growing maize and focus on milk was beyond me.”
She said when they toured Gokwe to witness a successful beef-dairy pilot project, it opened their minds to the possibility of replicating it in their own village.
At the time, Gavi said, she only had one cow that was nursing but currently, nine out of her 36 cattle are expecting.
Gavi said through the programme, they were empowered with skills to run their cattle ranching as a professional business, incorporating artificial insemination, cattle treatment and record-keeping to track their milk sales.
“We didn’t know you could rear cattle like you do your own child. Previously, I was just a housewife. I didn’t understand anything about accounting,” she said.
“If a cow died, we just slaughtered it and consumed the meat. But now we were taught that we have to investigate the cause of death. We now understand how to look for signs and symptoms of diseases and administer treatment.”
The beef-dairy project had become so lucrative for her that she was now realising an average of $1 700 a month with additional incentives averaging US$50.
Agritex livestock specialist for Gweru district, Tariro Waniwa, said their extension officers were always available to give the farmers a helping hand whenever the need arose.
“We have extension staff in every ward. They routinely visit the farmers. You just place a call and an extension worker comes. They will answer every question the farmer might have,” she said.
Paramu said she was now bold enough to dream big after witnessing the viability of the beef-dairy project.
“Five years from now, trucks from Dairiboard and Dendairy should be coming here to collect milk. By then, we should be using machines to milk the cattle, with more than 200 beasts,” she said.
“Even if I’m on my deathbed by then, I will tell my children to pick me up just so that I can see what I would have achieved before I die.”