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Watermelon, a game changer for smallholder farmers

Most rural areas in Zimbabwe are still reliant on rain-fed farming systems, which make them more vulnerable to climate change and the resultant food insecurity. Where smallholder irrigation schemes exist, productivity is very low mainly due to lack of funding and technical support, leaving most farmers jammed in subsistence irrigation systems.

This cripples the country’s ability to feed itself, and produce in excess for the export market and earn the much-needed foreign currency. The support of smallholder irrigation farmers to enable them to produce quality products and in their full capacity can best help boost the country’s agriculture sector. Smallholder farmers especially in Chiredzi North have by and large demonstrated their capacity to ensure food security through irrigation projects. However, they can only realise their full potential with transformative support systems.

The transformation of subsistence smallholder farming systems into commercial purpose driven agriculture is critical in complementing Government efforts to re-invigorate the horticulture sector in the country. Smallholder farmers are therefore challenged to make maximum use of irrigation facilities available to improve productivity, in line with the National Development Strategy 1 (2021-2025).

Some smallholder farmers in Chiredzi North have made positive strides in contributing to the country’s horticulture output. One of the outstanding farmers, Mr Chikambure from Ruware Range Ward 20, ventured into horticulture, growing an assortment of horticultural products under irrigation. The crops grown include sugar beans, butternuts, green maize and chili.

Mr Chikambure said he ventured into commercial water melon production in 2018, growing the crop on a 4-hectare plot perennially. Asked what made him choose water melon as a major cash crop, the smallholder commercial farmer said that water melons guarantee substantial profits, and the crop is sensitive to low temperatures, yet in the lowveld, winter temperatures are not even too low to affect plant growth. This enables him to grow the crop throughout the year.

“I chose the crop because it is highly profitable, and winter temperatures in the lowveld are not too low to affect productivity, since the crop is sensitive to low temperatures”, said Mr Chikambure.

The farmer uses the flood irrigation method, and targets local markets, including major towns. The produce is sold in major cities such as Harare and Bulawayo. Considering the distance from Chiredzi to Bulawayo and Harare, it seems the crop has become a cash cow for the farmer, and the market value of the produce sustains the production and distribution costs leaving him with good profits.

Despite the farmer’s success story, there are a plethora of challenges being faced by smallholder farmers in the area. The farmer mentioned the cost of inputs as one of the major challenges, considering the market price of the produce. “The cost of inputs is very high considering the market price of our commodities”, the farmer added.

In most cases, it is the market that determines the price of agricultural products since buyers often dictate the price of agricultural products. This has also affected smallholder farmers who cannot leverage on economies. In that regard, Mr Chikambure has appealed for assistance with inputs and a reliable market system that enable farmers to realise the value of their agricultural efforts. He also appealed for the development of systems that recognize the role of rural smallholder irrigation schemes in Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector.

The development of resilient agricultural value chains, value added processing of agricultural products as well as support from large retail shops with functional synergies is important in addressing the plight of a rural smallholder farmer. “We need motivation and support from local large retail shops like TM Pick n Pay and OK which can deal directly with us, not agents who come and buy our products at very low prices,” said Mr Chikambure

Smallholder farmers can complement Government efforts to ensure a food secure Zimbabwe, and export-oriented production systems. There is a need to support farmers through infrastructure development and the provision of affordable inputs.

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