Small-scale mechanisation in Zimbabwean farming: boosting production

Following the introduction to the blog series last week, this blog focus on how small-scale mechanisation is boosting production across our sites. Processes of intensification and commercialisation are driving demand for a variety of forms of mechanisation to assist with tillage, irrigation, seeding and harvesting. This is especially apparent in the A1 resettlement areas where many farmers have been generating surpluses from their farms and are keen on reinvesting. The challenges of availability of labour is a recurrent issue. Being larger, these farms require more labour than can normally be supplied from families, and hired labour is both expensive and unreliable.

Many farmers purchase standard equipment from agrodealers, but increasingly, as noted last week, suppliers of equipment come from local manufacturers, with adaptations designed together with farmers. While much research focuses on classic small-scale mechanisation options – such as two-wheeler tractors – it is the variety that is striking. Across production activities, people are seeking ways to intensify, even if with very low-tech options, such as basic equipment drawn by people.

The result is a range of equipment identified across our sites, with innovations adapting to new situations. The process of mechanisation of production is patchy, and only really getting going now but, unlike the standard pattern expected (tractors and higher-tech equipment), we see a pathway of mechanisation that is more suited to the capital, labour and other requirements of small-scale farmers.

This blog offers a series of case studies and multiple photos from our sites to give you a feel of what we have been observing. In the longer term we are keen to incorporate questions into a survey of all households in our sample to see how extensive this process is, who is involved and what sort of equipment is being purchased, invested in and adapted. But that will have to await having some more research resources. For the time being, this is just a taster.

Pumps and pipes – the growth of small-scale irrigation

As our research has shown, many people are investing in small scale engines for pumping water for irrigation. The growth of irrigation is striking, a response both the land shortages and climate change. By being able to extend the season and insuring production against drought, irrigation is an increasingly important livelihood strategy. This is important especially for land-poor younger people and women with good links to horticultural markets. The price of low cost pumps and poly-pipes is such that most people can invest in the basic equipment.

Leonard Mayengwa (pictured above) is one such irrigation farmer, although in his case he doesn’t have to pump, just draw water from standing water sources in two dams. He is in his late thirties and has specialised in potato farming at Stockbury farm in Mvurwi, Mazowe district. As he explains, “My piece of land is located between two dams. But due to lack of finances I was not able to buy pumps and fuel for pumping water into my field. With the limited funds I had, my first step was to buy poly pipes for syphoning water from one of the local agrodealers in Mvurwi. I get water from one of the dams as there’s a good gradient for the method”. He has perforated the pipes so that water is delivered accurately to the crop, and because poly pipes are flexible and light they can be moved about. Unlike fixed aluminium pipes, which are too often stolen, it’s a much easier more low-cost options. “It’s great”, he exclaims, “no fuel is used and it’s  just using pipes”.

Tillage challenges – 2-wheel tractor

With the loss of cattle due to drought and the effects of ‘January disease’ many people do not have enough draft power for ploughing. Many across our study sites fail to hire draft animals or gain access through sharing, so must seek out tillage services from those with tractors. This is expensive, due to the escalating cost of fuel. And because there are not enough tractors in the area, you have to wait in line and often the tractor comes late, seriously affecting the crop. The experience of collective arrangements for use of tractors has not been positive, and so most people suffer tillage challenges, especially in the resettlement areas where farmers are planting up to 5 hectares of arable land.

It is for all these reasons that there has been much excitement – and expectation – around two-wheeler tractors, which are now being imported from China and are locally assembled and serviced by a number of dealers. Two-wheel tractors have been important in countries where steep slopes and marginal land makes conventional tractors impossible, whether Nepal or Ethiopia. But they haven’t made a big impact in Zimbabwe yet, despite lots of research showing their efficacy, even if the economics of adoption is sometimes questioned. We didn’t find many farmers in our sample using two wheel tractors, but Mr Marturure from Chatsworth area was an exception.

“I am from Zimuto Chirina area boundary of Chatsworth ward 32, and am now settled in the old farms. In 2021, I lost all of my draft power stock. With the support of a family member, I bought a small tractor from China in Harare. It’s easy to use. The only problem is with my age. I am 62 years old and sometimes I find it is difficult to control holding the handles and move furrow by furrow. I can however adjust the speed to suit my walking pace.” Due to these challenges he decided to employ two younger men. He explained “I don’t have any problem of paying them to work as the tractor pays me a living as well as my workers. My clients are from all over Zimuto and Chatsworth resettlement areas. For the meantime I don’t have any competitors hence demand is high. To be honest, I can’t serve all my clients”.

He has a charging structure for his services, with delivery within five kilometres being free and 20c-50c per kilometre for further afield. One hectare of land needs about  US$50 and 20 litres of diesel. He explains, “Most farmers prefer to use this small tractor compared to bigger ones as they say most drivers [of normal tractors] don’t know how to adjust the ploughing depth, but with mine the depth is of an ox-drawn plough.” He is encouraging fellow farmers to purchase this machine even if they have livestock. “If you plough with the small tractor, you save your stock and you are going to sell them at a high market price. You can even buy new stock from the money generated from it.” He says that “if things goes on well, by 2024 I wish to have another machine. What you need is to maintain your machine before breakdown, then there is good business.”

Cultivation innovations: improvised ridger

In our recent studies, we have observed many examples of innovations that start with a well known piece of farm equipment but then adapt it. In this case Gerald Nyabote from Chatsworth Estate farm in Gutu district developed an improvised ridger.

“Poverty and shortage of farm equipment makes me to think outside the box. I am settled on Chatsworth Estate farm in ward 32 of Gutu district. In 2021 my only son moved to South Africa for greener pastures. I was left  here just with my wife, my cousin and my daughter. That year I managed to weed only a small piece of land from the two hectares planted. I have only my plough, but I learned from other farmers that you can use your plough to do different things on the plot. You can remove mouldboard and place a worn-out share instead of a new share. This can be used as a ridger. For making a planting line you can adjust the depth suitable for the crop you wish to plant. This ridger can be also used as a cultivator for weeding – you plough twice on the same furrow. The furrows are important because, when rainfall is not adequate, it’s easy to construct tied-ridges. I can weed about half a hectare per day using my improvised ridger. With the little capital I have I can now pay for my daughter’s school fees and examination fee, and for me labour is now minimised.”

Labour saving – seeders

Pfumvudza is a widespread programme of low till farming using hoe cultivation of small planting pits (see picture below). The pits concentrate water and fertility to boost production. The approach is heavily promoted by government and many NGOs who supply technical advice on how to construct the pits, as well as providing seed and fertiliser. However, the standard system is very labour-intensive, and is usually only feasible on a small plot. While people appreciate the approach in principle, many refer to the approach as ‘dig and die’, highlighting the hard work involved. Many have innovated around the approach, using ox-drawn ploughs, for example, to create furrows before pits are dug. A new design for a hoe was developed by a student at St James Zongoro High School in Mutasa who recognised the challenge of both digging the pits with a hoe and then, in a subsequent operation, coming to plant the seed. He designed a hoe with a hollow handle that can hold a supply of seeds, and then attached a trigger mechanism to release the seed once the pit is dug. With this hoe design cultivation and seeding can be done in one go.

In Wondedzo area, near Masvingo, farmers are making use of a newly designed human-drawn planter. One person pulls the planter, while another guides it from behind. It allows for combining the operations of seeding, fertiliser application and then covering with soil. The planter is made by a local manufacturer based in Mucheke township area of Masvingo. It’s being tested out in Wondedzo, but a number of farmers are interested in it, as it reduces labour and makes operations more efficient.

Neither of these examples are of course ‘mechanisation’ in the conventional sense, as both involve human power, but both involve increasing the efficiency of human labour operations in important ways.

Harvesting tobacco

Tobacco farming has really taken off in the small-holder areas in the past decade or so. It is very labour intensive and this puts a lot of people off. However innovations around various stages of tobacco production from seedling production to harvesting and curing have been occurring for small-scale operations. Most previous innovations were designed for large-scale commercial production that dominated before land reform. In the absence of existing technologies or a formal R and D capacity. there has been a need for innovation around tobacco production for a smallholder cropping system. This case study of farmer-led innovation is focused on harvesting.

“I started growing tobacco since 1992 at Chivhu under my father’s support and supervision. By then I was still at school. With the land reform in 2000, I moved from Chivhu to Chatsworth new resettled farms. I now live at Bath farm ward 32. ”From 2019, I have been growing tobacco. Many said it’s too much work, requiring too much labour.  I have managed to convince some nearby farmers to grow tobacco and so early in 2020 we got a company that contracts us. Its name is Aqua tobacco. In 2021, I was give inputs for 2 hectares. Together with my group members, we thought of a better plan of how we can reap our tobacco without too much handling. This will help boost profits and reduce labour costs. We designed our reaping machine that year. We call it a Cat machine or Chigoropingo, which is the Shona name. It is a simple machine with a plough wheel in front and with steel bars that you lift up and then you tie it to your waist. When it is full you just push it to the grading shed, with the tobacco tied in a bale. Labour is now minimised compared to the past, and now about 10 of us have these Cat machines. Since 2019, I have I managed to build my four-roomed house and now I have eight livestock, even though I lost some through January disease. Me and my family are doing well! This season in 2023 I have already have a nursery bed for two hectares, which has germinated.”

Intensification of poultry production

Small-scale poultry production has really taken off across our sites. As our discussions of the hidden middle showed, this has generated significant economic activity and employment. One route to this is the increasing intensification of production at the local level, moving away from the reliance on the larger operators for supply of day-old chicks for commercial operations. This is why there has been a growing demand for incubation equipment. In this case, a relatively sophisticated machine was purchased by Mr Mutanda who now operates a business for hatching chicks, focusing on indigenous and hybrid breeds (the classic broilers are still dominated by the big companies). Chicks are supplied across the area and some producers hire space in it for hatching their own eggs.

These examples offer some glimpses of how various technologies – externally designed and purchased as well as locally-made and designed – are transforming production systems for some farmers across a range of functions, as well as generating employment and income for those who are manufacturing and services these new forms of agricultural equipment. Next week we will look at how this process of mechanisation is affecting agricultural processing.

Thanks are due to the team in Chikombedzi, Triangle, Masvingo, Gutu, Mvurwi and Matobo and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating the work and compiling the huge amount of information and many photos taken by the team, a few of which are included here.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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