This story has been developed as part of Nieves Zúñiga’s 2022 LEDE Fellowship project awarded by the Solutions Journalism Network and developed in collaboration with Land Portal.
For 40 years, Vimbai Mlambo, a 61-year-old subsistent farmer, has watched how soil degradation and limited rainfall have decimated her farm output in her village Chinyika, in Gutu district in south central Zimbabwe. With the production of sorghum, finger millet and ground nuts, Mlambo managed to sustain herself and her six children –all grown up and now living with their own families. However, as years unfolded, the prevalence of droughts in the area have almost halved her harvest each successive season, leaving her with enough only to feed herself and two of her grandchildren that she looks after.
Of the country’s five agro-ecological regions, Gutu district is within ecological region five, which is the driest. In sharp contrast to regions one, two and three, where annual rainfall is above 700mm, region five receives about 200mm per year. In a good year, the region can get up to 400mm.
Despite receiving limited rainfall, the estimated 203 083 people living in the district rely on rain-fed agriculture, mainly small grains, ground nuts, round nuts and livestock.
In addition to the droughts, soil degradation is one of the main challenges for the environment and the people living in Gutu district. The use of fertilisers over the years, monoculture and general poor soil management practices such as over-grazing, over-cultivation and cultivating on steep slopes, has resulted in a decline in soil quality.
According to the Zimbabwe Final Country Report of the Land Degradation Neutrality Target Setting Programme, land degradation affects large parts of Zimbabwe, mainly communal areas where annual soil loss averages 3,3 tons per hectare. A study about the Zaka’s Ward 5 highlights that soil conservation programmes to control woodland clearance and reduce over-cultivation as well as overgrazing are necessary to restore soils in communal areas.
The government acknowledged the problem of land degradation in the country and committed to work towards reducing the 8 857,92 hectares of land affected by chemicals, by promoting conservation agriculture and planting indigenous and exotic trees in communal areas.
But the government is not the only one trying to find a solution to land degradation. Mlambo and dozens of other farmers in Chinyika came up with a way to improve soil fertility and, thus, get more food on their plates and money in their pockets.
Movable kraals consist of individual smallholder farmers bringing their cattle into one community herd. They then drive the cattle on to their gardens and crop fields to enclose them there overnight for at least seven days before moving to the next field on a rotational basis.
The idea is that the cattle use their hooves to loosen hard capped soils, while dropping their dung and urine, which improves soil fertility and water retention, as Dr. Paul Muchineripi, a scientist and conservation expert working with the Chinyika Community Trust, explained. "Urine has lots of nitrogen, together with fresh dung", stated Dr. Muchineripi. "When cattle are enclosed in an area, their hooves help loosen the soil and directly deposit nutrients into the soil which is way cheaper and easier for subsistence farmers in villages. By the end of the seven days, the cattle would have covered about 1 acre of land”, said Dr. Muchineripi. Additionally, cow dung and urine helps clean the soil of toxins.
According to the study, Analysis of the effects of kraal manure accumulation on soil nutrient status through time, done in Botswana, there is a direct correlation between active kraal utilization and soil nutrient concentrations. The study highlights that the nutrient enrichment in the kraals can extend into the soil at least up to 35 cm deep. Additionally, the study confirms, the organic and nutrient enrichment of the soil has very positive effects on soil moisture.
Farmers in Chinyika practicing movable kraals before planting their crops have been doing it since 2019. The result has been positive. "Since joining [three years ago], I have doubled my production of maize, groundnuts, round nuts and small grains," Mlambo stated. In addition to fresh garden produce, Mlambo doubled grain output from her one-acre plot to 300kg annually.
Part of the cattle under the movable kraals initiative during a grazing day in Chinyika Village. Picture by Charity Kwezani
The positive result of the initiative has also been recognized by the local government. According to agriculture extension officer for the area, Ms Charity Kwezani, cropland can be treated better and faster by a large herd of cattle, and it allows for more fields to receive animal manure as the cattle are moved from one field to the other.
An additional benefit for farmers in Chinyika is that “the impact of moving kraals on the crop production is that it is less laborious, and there is no need to move manure from home cattle pens to cropland”, Kwezani stated. "I have also noticed that the ground becomes softer for tilling, thus, it reduces labour on my part. As a group, we have realized that this practice works and would encourage other subsistent farmers to join this initiative,” Mlambo added. According to Mlambo, the project currently accommodates any amount of cattle a household has.
However, not all farmers in Chinyika have embraced the movable kraals and some have adopted a wait-and-see-attitude. Other farmers are generally not comfortable combining their herd into one collective kraal due to fear of theileriosis outbreak – a tick borne disease popularly known as January disease that caused thousands of livestock deaths in Zimbabwe from 2018 to 2021. And additional obstacle is that farmers have faced a shortage of fencing material and tents needed to keep the cattle secured in kraals.
An initiative by and for the community
The land in Chinyika, like all communal land in Zimbabwe, is state owned with traditional leaders as its custodians. Although communities have no title to the land, farmers have users’ rights which allow them to decide what to do with it and designate which areas are for grazing, for farming and for human habitation. This has allowed villagers in Chinyika to collectively agree and implement the movable kraals initiative.
The use of animal waste from kraals to field has been prevalent in communal areas to enrich soils and boost yields, although this has been used mainly in smaller vegetable gardens. In other countries such as Botswana, Kenya, Niger and Mali, Ethiopia and Sudan mobile kraals or deliberate rotation of kraal areas is also a common practice. In Zimbabwe, Ms Kwezani remembers that “the initiative was used before by our forefathers and now farmers in Victoria Falls and Sizinda areas are also practicing this method”.
Movable kraals in Chinyika started with Mlambo and a few other villagers. When Mlambo returned to Chinyika after receiving training in Dimbamombe, in Victoria Falls, she imparted the knowledge to fellow villagers. For easier management and implementation, villagers in Chinyika divided themselves into two groups. Currently there is a total of 52 farmers in Chinyika village working together with a common goal: increase productivity and achieve food security at household and community level by practicing movable kraals.
Villagers monitor cattle during a grazing day in Chinyika Village. Picture by Charity Kwezani
Replicating movable kraals to other villages
Farmers in Chinyika have hosted field days attended by farmers from surrounding villages who have expressed interest in replicating the initiative in their areas. Currently, the project has covered some villagers in Ward 10 and Ward 11 in Gutu.
“We have seen keen interest from other farmers across the district who want to implement this initiative because it is cost effective with good results. Personally, I recommend subsistence farmers to join this initiative because it ensures food security at household and community level. If all villages replicate this, then hunger will be a thing of the past,” says Eusebia Mugaviri, another villager.
Eusebia Mugaviri joined the movable kraals initiative in 2021 after seeing improvements in yields by other villagers. Before starting, she was trained by the Chinyika Community Trust to get a better understanding of the initiative. During the 2021/2022 farming season her output doubled to 950kg of finger millet, in addition to groundnuts and maize. “I made a good decision; my yields have doubled compared to previous seasons before joining the programme. I am still using the same piece of land. I am now selling the surplus and earning decent income from it, which was not the case before movable kraals. Our cattle are also getting good grass and we are being invited by other villages to teach them,” she says.
One year ago, thanks to a Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship and in collaboration with the Land Portal, I started a project to find stories of responses to the damage caused to the land and environment. During this time, I affirmed that communities and people around the world are working to protect and heal the environment, even if those stories hardly make it to the mainstream media.
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The aim of this project is to facilitate training, dialogue, story production and dissemination on solutions repairing environmental damage and improving land governance. As part of this project, the Land Portal and LEDE Fellow Nieves Zúñiga will sponsor six solution stories to be produced and published in 2022.