Juliette, the eldest daughter of Olipa Tembo and her husband Dickson Nkata, came home from school early one day. She was crying.
The child, who would have been about eight at the time, had walked the four kilometres to the local school, only to have the teacher promptly send her home again. The family had not yet paid her school fees — mandatory in the public school system in Zambia.
“She wanted to learn, but the teacher would send her back home,” he said. “She was being teased and she was crying.”
That was nearly four years ago now. The family remembers it like it was yesterday.
“We didn’t have enough food to eat at that time,” her father said as the family sat gathered on their farmhouse porch waiting out a rain shower. And although in the past the family filled their empty larder by doing work for others, “we didn’t have enough energy to work,” he said.
It’s a vicious cycle that goes nowhere but down.
What money they had was used to buy maize meal, which is made into nsima, a porridge-like patty that resembles polenta. The family was eating once a day through that period.
Juliette wasn’t the only one sent from the classroom. December through March are known as the “hunger months” in Zambia, the time between when the old harvest has been consumed and the new harvest has not yet matured. As we travelled to different communities in different districts, we heard similar stories.
Families during this season reduce both the quantity and the quality of their diets. Youngsters whose parents don’t pay fees or buy books and uniforms are barred from the classroom.
And without an education, these children are destined to continue the cycle of poverty.
But like many a preteen, Juliette was determined to have her way and she refused to fall behind in her studies. The interpreter chuckled as she relayed her explanation for what happened next. “She forced her parents to pay her fees.”
Investing in farmers
Times have since changed for this family of eight.
Olipa was among a group of women selected by the Zambian government to receive training in crop rotation, crop diversification, gardening and poultry production. Her role now is to spread that knowledge to other farmers in the area.
Visiting the family’s farm is like dropping in at a mini research station. Her plots are situated along the main road to the nearest village and she’s posted each one of them with the variety, the fertilizer treatments and the time of planting. This year, Olipa will operate two field schools training 60 local farmers in two groups of 30.
For the past three years, Olipa has also participated in a program promoting conservation agriculture offered by the Reformed Church of Zambia (RCZ) with support from World Renew and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The system focuses on reducing soil losses to erosion, maximizing available water, improving fertility and weed control.
These investments in her capacity as a farmer are paying big dividends for her family and their community. For starters, they no longer run short of food and the school fees get paid on time.
They now grow three different types of maize, including orange maize, which has been fortified with vitamin A. They grow groundnuts and sweet potatoes, soybeans, cowpeas, sorghum, sunflowers and upland rice. Their yard is surrounded with fruit trees.
They also have 104 broilers that are a few weeks old, 10 broilers left over from last year, 20 laying hens and three head of cattle.
In the past, even though they had chickens running around the yard and even though they were hungry, chicken was something they ate perhaps once a year at Christmas.
Hunger economics dictate that chickens are too valuable to eat; they are something to be sold in order to buy maize meal.
Now, the family eats chicken once every two weeks or so.
Farmers involved in the RCZ project are coached in minimum tillage, crop rotations and diversified cropping plans.
It’s important to note that while the 2,100 households that are participating in the RCZ programs receive extension support and have access to loans for implements and inputs, they are not being subsidized or otherwise paid to make the transition. Ruairidh Waddell, World Renew’s program consultant for Zambia, said they are in the process of transitioning away from loan facilitation to organizing farmers into savings and loans groups, so they can finance themselves.
Olipa and Dickson also use herbicide applied with a backpack sprayer to help control the weeds.
Benefits for all
They have struggled in these early years of adoption to get enough chicken manure to feed their crops. That said, the yields they have achieved since adopting the new techniques have not only ensured the family has food security all year round, it has given them an opportunity to sell produce, which provided the capital for them to get into poultry production.
Another asset purchased since starting CA is a treadle pump, a pedal-powered irrigation system to help their vegetable garden through dry spells.
Olipa measures the benefits by looking at her children. “We are able to eat all three groups of food,” she said. “The children don’t get sick as easily.” She also now uses soap to wash their clothes instead of only water.
The family also now has savings. “Now I have money,” Dickson said, who now devotes all of his labour to the farm. “Now I at least have something in my hand for working — that is the change.”