Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe

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Time to revive communal areas wetland rice farming

Time to revive communal areas wetland rice farming

Obert  Chifamba Agri-Insight
The Sunday Mail of August 6, 2017, carried a story about a massive rice project that’s set to be rolled out by a local firm, Life Brand Agricultural Services in Masvingo Province. This project will be done on 10 000ha of land within the precincts of Tokwe-Mukosi Dam next season.

Quite interesting! Essentially, rice is not a very common crop among farmers in Zimbabwe and cannot just be grown anywhere. As we grew up we used to know that rice was grown in wetlands (matoro) where the crop would take advantage of the abundant water and moisture to grow without the farmer having to apply any water. There was no environmental degradation of any sort from the practice.

This rice used to be very popular with consumers especially considering that it was not every day that it was part of their menu and neither could any person just wake up saying they were planning to grow it. Rice was literally a preserve of a few people and was occasionally acquired for very important dates on the calendar, for instance, Christmas and Easter.

Those privileged to enjoy rice, usually with the famous, tasty road runner, would buy it from shops and not take from their silos in the same manner they do with other grained crops like maize, rapoko, sorghum, ground nuts and millet to identify just a few.

But things are changing, aren’t they? The excessively wet climates needed by this small grained cereal will now be man-made in Masvingo, thanks to the existence of the 1, 8 billion cubic- metre Tokwe-Mukosi Dam whose waters will be harnessed for the project.

Life Brand Agricultural Services has already secured part of the funding for the project from off-shore accounts while the remainder is set to be mobilised locally. It will also assemble a 50MW electricity plant to power the irrigation implements.

It will be interesting to note that the entire Zimbabwe normally produces just a tonne of the cereal yet it needs at least 400 tonnes yearly, which is imported using millions of dollars that could easily have been used for other purposes if the country was producing enough for itself.

What particularly excites me about this project is that it is coming at a time when most of the people that used to grow rice in wetlands seem to have given up on the crop leaving very little of it available for sale even on the informal markets. And this little is usually sold at very atrocious prices simply because the rice is not readily available especially now that most people are eating ‘healthily’ opting for small grains instead of big grains like maize.

If those farmers that used to produce the rice could return to their wetlands and add their portion to whatever will be produced from the proposed project, which I strongly believe will not be the long grained red type that is known for its palatability and very nice aroma especially when being cooked. I have noticed that there are a lot of wetlands lying unused throughout the country even though some of them have since been converted to conventional crop farming or land for human settlements.

Besides focusing on the said project, I think Government should consider including the crop among the list of cereals sold at the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) to excite more production. Adding rice to the already long list of cereals that Zimbabwe relies on to boost food security might also reduce the burden on Government on having to import maize each time there is crop failure.

The idea of producing rice under irrigation seems exciting to me though I know most farmers would rather it was tobacco, cotton or maize that they could produce under irrigation. They forget that rice is a high value crop that can essentially change their socio-economic lives for the better should they produce enough to see surplus going to the market.

It is a sad reality that most of the country’s farmers are not very much interested in producing small grains even if they know that big grain crops such as maize have in recent years been at the centre of a massive battering by adverse climatic conditions yet small grains have in most cases made it despite surviving under very difficult circumstances.

Rice will surely behave like any of its small grain counterparts and the fact that there was abundant rains in the 2016/17 agricultural season that have seen almost all water reservoirs trapping huge volumes of water sets the tone for a project whose water requirements can easily be met by any willing farmer. Farmers only need to buy small water engines to start utilising the water that currently lies idle in most dams or other reservoirs.

This water that was harvested in the just ended rainy season can be used for irrigation purposes for a start and the income generated after selling can then be used for the purchase of improved irrigation equipment to guarantee uninterrupted supplies of water in the future.

Masvingo’s rice project should inspire many other farmers in various parts of the country to try the cereal and use the abundant water lying unused in reservoirs everywhere. The other good thing about the Masvingo project is that it will create jobs for some people from within or outside the province.

The project may be ‘just what the doctor’ ordered for Masvingo’s perennial food shortages due to poor rainfall patterns. The rice will boost food security immensely but this will only be possible with a mind shift from die-hard reliance on maize to the new grain in the province – rice.

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