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Zimbabwe Hopes Chinese Technology Can Help Revive its Ailing Agricultural Sector

Small holder farmers in Filabusi, about 260 miles from Bulawayo inspect a field that has not prepared for planting because they said they were not sure if rains will come at all. Satellite imagining such as that being driven by the Chinese Academy of Sciences is expected to assist small holders plan their agro activities. Photo by Marko Phiri.

Zimbabwean farmers have long relied on traditional knowledge systems to read the climate and decide when to head for the fields at the start of what they consider the rainy season and prepare for planting.

However, despite successive poor harvests caused by what experts say is a combination of poor funding for the agro sector especially after the controversial land redistribution program and climate uncertainty that has seen radical shifts in rainfall patterns, farmers have continued to follow what they have always known as the “traditional rainy season.” 

To help experts and farmers read and understand the heavens so to speak, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has teamed up with the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) to harness technological advancements through satellite data sensing. 

Research Partnership

According to Professor Emmanuel Mashonjowa, of the UZ’s Physics Department, the high precision satellite mapping tools will enable researchers to monitor such phenomena. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says geospatial imagery will help African farmers understand the climate, hydrology, and water resources and assist in long term planning. While research by Columbia University’s Earth Institute says remote sensing is improving agriculture outcomes in Africa, it could be some time before Zimbabwe finds out whether this technology will help as the country has only begun to embrace it as it is only exploring new technological approaches to address low food production.   

It “provides a basis for scientific and rational agricultural planning and land management, agricultural monitoring, and can be helpful for decision-makers to better understand agriculture development and make scientific-based policies and strategies. For example, advanced spatial observation will explore the driving forces of cropland change and their impact on water resources and food security under climate change,”  Mashonjowa said in emailed responses. 

He added: “The dataset will enhance food security and the capacity to adapt to the challenge of climate changes, and facilitate Zimbabwe’s agriculture development.” 

The Chinese provided the funding and developed the satellite monitors and Chinese experts are assisting UZ researchers to use the technology. The technology is already domiciled at the University of Zimbabwe. According to Mashonjowa, for local farmers to derive a dividend from the project this will involve the Zimbabwean government’s agriculture extension officers who will advise farmers based on knowledge gleaned from satellite data sets.

Farmer Involvement and Challenges

Challenges that experts have identified are mainly that despite all advise, smallholder farmers especially have remained sceptical of technological interventions and advice based what the farmers consider alien to their ideas of farming as they insist on applying old knowledge to new challenges.  (this is work in progress the project having been launched last year amid signs Zimbabwe was heading for a drought). 

Zimbabwe has over 1,5 million smallholder farmers on whom the country’s food production is anchored and Chinese tech is expected to add to efforts towards aiding the country’s food security commitments.

Experts say the success of technological interventions such as satellite data sets hinge on how agriculture extension officers unpack the information on the ground. Agritex officers are agriculture ministry officials who advise farmers on issues that range from what to plant when to plant and everything else to do with agriculture activities. They are the government’s eyes and ears on the ground and their presence that is being tapped as interpreters of satellite data sets.

Information Sharing

Researchers and experts from the agriculture ministry where policy is formulated based on research and development with Chinese and UZ partners work with agriculture extension officers who themselves are taken through training of trainer sessions to make sense of geospatial or satellite data. It is from these sessions that extension officers as government employees are then posted to different parts of the country to work with farmers and for the ministry of agriculture and the UZ knowledge sharing means Chinese interventions do not occur in a vacuum. Whether or not this works in the long term is yet to be put to the test. 

But with the Zimbabwean president imploring farmers to listen to expert advice as he continues to promote the embrace of new agritech, farmers are slowly being persuaded by Agritex officers through community-based public education and discussions to shift their paradigm and ensure the country’s food security. 

Organizations such as the Commercial Farmers Union have welcomed technological interventions.

“Farmers need to adopt precision farming as a new way of conducting viable farming. Some in Zimbabwe are already using high tech methods and aids. Farming is a risky business to venture into and one needs all the available information at their disposal in order to make informed decisions and hedge against the risk. Data and access to data have been tamed the new “gold” as the information which is being stored in data sets will be used in decision making,” says Chrispen Mununga of the Commercial Farmers Union.

Successes

Officers say the success of such interventions is that farmers are beginning to see the futility of using commonsense to understand climate patterns. This has been seen especially this year where rainfall in Zimbabwe came late and some farmers headed on the fields only after advice from extension officers relying on satellite data sets while others completely abandoned their fields in frustration. Those who ignored the counsel are now counting their losses. However for broader embrace and eventual success, experts say more needs to be done to reach especially the most remote farming areas who can now be easily zoomed in by satellite imaging. For example, China has already seconded agriculture experts to work with local farmer training and this is expected to act as a primer towards ensuring the efficacy of these interventions.

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