Rural women rising: How climate-smart agriculture is empowering women farmers and bridging gender divides in southern Zimbabwe

Source(s): United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

With access to irrigated land, training in climate-resilient farming, and a platform to sell their produce, women farmers in Zimbabwe are forging new paths for economic independence and sustainable agriculture. 

Carefully watering her crops, Elizabeth Dube, a 73-year-old smallholder farmer from Matebeleland South, is reflective. In the past, she says, she could not own land or sell farm produce at the market. These were liberties enjoyed only by men  male counterparts. With limited opportunities and without financial independence, life was challenging. It became even more so when her children moved to neighbouring South Africa in search of greener pastures. At an age when many might consider retirement, Elizabeth had become the cornerstone of her family, raising eight grandchildren and searching for a means to support them. “My four children moved out of my home and left with me with eight grandchildren to care for. The oldest is 15 and the youngest is three years old.” – Elizabeth  Today, however, Elizabeth owns a small piece of land. As of last year, she also has access to a solar-powered irrigation scheme – a crucial asset in a drought-prone region becoming increasingly dry due to climate change. Today, with income from the sale of cabbages, onions, maize, and wheat that she grows on her land, she now has the means to send her grandchildren to school. And to put food on the table. 

Women at the forefront of the national economy 

In Zimbabwe, where agriculture employs almost three-quarters of the population, women are the backbone of the sector constituting around 70 percent of household labour in rural communities. They are also the linchpin of homes, heading more than 40 percent of households in rural areas. Despite this, women across Zimbabwe remain marginalized in both social and economic spheres. Particularly in rural areas, women’s access to land is almost entirely determined by men. Patriarchal norms prevent women from accumulating assets and productive resources, limiting their ability to offer assets as collateral, and so limiting access to credit and loans. Gender differences in property rights, access to information, and cultural, social, and economic roles make women particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For example, recurring drought and low rainfall negatively impact water supplies and fuel wood accessibility, which increases the distances women need to go to secure such resources. Women also remain marginalized in terms of adaptation strategies to cope with climate change impacts, especially limited access to irrigation systems. 

Challenging the gender divide with inclusive, climate-smart agriculture 

The leading role of women on farms and in rural communities is reflected in a transformative government-led project in southern Zimbabwe now underway with the backing of the Green Climate Fund and UN Development Programme. At the heart of the project – aimed at helping farmers move from basic farming for survival to farming that can withstand climate challenges and sell products in markets – is the recognition that women are more than just a vulnerable group in need of support but are in fact agents of change. With this wisdom, the project has been equipping women farmers with the tools they need to prosper. 

One component is infrastructure, specifically, solar-powered irrigation systems. These systems, 21 of which are being installed under the project, are key to ensuring a sufficient, reliable source of water for crops but also for household use. “I don’t have to walk long distances to look for water after school anymore,” says Samantha Dube from Masholomoshe, where an irrigation system was installed in September 2023. “Now I can focus on my homework and wash my uniform at home instead of the river.” Another component is knowledge – of climate-smart water management and conservation agriculture, as well as how to adapt production practices to cope with increasing rainfall variability and dry spells. The training of extension officers – employed by the government to communicate information to farmers – is having a multiplier effect. As a result of the officers taking their new knowledge back to the field, more than 45,000 women farmers are now practicing conservation agriculture through a combination of “minimum tillage” – a practice that involves reducing the extent of soil disturbance during planting – and mulching. The trainings are also intended to help farmers transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture.  Around 420,000 people across 15 districts, more than half of them women, have benefitted from the irrigation schemes and training provided by the project so far.  

Change afoot

While women in rural Zimbabwe face many challenges – among them patriarchal land ownership, lack of adequate agriculture training, and limited access to finance – progress is underway. Elizabeth's story is emblematic of a larger narrative unfolding across the country and Africa. Women, who have traditionally been marginalized in agriculture, are now at the forefront of its transformation. They are not only adapting to climate challenges but are also driving economic empowerment and resilience. This shift is not incidental but the result of targeted efforts to address gender disparities in land ownership, access to resources, and decision-making processes.

Promoting women in leadership

The project has been deliberate about influencing not just the participation, but the leadership of women in Irrigation Management Committees set up in association with each system installed. A diversity of women in the community have stepped forward to take an active part on the committees and almost half (46 percent) of the committees' members are women holding strategic positions, including that of Chairperson, Treasurer, and Secretary, a 20 percent increase from baseline. “Since I became a part of my community’s Irrigation Management Committee, my husband and children respect me so much. I am now included in the decisions of my family, including being consulted by my husband’s family before making major decisions,” says Florence Ncingo, Vice Secretary of the Masholomoshe Irrigation Scheme. “My organization and planning skills have also improved through the trainings I have attended.” Secretary of the Irrigation Scheme in Midlo, Ipithule Ndlovu echoes this experience, saying men now come to her with inquiries concerning the scheme, a shift from how things were handled in the past. 

Beyond the farm

Back on her farm, Elizabeth is optimistic for the future, positive her yields will only continue to increase – resulting in strengthened capacity to fend for her family. The benefits of empowering women, however, extend beyond the personal. When afforded equal opportunities, women are able to play a leading role in increasing the productivity and climate resilience of the agricultural sector, enhancing access to water resources and its sustainable use, ensuring greater food security for communities, and driving economic growth.   Building Climate Resilience of Vulnerable Agricultural Livelihoods in Southern Zimbabwe is a government-led project with finance from the Green Climate Fund, implemented with the UN Development Programme (UNDP). It is one of more than 80 UNDP-supported climate change adaptation projects worldwide, under implementation as of February 2024. 

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