Do rural women make better farmers than men?

Housewife and communal farmer Patricia Mutokodziva isn’t alone in thinking she’s a better farmer than many of the men. NELSON SIBANDA talked to female farmers making a living from the land around Chapendama village in Chief Svosve’s area.

“One of our advantages as women is that we enjoy being where the action is and give our best in everything we do.” – Patricia Mutokodziva.
“One of our advantages as women is that we enjoy being where the action is and give our best in everything we do.” – Patricia Mutokodziva.

The women who have diversified into commercial tobacco farming are proving their worth, embarking on projects without support from husbands or any other men for that matter.

Mutokodziva turned tobacco farmer in 2008 and her project continues to grow with each farming season. She’s built tobacco barns and grading sheds and acquired equipment such as a tobacco bailing machine.

She, like other rural women farmers, told The Zimbabwean that the majority of commercial rural smallscale farming was carried out by women, since men were often supporting the family by working elsewhere. Other women were doing it alone because they had been widowed.

“Even when there are men around, women make excellent farm managers, given their natural dedication to projects and to creating a source of livelihood for their families,” said Mutokodziva.

“One of our advantages as women is that, naturally, we enjoy being where the action is and give our best in everything we do. The fact that the majority of the rural population is made up of women and girls makes us the majority as far as farming is concerned,” she added, boasting of producing a better tobacco crop than men around the villages and the neighbouring new A2 farmers.

In her first four years of tobacco farming, Mutokodziva paid for all the inputs from the family coffers. She later adopted contract farming to get access to more inputs provided under the scheme. Getting the things she needed, though, wasn’t always easy, and they often went to people with connections.

Things being normal, she said, self-sponsored farming would be the way to go.

Some contracting companies, she explained, provided nine 50kg packets of compound C and two of ammonium nitrate per hectare. A tonne of coal and a cash sum were also given contracted farmers for every hectare. Many farmers, though, said they needed more inputs and more cash to meet labour costs.

During the early years in commercial tobacco farming, Mutokodziva put less than an acre of land under tobacco growing. Over time, she increased her range.

“The bigger the land under cultivation the bigger the returns,” she said. “I realise an average 25 bales per hectare and, with tobacco prices at more than $4 per kilo, after deducting input costs, I make no less than $12,000.”

The land under tobacco used to be for maize, a crop villagers have since abandoned due to failure by the Grain Marketing Board to pay decent rates or on time.

Like other farmers, Mutokodziva’s land is too small for her ambitions, and she called on government to allocate her a bigger plot under the land reform programme.

To underscore the productiveness of the rural women farmers, some have rented plots from the newly resettled farmers who are struggling to use their land. Three 50kg bags of fertiliser are swapped for a season’s cultivation of a hectare of land from the new farmers, most of whom are absent landowners.

Communal tobacco farming is not without its challenges, though.

The firewood needed continues to diminish with each farming season and the situation could be desperate in the near future, given farmers’ reluctance to plant gum trees.

Transport costs incurred in sourcing firewood and other necessities continue to rise and farmers have called for government subsidies. The cost of getting the tobacco to auction floors also falls to the contract farmer.

Other expenses include the labour during cultivation, chemical spraying, ripping, curing and grading. Workers are paid an average $4 a day and one hectare needs around 12 workers in attendance throughout the farming season. Rippers charge $4 to $5 per 100 strings or clips.

Each of Mutokodziva’s barns will be filled to capacity with tobacco clipped on 600 strings. This would make four or five bales when cured.

“To save on firewood and coal, I will be converting the traditional barns to the rocket type that needs less fuel,” she said, indicating that the rocket barn would have smaller furnaces and chimney.

She, and other communal farmers in her area, learnt their tobacco farming skills from trained A2 farmers in the neighbourhood.

Former minister of finance Tendai Biti said communal farmers had taken charge of tobacco farming in Zimbabwe and constituted 40 per cent of registered farmers by 2012.

Tobacco farming, according to Biti, helped boost the rural economy through provision of jobs to thousands of workers.

Women rural farmers and their male counterparts in the Midlands province have since abandoned cotton farming for the golden leaf.

The Tobacco Marketing Board and other stakeholders are helping to enhance farmers’ skills in tobacco cultivation. Farmers also get help with tobacco seedling production.

Farming experts, though, have urged new tobacco farmers to consult broadly as they venture into the business. Field days are held to enable farmers to share farming tips.

Zimbabwe women constitute 70 per cent of the farming community and contribute 80 per cent of the food produced. Under the land reform programme, women make up 18 per cent of beneficiaries under A1 and 12 per cent under A2.

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