Real-time weather forecasts are helping Zambian women farmers win their battle against the impact of climate change
According to statistics, two-thirds of the labour force in Zambia is engaged in agriculture, 78 percent of whom are women farmers. Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of the country’s GDP, and the output feeds over half of its population of nearly 14 million people.
In recent years, extreme weather conditions such as severe dry spells and floods have hit hard on Zambia's rain-fed farmland, posing serious threats to the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers.
Women bear the greatest burden of these erratic changes in weather patterns, as they are the mainstay of agricultural production. Despite the incessant droughts and floods, Zambian women farmers are determined not to be beaten by the impact of climate change. There are some success stories where women farmers are leading the way and are finding potential ways to fight climate change - either through the formation of women’s multipurpose cooperatives or women's self-help groups to lift themselves out of poverty.
Making women farmers stronger - one village at a time
Women constitute 51 percent of Zambia’s population of nearly 14 million people. In this conservative part of rural Zambia, women have few land tenure rights and little experience asserting themselves in a social context due to the gender imbalances in land access, ownership and control.
Poverty in rural areas is high and economic opportunities for women in particular are severely limited. This is compounded by extreme weather conditions which make agriculture more unsustainable and unpredictable, especially for women-headed households.
The UNDP-supported Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Project is working with the Zambian government through the Meteorological Department to promote climate smart agricultural practices – to support rural Zambian farming families to improve livelihoods through building their resilience to climate change. The project is providing agro-meteorological services to farmers’ cooperatives including women’s clubs. Currently, the project is piloting community level early warning systems for extreme weather events in three of Zambia’s 10 provinces worst affected by droughts and floods.
Collecting weather data, saving lives
With funding from the Global Environment Facility Least Developed Countries Fund (GEF-LDCF), UNDP is supporting a flagship program of the Zambia Meteorological Department which provides regular weather forecast and agriculture advisory for farming communities in Zambia. The aim is to minimise the impact of adverse weather on crops and boost agricultural production. Through the project, the Met Department has installed 68 automated weather stations plus 40 manual stations across the country. These stations also act as early warning systems for communities that are vulnerable to flooding and other longer-term climate change challenges.
These early warnings enable farmers to shelter their animals and protect their income and families. In addition, the collection and distribution of local rainfall information is helping smallholder farmers adjust their crop production methods to changing seasonal precipitation patterns. The Met Department is now considering providing rudimentary meteorological training to rural farming cooperatives across the country.
Weather forecasts on the move
The project is using mobile phones and solar powered radios to enable lead-farmers to get weather forecasts while on the move. Women farmers are fired up and are taking steps that limit the effects of climate change on agriculture and its consequences for their food and nutritional security.
Tissa Mwale Adamson, 38, who leads a group of 86 women farmers in the drought-prone District of Mambwe in Zambia’s Eastern Province says even barriers such as illiteracy cannot prevent them from using their newly found agricultural techniques and approaches, adding that some of her friends who cannot read the text messages let their children or people from the village to read it and interpret for them in their local language.
Finding a common ground
They may not understand the science of climate change, but they have first-hand experience of its effects, and with some education and simple solutions, they are better able to tackle it. Having experts and community leaders together and combining indigenous knowledge of predicting the weather with scientific forecasts, the project has succeeded in regularly engaging farmers and agreeing on a climate scenario, as well as making key decisions with farmers for the coming farming season.
Many small-scale farmers have been struggling to produce enough food to feed their families owing to the drought that ravaged most parts of Zambia. The project is helping smallholder farmers adopt climate-smart agricultural and business practices, giving them the confidence to invest in and improve their farming enterprises.
Seasonal climate forecasts to increase food production
Many female Zambian farmers in remote areas, like Grace Chilipa-Milimo – 36, in Gwembe District in the Southern Province, provide living testimonies of women who have taken up the challenge of confronting climate change head-on to stay afloat. While fellow farmers in other parts of the country were despairing over plummeting yields caused by erratic rains and regular dry spells, she was busy harvesting surplus maize from her six hectares farmland.
Like many housewives in one of the driest provinces of Zambia, Grace has had to deal with harvest losses which are often the sole source of food and income for the family. This made it hard for her to make ends meet in the past. These days, she is equipped with new agricultural techniques and approaches which are protecting her family against food insecurity and hunger while at the same time paying for the education of her seven children.
The battle by Zambian women farmers against climate change is being waged not only in the Western and Southern Provinces, but also in the Eastern Province where women have been making their mark. In Mambwe District in the Eastern Province, the impact of persistent droughts has led to a depletion in the groundwater level – a precious resource in the drought-ridden region. Despite the recurring drought and agrarian crisis, some farmers have been able to foresee the impacts and changed their cropping system to overcome the obstacles.
Kaputo Kennedy, the Mambwe District Agricultural Coordinator says the district recorded 18,900 metric tonnes of maize for the 2016-2017 farming season compared with 9,508 metric tonnes of maize recorded during the previous season. This record harvest is expected to reduce poaching and illegal logging which are common occurrences in a district which lies in the Game Management Area.
Patricia Musweu – 59, from Busitakolo Village in Sesheke District in the Western Province and her family beam with smiles as they provide testimonies of a bumper harvest, despite living in the western region where agriculture is at the mercy of extreme weather such as the “worst” drought she remembers three farming seasons ago.
Women leaders like Christine Malumo and Patricia Musweu are in the vanguard of encouraging women in their communities to form women's self-help groups or join farming cooperatives and take charge of their lives to reduce the vulnerability of their communities.
The cooperatives help their members to generate income and get employment in many ways – through direct involvement in cooperative farming, livestock and cattle rearing; and by enabling members to sell their surplus produce to the cooperatives.
For Juster Simonshi, Treasurer of the Kasamanda Cooperative in the Eastern Province, a farming cooperative of 103 members, 50 percent of whom are women, growing drought resistant crops has made her excel in farming and her life has improved since she is now sending her children to school through selling extra crop yields.
As a result of the collaboration between Zambia's Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and the Meteorological Department, women farmers are gradually becoming breadwinners in their homes and this is leading to improved agricultural productivity, incomes and building resilience among female farmers, most of whom are now head of families.
A sense of ownership
A sense of ownership has pushed the project forward. The Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Project has been running since 2014. The project aims to help 1 million smallholder farmers become better prepared for climate shocks by giving them access to better forecasts. It is implementing through the Zambia Meteorological Department.
“By providing access to weather and climate related information, the project is helping smallholder farmers cope with weather and climate extremes and increase agricultural productivity,” says Edson Nkonde, Acting Director of the Zambia Meteorological Department.