Volume 17 Number 6
Born-Again Crops Give Hope to Zimbabwean Farmers
01 December 2004

Ian Robertson and his colleagues have found a way to free staple crops from viruses, with dramatic results for their growers. Michael Smith reports.

An Edinburgh-born scientist is helping to transform the lives and prospects of small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe, despite the appalling collapse of the country’s agricultural base.

This year, Zimbabwean farmers have planted only about a third of their usual fields, says the founder and Chief Executive of Agri-Biotech, Dr Ian Robertson, who teaches agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe. ‘The majority are eating only one meal a day,’ he says. ‘The World Food Programme says that by the end of the year five million people will need charity to prevent starvation.’

Yet farmers in eight districts are finding a gleam of hope in the ‘born-again’ sweet potato plants developed by Robertson and his colleagues. The plants make it possible for a 30-metre-square plot to feed a family of seven all year. Now a Swedish aid agency is funding Agri-Biotech to supply 3,000 starter plants to 160 nursery farmers.

Robertson and his team of eight Zimbabwean agricultural graduates call the plants ‘born-again’ because they have found a way of removing the virus that plagues sweet potato crops. They dissect out the 0.25mm tip of the bud, which is free from viruses and other micro-organisms, and throw the rest away. The lab team then grow the bud tip in a test tube for nine months into a virus-free plant, and keep on sub-culturing it to increase numbers. From there they transplant the plants into plastic greenhouse tunnels and take cuttings from them. These are bought by donors, such as the Swedish Centre for Cooperation, at US$0.05 each. ‘We need good lab work plus good greenhouse work to deliver to good farmers,’ comments Robertson, whose Edinburgh PhD is in plant tissue culture.

Unfortunately, the virus cleansing is not permanent. ‘Like some Christians—our team are all Christians—they can backslide,’ says Robertson. ‘The clean plants will inevitably pick up new viruses and degenerate. Farmers come back to us for new clean material every few years.’

The starter plants grow in August, and are irrigated during the following months of sunshine. Many resettlement farmers have access to a well, stream or irrigation system. Each of the 160 farmers can then sell the runners to over 100 neighbours in time to plant for full growth during the rainy season, which arrives in December.

Meanwhile the greenhouse nurserymen lift the virus-free sweet potato tubers and sell them early when prices are good, at a time when neighbours are growing for ‘stomach-fill’ for their families. Nothing is wasted. Tubers that are too small or two big to sell at the market, or are damaged by insect pests, are fed to cattle, which love them.

Take the experience of Boy Ncube. He and 19 other nurserymen were trained, over three days, in nursery management and field production, by Agri-Biotech’s Liaison Officer, Reuben Tayengwa. Agri-Biotech then supplied Ncube with 3,000 rooted cuttings of ‘Brondal’ sweet potato as well as 200 stakes of ‘Zambezi’ cassava. With the help of a small amount of organic fertilizer, Ncube grew vines to sell. Over two years, his 30-metre-square plot expanded to three hectares. He turned his initial delivery of US$150 into sales of $14,000. This has allowed him to buy a milk cow and he is building a bricks and mortar house for himself and his wife, and will buy a bakkie (pick-up truck) to carry his tubers to market. His best field has yielded 50 tons per hectare, compared with the national average of six tons.

Then there is Nicholas Chimbwedza who started farming 2.5 hectares of Brondal two years ago, after failing to get a job in town. Selling vines, fertilized with cattle manure, earned him $150. He has recently started harvesting tubers from just 0.16 hectares and has earned $1,000. This has enabled him to buy a new pump for his field. He expects ultimately to earn over $15,000. Dickson Gumede has 0.32 hectares and expects a harvest of eight tonnes on a yield per hectare of 25 tonnes. From sales he has earned several thousand dollars in the last two years.

It’s all a far cry from the UN’s poverty income level of less than a dollar a day.Agri-Biotech’s donor, the Swedish Centre for Cooperation, has estimated that, for every kroner they invest in the projects, Agri-Biotech’s 320 farmers (160 each year for two years) have earned four kroner. ‘And they have fed their own families with quality food—high protein, decent amino acids and plenty of carbohydrates,’ Robertson says.

In the current emergency, says Robertson, the Swedish Centre has contracted AgriBiotech to deliver 1,000 plants each to another 1,000 ‘beneficiaries’: disadvantaged orphans, old people who have lost their ‘middle generation’ to HIV/AIDS, and single parents.

‘We delivered in September and the growth is good,’ says Robertson. In two years, thanks to Agri-Biotech’s research and donor funding of some $300,000, the farmers have cashed in $1,200,000, Robertson says. The company itself has made only $50,000 but it has employed eight graduates. There is plenty of scope for more: so far the company has covered eight of Zimbabwe’s 56 districts.

As well as the hope that Robertson’s team is bringing to the farmers, the company also emphasizes its strict ethical policy of integrity, transparency and sincerity. Integrity, says Robertson, means ‘no cheating on expenses, no ghost journeys paid by the sponsors, no lies to farmers’. Transparency means: ‘sharing our ideas with farmers; listening to their problems, history and experience; never bluffing if we do not know; avoiding political judgements; telling the truth about our own vulnerability’. And sincerity means that the company delivers the plants when promised; shares ideas on hopes for the future; lets the farmers know what the company is earning; and ‘above all gets the job done whatever excuses are available’.

To find out more email: agbio@mweb.co.zw

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