NNF empowers communities in Caprivi

Jenny Mubita walks 30 minutes to the trial plot to till the land before the sun gets too hot. It's hard work digging holes in the sandy soil, but last year she saw the bumper harvest that other farmers produced, and she is keen to repeat their success.

Rosemary Poniso has two things in common with Jenny, she is a widow, and poor; and just a few nights ago the elephants came and ate all her tomato crop. But while Jenny is planting maize, Rosemary is tending to another precious crop: chillies.

At Mwalala pond, near Bukalo village, villagers are busy hauling in a net to sort unwanted catfish, brought by floodwater, from the valuable Tilapia they will harvest later in the year for food and for sale.

The three projects are essential ingredients in the NNF's strategy to empower communities to manage natural resources and improve their living standards, not only in Caprivi, but across Namibia.

The NNF works with communal conservancies, providing technical suppport and financial assistance through the Natural Resources Working Group (NRWG), which links it to other NGOs supporting conservancies under the umbrella of NACSO, the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organizations.

After the rains, the Zambezi and Kwando rivers can flood much of the Caprivi Strip, destroying crops. But for the rest of the year most of the Caprivi is dry. The soil is sandy, and sufficient rainwater to grow maize or millet is by no means certain. For many Caprivian farmers, trapped between too much water and too little, poverty is the norm. So an innovative rural development programme was born and is managed by the NNF. The Community Empowerment programme has three main elements: fish farming, chilli growing, and conservation agriculture.

Conservation agriculture

Nobody knows for sure what climate change will bring. Namibia is likely to be much drier, but erratic weather may bring more frequent flooding. Making the most of the little land available will be increasingly important; and that's what conservation agriculture does.

Jenny pulls a line of string taut along the length of her 10x20 metre plot. Using a measuring stick she marks spaces for holes and carefully digs them out, using another stick to measure the depth. When the work is done, she will bring some manure from her cattle kraal and drop a piece in each hole, and when the rains come, the precious seeds will go in. Each completed hole lies 2.5cm below the surface of the field, to attract and hold water. To lessen the impact of rain a mulch of stalks from last year's crop is laid on top.

The harvest promises to be good. Each woman in the trial has two plots: one for maize or millet, and one for cowpeas or groundnuts. The plots are rotated to enrich the soil.

Jenny is happy with her day's work and sets off home to till her own field until the children come home from school. Although her crop yield should double, feeding, clothing and educating the children costs money that a single woman doesn't have. But she does own a few cattle, and she is looking forward to next year, when the project will introduce an animal drawn ripper that will till the soil more efficiently than a plough, using water conservation and soil enrichment principles. If all goes well, women like Jenny should be able to increase the size of their plots as well as their yields.

Chilli farming

Rosemary Poniso heard about the chilli farming project from the agricultural extension office in 2008, and together with some other women went to a meeting to find out about the new idea from Zambia, just across the river. Many villagers had heard that chillies could be used to deter the elephants that trample and eat their crops.

Two techniques have been developed over the years by NGOs in southern Zambia and the Caprivi. Chilli 'bombs' take advantage of the enemy by using elephant dung. This is mixed 50/50 with broken chilli. When the elephants come to the field, hot coals are placed on the bombs, and the pungent smell keeps the giants at bay. The other method is to soak rags in a mixture of old engine oil and chillis, and to hang them from wire forming 'chilli fences'.

Wildlife benefits too

Keeping the elephants away from the crops is also part of a strategy to establish wildlife corridors through which elephants in particular can move freely. That way the crops are safeguarded, and villagers don't come into confrontation with the elephants, which can provoke them, causing further damage.

Conservation agriculture is an important part of the strategy. Smaller fields with greater yields can be concentrated away from wildlife corridors, and are easier to guard with novel methods like chilli bombs.

Extra income improves livelihoods

The chillies bought for bombs by NGOs assisting the farmers can be low grade, but as the farmers gain experience, they can produce Tabasco chilli for export. In 2010 a start was made with production. The farmers have to hand pick the ripe chillies daily, and sort the best grade. The chillies are salted and packed into drums and exported to Zambia, and from there on to other buyers. If production could reach 20 tons a year, it would be worthwhile exporting directly to South Africa and the USA.

Cash crops like Rosemary's tomatoes and chillies, and Jenny's groundnuts and surplus maize, will make all the difference to rural households – as will fish farming.

Low input fish farming

All over the world fish are farmed in large ponds for sale commercially. But natural fish ponds cost much less. They don't require digging and lining, or expensive water tanks and pipelines. Fingerlings (young fish) are bought with NNF project money from private fish farmers, and each pond is stocked with up to three thousand.

Mwalala pond is relatively small, and is shared by 15 households. Up to now they have had only one harvest, in 2009. The fish caught were tilapia, and the villagers ate almost all of them. "People are hungry in the dry season," says the NNF's Priscah Lilungwe. The 'low input' is important, stresses Priscah. The people here are poor and need the maximum results from the minimum input. The fish are fed on left-over millet and maize grain, and the pond is fertilized with cattle dung, which encourages the growth of plankton.

Priscah is enthusiastic about the future: "At Silumbu they took 5,000 big fish, and Sibula Mundi pond near Lake Liambezi is very big, with thousands of fish. They get four or five harvests a year." That's a commercial proposition for an area hungry for income.

In Caprivi as elsewhere, people are adapting to climate change. In Caprivi's conservancies, with assistance from the NNF, the challenge is to harness natural resources and to benefit by conserving them. In an area bounded by rivers, it is best to go with the flow.

Steve Felton
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