Farmers in southern Zambia are facing some of the most prolonged droughts of their lifetimes. Rainfall totals in some areas have been at lows not seen in decades. The majority of the agriculture workforce is women who were already facing inequality and now also contend with climate change.
Members of the Monze District Women Association (DWA), located in Zambia’s Southern Province, are weathering the storm – or lack thereof – thanks to the resources and training their association is providing. The main reason the women farmers of Monze DWA are having successful yields among failing crops is a transition they began making two years ago. For many years, maize (corn) was by far their largest crop; now it’s being surpassed by sunflower, which has several uses, most notably processed cooking oil.
The U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) awarded Monze DWA a two-and-a-half-year, $93,000 capacity-building grant beginning in 2017. When a team from USADF visited the Monze women in February of that year, organizers talked of how they planned to start focusing on planting sunflower because of the revenue potential the crop had and what that could do for their members.
“Women will be empowered, they’ll have money because there will always be someone to buy their crops,” said a Monze DWA organizer in February 2017. “They’ll be able to open small bank accounts.”
With sunflower, they believed they would literally plant seeds for local women’s economic empowerment.
Fast-forward to spring 2019, and USADF’s investment and the Monze DWA strategy is sustaining the women during drought conditions. Monze says 60 percent of its members were affected by the recent drought, with 40 percent of them being heavily impacted. The maize crop has mostly failed during the latest harvest, while sunflower has fared much better.
For the period through March 2019, which completed the second year of the USADF grant, the women members processed more than 100 tons of sunflower. It’s a significant increase from their first year in the program, when they processed 15 tons of sunflower.
The USADF team visited Monze DWA again in April 2019. The women gathered to celebrate the success they’d experienced two years into the grant program, despite the challenges the drought has presented them.
One of the women remarked that because of the USADF grant, “We were trained in sunflower... Before, we just used to plant it without knowing.” They’re not only harvesting and selling more sunflower, but they’re also processing it themselves into cooking oil to sell.
Their training and growth in sunflower production has helped the Monze farmers increase their revenues. The women say it’s allowing them to improve their homes and pay their children’s school fees. Word is spreading throughout the district, leading to more local women joining the association. Monze DWA says it has grown from 1,000 members to 2,300, thanks to the project’s success.
And though their farmers’ maize mostly failed during the recent drought, the crop is not fully left out of the equation.
“From the selling of sunflower oil, we use the money to buy maize that we eat in our homes.”