New crop skills aim to beat Zimbabwe hunger

It's raining in Zimbabwe but no one is complaining.

It's badly needed, evidenced by the dry grass which is steadily turning from brown to green as the soil is refreshed.

Farmers are now busily getting their seeds in the soil in the hope of maximising the crops that'll keep them and their families alive.

Tearfund is funding local partners to help such work. The challenge of shortages in seeds, fertiliser, cattle for ploughing and tools, mean they are having to teach new skills in still very difficult circumstances.

One partner, River of Life, is training local churches in conservation farming techniques which they in turn can pass on to their communities. It's hoped 10,000 farmers will benefit this year.

Food boost

The techniques include:

- encouraging the use of mulch

- not ploughing, to retain soil structure and moisture

- planting on time to maximise the time the seedling benefits from the longer hours of sunlight

- maintaining high standards in terms of weeding and caring for the crop

- minimising wastage by careful planting of seeds

- ensuring compost (or fertiliser where available) is applied directly on the seed.

The benefits are tangible - yields can increase threefold compared to traditional methods.

Such measures will be needed as widely as possible amid predictions that 1.9 million Zimbabweans will require food aid next year.

Another partner, the Ebenezer Agricultural Training Centre, is providing farming, business and life skills to young people.

Sudden shock

Some 21 apprentices started a new programme in November and such educational work is eagerly sought in a country where unemployment is astronomically high.

According to the UN's latest assessment, Zimbabwe's humanitarian situation has improved but international aid continues to be needed to keep the momentum going, particularly improving access to water, sanitation and healthcare.

And the UN warns that any 'sudden shock' could unravel the recent gains because the situation overall remains fragile.

Politically, Zimbabwe still needs your prayers.

Tensions in the unity government between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have eased after a recent row over the arrest of an opposition party member but they haven't disappeared.

All parties are under renewed pressure from the Southern African Development Community to agree on outstanding issues but so far there's been little progress.