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Wild Food Collectors Counter Climate Change

Activities such as bee-keeping and harvesting mushrooms and wild fruits are becoming an increasingly important contribution to food security and incomes for poor rural folk. Because of climate change, agriculture, which supports two thirds of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people, has come under severe pressure, forcing many families to turn to the collection of wild foods during times of drought, or of poor harvests.

Since 1960, rainfall has declined 5 percent countrywide while extreme events like drought or flash flooding have increased in frequency and extremity, causing manifold crop losses, hunger and malnutrition, according to the state-run Meteorological Services Department (MSD). The UN panel on climate change expects crop output in Zimbabwe to fall by between 30 and 50 percent within the next two decades, in line with yield declines across southern Africa, as water in rivers, dams or lakes fall 50 percent by 2100.

Now, to beat the climate change-induced shortages, many poor rural farmers have turned to gathering wild foods such as honey, mushrooms, mazhanje (sugar plum), mauyu (boabab fruit) and matohwe (snot apple) for sale to travellers, or merchants who have ready markets in the city. By so doing, however, individuals are monopolising for private profit resources that generally should benefit an entire community, creating fissures that increase the vulnerability of other community members to climate change.

Working together adds value

With individual producers earning only a pittance from their produce, mainly due to lack of value addition and poor market linkages, communities are encouraged to organise themselves better, experts say. This way, communities will not only earn more from their produce, but also minimise conflict and build climate resilience. When operating as a community business, rural producers are better positioned to build storage facilities for raw and processed stocks as well as invest more in preservation technologies.

“Establishing community processing centres linked to markets could see much protection and preservation of forests as communities realise real value from their natural resources,” said Charles Dhewa, chief executive, Knowledge Transfer Africa, an independent company that works with small farmers.”Like any other product, the value of honey and wild foods needs to be promoted in such a way that demand is stimulated and returns become lucrative from the producer’s perspective. “Promoting the production (supply) side without stimulating demand (consumer awareness) makes producers believe producing such products is not a business option. “At the moment it seems private buyers mobilising raw products from producers are getting more than ten times the value when the product gets to consumers’ door steps.”

Natural products are grown in the wild by rural producers, which include beverages, cosmetic oils, health care products, herbal teas, jams, nutritional supplements and medicinal products, according to the website for Phytotrade Africa, a global marketer of natural products, which has offices in Harare. Most natural products adapt to specific climatic conditions and become a source of food during times of plenty and food shortages. Understanding characteristics of nutrients found in their leaves, stalks, bark or roots is crucial to the preservation and production of natural products, experts say.

Money from honey

Some have already started arranging systematic business operations, hoping to boost incomes by diversifying from food and cash crops that are prone to climate shocks. In Goromonzi, a maize and tobacco farming area on the outskirts of Harare, 33 smallholder farmers have organised themselves into the Pfuma Cooperative, a coalition for beekeeping, Since 2013, the Cooperative has built more than 100 bee-hives, with technical assistance from Ruzivo Trust, a not-for-profit organisation from Harare.

On average, each hive produces 15 kilogrammes of honey per harvest, which occurs every six months, according to Pfuma Cooperative chairman, David Musungo. That’s nearly 1,5 tonnes of the nutritious sweet liquid from the above 100 hives or $10,000 of income shared equally among the Cooperative’s members at any single harvest, and or reinvested, wholly or partially, into the scheme.”The demand for honey on the local market is extremely high,” said Musungo, by telephone. Bees produce much more than honey. Products such as beeswax are useful for the cosmetics industry while farmers can earn money by “making (and selling) their own candles, wax, soap and skin lotions at the household level.”

With an estimated 50,000 people in apiculture, bees are stinging the menace of deforestation, one of Zimbabwe’s biggest environmental headaches and a major driver in the emission of climate change-causing greenhouse gases.”By keeping bees, we have become more conscious of the need to protect the natural environment” said Musungo, the Pfuma Cooperative chair, adding “the cutting down of trees or starting of wild fires is now of personal importance.”This is an unexpected outcome, said Ruzivo Trust spokesperson, Chipo Gono, but one that greatly improves biodiversity conservation.”When farmers learn about the value of trees as a source of bee forage, they are also less likely to continue with destructive activities such as charcoal burning and hunting and even begin to plant more trees,” she said in a previous interview.

Not Enough Knowledge

Rural producers of natural foods are failing to draw maximum benefits from their products due to lack of skill and the absence of technology, said Knowledge Transfer Africa’s Dhewa. And this is so for many reasons, he said. By selling foods that may not be found in other areas, communities are actually selling away their nutrition; selling away a key defence against climate change.”Communities might be aware of all types of natural foods that are available and edible within their vicinity but what they might lack are other benefits like nutritional value and medicinal properties,” Dhewa explained.

“Reproduction of most natural foods like mushroom, for example, is far from being understood by respective communities.” He continued: “Planning for harvests and preservation becomes difficult as communities have no idea of the harvest volumes of each food type as they come into season naturally.”Creation of community knowledge centres that integrate indigenous and scientific knowledge will go a long way in promoting the growing and consumption of natural products – also helping farmers in adapting to climate change.”

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