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Young farm leader sees hope for African agriculture

By Mark Lynas

Zimbabwean farmer Ruramiso Mashumba. Photo by Robert Hazen

When Ruramiso Mashumba went into farming, no one thought she would succeed. Working the land was not believed suitable for a young Zimbabwean woman. The bank turned her down for a loan as “high risk,” and she faced prejudice from neighbors and even friends.

“My first challenge was I’m a woman, so, because agriculture is still seen at least in my home country as something that men do, it was a challenge being able to enter into the agriculture sector because people didn’t think I was serious,” she told the Alliance for Science during its recent communications course for farmers in Illinois.

Her mother inspired her to follow her dream. “My mother has been my role model growing up," Mashumba said. "The decisions that I’ve made in agriculture have been very, very difficult. But she has encouraged me to become better. She has encouraged me to keep trying even when I have failed. So, I’m truly grateful for the woman she is because I am who I am today because of her.”

Mashumba knew her first task was to get educated. She understood from the outset that farming needed to be a business, not a hobby, so she travelled to the United Kingdom to study accounting, finance and agriculture business management. After returning to the farm in 2012 she made the decision to buy a tractor. Her goal was to make the farm a viable business, and to move away from subsistence and manual labor.

“For us, the tractor represented a technological leap forward,” she said. “We became more productive, able to care for more crops in less time.”

Having built a successful business exporting snap peas to the European Union, Mashumba was keen to share her experience. She is now the National Youth Chairperson for the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, and has been recognized for her work in helping to lead women towards more mechanized farming in Africa. This means less time performing backbreaking labor in the fields, higher profit margins and the ability for more people to send children to school to become educated.

However, major challenges remain. “In Zimbabwe, one in every five children and women of childbearing age are vitamin A deficient,” she lamented. “You’ll find that a lot of these people who are vitamin deficient live in rural areas.” Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness, and it also compromises the immune systems of young children, leading to more deaths from preventable diseases. “It actually affects even the formation of your brain which is very worrisome because it means that if you don’t develop well as a young person you might not also be able to excel in life,” she explained.

Mashumba promotes biofortification — the process of breeding more nutritious varieties of staple crops — to help tackle micronutrient deficiencies like vitamin A. She also teaches women to give their children healthier and more diverse diets, and sells her own brand of nutritious whole grains called Mnandi. She also safeguards crop diversity by continuing to grow an indigenous African variety of red rice called Oryza glaberrima that would otherwise be at risk of extinction in the area.

Mashumba is optimistic about the future, even as a majority of African farmers struggle to emerge from poverty.

“There is a lot of hope in agriculture and it’s very exciting because we are seeing a lot of young people going into agriculture,” she said. “We are seeing a lot of new technologies being developed, so for me that shows that there is a lot of hope for the future. What we are going to see in 2050 is not what we are seeing today, so that is very encouraging for me."

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