Spoiled harvests spell disaster for businesses – one woman’s experience highlights the need to strengthen the World Food Programme’s ability to act ahead of extreme weather events


At one end of a junkyard – next to the rusty husk of an old bus and the broken remains of a 1958 Chevrolet Daley – Edith Ndebele carefully turns a metal drum heated by firewood, keeping an eye on the peanuts tumbling around inside.

The roast she’s perfected flavours the thick, creamy peanut butter her customers love in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, in the southwestern province of Matabeleland.

“I’m faster now,” says Ndebele – thanks to a roasting drum she received through a World Food Programme (WFP) initiative supporting urban entrepreneurs, cooking takes 30 minutes. “Using the old machine, I would take an hour, and it would use up all my firewood.”

‘My customers can’t afford the new price of peanut butter’

Peanut butter is nutritious and affordable, making it a staple for families in Zimbabwe where malnutrition is rising – only 10.4 percent of children in urban areas get the minimum nutrition they need.

As crisis after crisis grips the country, such a business can be a constant, smoothing over gaps in the income of enterprising women.

In 2023, WFP supported over 10,000 families in Zimbabwe under the urban resilience programme Ndebele joined (funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation).

As well as training programmes, WFP and its partners run a host of ‘anticipatory action’ drives to tackle extreme weather. Among the ways we work to mitigate El Niño in is drilling boreholes to reach water for drought-struck fields, while helping farmers source more drought-tolerant seed varieties.

In five districts across North Matebeleland, WFP’s drilled nearly half of the 53 planned boreholes. Using solar-powered pumps, they support gardens for growing nutritious crops for communities who might otherwise receive emergency food assistance in the wake of a climate disaster.

This, in turn, means producers such as Ndebele, in urban areas, are not left dangling as fields will have more chance of surviving hot conditions.

All the progress she has made in recent years is currently at risk. In April, the Government joined Malawi and Zambia in calling a national emergency. The countries are struggling to respond to the devastation caused by El Niño, the natural weather phenomenon that has wreaked havoc across southern Africa, a region already grappling with destructive spells of extreme weather caused by climate change.

El Niño occurs every seven years or so as the waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean warm up. El Niño’s slow onset from mid-2023 in Zimbabwe had, by January and February, resulted in livestock deaths and decimated harvests after the rains expected in November and December failed to materialize.

Scorched fields dropped harvests 77 percent in the 2023-24 summer season, with peanut production almost at a standstill, down 98 percent.

“I feel I have been hit twice by El Niño,” says Ndebele – once physically and once financially. “This time last year, I had a ton of peanuts. Now, I only have one (25kg) bag. People want peanut butter, but they can’t afford it.”

She adds: “The price of peanuts has doubled, and we are importing from Zambia. There are many middlemen involved, and the prices are too high.

“My business is so reliant on the weather and a good harvest. The drought also affected my customers, and their buying power is down. They can’t afford the new price of peanut butter.”

According to the Government, 1.7 million people in urban settings are food-insecure. They juggle cash-in-hand jobs as inflation puts essential foods out of reach.

The period between May and August should be her busiest time, but this year, Ndebele can only afford to pay one of the two women she usually hires to help out – and on reduced hours.

Cash assistance

During the pandemic, as Ndebele struggled to feed her four children, a cash grant from WFP helped turn her fortunes around, enabling her to create her own brand of peanut butter.

“I felt good because now I’ve managed to help others,” Ndebele explains. “I’ve also taught those I work with what I learned during the training sessions.”

In a good month, Ndebele produced ten buckets of peanut butter compared to two when she started – a single bucket yields 40 small jars of peanut butter. These went for the equivalent of US$1 each at a local shop run by two women she met during a training session organized by WFP and partner Dan Church Aid. (Those jars now cost $1.50 each.)

Despite the rising cost of living, Ndebele has been able to send her son, Preacher, who has cerebral palsy, to a school for learners with disabilities – now this hard-won support is at risk.

Training for women

In Bulawayo, Ndebele chairs a group of female entrepreneurs.

She says the resilience-building training and technical support she receives from WFP are game-changers.

From hiring other women and paying taxes to sharing her knowledge with budding businesswomen, Ndebele aims to foster change in her community.

“We teach each other as women how to make a living,” she says of the weekly meetings she attends through a group of vendors and traders. “I can pay my quarterly taxes now, even if it is not much. At least my small contribution can make a difference in the country.”

Her dream is to have a farm. “If I had my own space, I would start from zero and grow peanuts,” she says.

For now, though, she’s focusing on rebuilding her business. And providing a better future for her children, one neatly labeled jar of creamy, freshly roasted peanut butter at a time.

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