Turning Lemons into Lemonade

The hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has dominated social media during the past week. Images and videos of security forces brutalising citizens have caused outrage all over the world. Some people who had never heard of Zimbabwe now know it because of the attention it has received in recent days. Unemployment is at an all-time high, with estimates that over 70% of young people under the age of 35 do not have jobs. Not many people can count failure to get a job in the corporate world as a blessing, but 34-year-old Lenience Zinyama does.

Lenience in her cabbage field

 Where she is now, however, is not where she had hoped to be when she completed her studies. A Finance graduate, like everyone else in her class and all fresh graduates in general, Lenience dreamt of rocking high heels and breaking glass ceilings while working from the 16th floor of a big bank. For three good years, she dished out CVs, knocked on doors, and said fervent prayers for that job, but all that was in vain. In retrospect, she realises those doors did not open because she was probably meant to open for others. Now she dons her overalls and gumboots as a farmer, but says life couldn’t be better!

Lenience calls herself an agropreneur. Usually, when people think of a farmer, they have visions of a stocky, bearded, elderly looking man, but tables are surely turning. In a true case of making lemonade when life gives you lemons, Lenience specialises in cabbage production, which is a considerably rare path for a woman, let alone one of her age, and she is acing it. Her cabbage fields are in Beatrice, Mashonaland East, near Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare. Lenience is the perfect example of a person who stuck her finger in every pie before the cabbage fields called. She had a brief stint as a product marketer, but quickly left it in about a month because there was no job satisfaction. In the spirit of chamuka inyama (a Shona idiom for “you take whatever comes your way, or all is fish that comes to my net”), Lenience shelved her degree and waning hopes of landing a job as a hotshot banker, and started selling second-hand clothes for two years. She also dabbled in baking and cake-decorating.  The interest in all those small businesses fizzled out before long, because she was only chasing money without much love for what she was doing.  Being able to make a bit of income, however, boosted her self-confidence, and she resumed her quest to get a job.

Lenience’s day at the fields begins at 6am

Still there were no responses to her applications. Needless to say, she felt jinxed and deflated. “In comparison to my peers who had no problems getting jobs, I felt so demotivated and like a loser. It wasn’t easy for me. I remember telling my friend that we were not meant to be employed, and that was why God was not giving us jobs,” she said. And right she was! She was not meant to be employed but to employ. 
She could have wallowed in self-pity, or like most young people, declared, “This ship is sinking! I’m out of here!” and relocated to places where the grass was greener. Instead, she remained resilient.
By simply changing her game plan, Lenience jumped from being unemployed to being an employer of four permanent employees and about 25 casual ones. If she had got that job at the bank, there would probably be 29 more people in the pool of the unemployed. She decided to venture into agriculture because she had knowledge in it. Lenience was raised by money made through farming by her peasant-turned-commercial farmer parents. Her mother grew everything from groundnuts, to potatoes and everything in-between. Lenience takes her hat off to her, and calls her the family’s agricultural extension officer. She enrolled at Trelawney Agricultural College for self-improvement after having five children. The knowledge she acquired has come in handy for the family. Lenience aspires to be like her mother and be a fountain of knowledge that as many people as possible can drink from. She doesn’t claim to know everything, but acknowledges that there many lessons to learn from farming. “I have learnt that each day has its own problems. Each day is a learning day. In farming, there is nothing like, “I did this yesterday, so it will come out the same. My dad has over 20 years’ experience, but even he is still learning,” she said. She has also learned not to be afraid to consult those with more experience, as well as capitalise on the free workshops that are offered by organisations from time to time. Lenience says she is fortunate to have her father always there to guide her every step of the way, even though he has had his own fair share of challenges. Following one bad farming season, he accrued a debt of half a million dollars (US) which he was struggling to pay off. “The year I joined him at the farm is when we started to pay the debt,” she said.  
Zimbabwe’s economy has been on a downward spiral for a while now, and there has been a mass exodus of young people to neighbouring countries and overseas. Most of those that are still in the country aspire to leave. Lenience, however, harbours no such plans. She intends to stay put and grow her business. She sees herself expanding her hectarage so as to feed more people than she does now. In five years, she hopes her harvest will increase five-fold so that she can supply to every household in her area, as well as beyond the Zimbabwean borders. As a cost-saving measure, Lenience plans to eventually switch from electric and diesel pumps to solar ones. Another strategy she wants to employ to manage costs is to have less middlemen involved so that she can just move her harvest from the field, straight to her consumers’ tables.
Lenience explained how a lot of work is involved before her cabbages can land on our tables as coleslaw salad. Her normal day starts at 6 am, so that she and her “well-oiled” team can work the fields while it’s still cool. Around 11am, they sow for the next crop, or shred cabbages for drying, as well as look out for thieving monkeys. The team’s day ends at 3pm, but if there is irrigation to be done, they work overnight. One of Lenience’s biggest wish is for Zimbabwe to reclaim its status as the bread basket of Africa, rather than the basket case it has become. She is optimistic that this can be achieved. She is happy that many young people now appreciate the importance of agriculture as the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy, and would like to be active participants in turning the tide.

The volatile Zimbabwean economy has broken many people and forced many businesses to close. Farming has not been spared from these challenges, one of the most serious ones being the ever-changing input prices which make it difficult for farmers to plan ahead.  Lenience says the current economic climate has turned her into a stronger and more organised farmer, who upon getting money from selling produce, quickly plans and buys inputs before prices surge.Despite all the challenges farmers like herself face daily, Lenience has absolutely no regrets and feels her journey has been a success. She encourages Zimbabwean women to never give up and be of value wherever they are.“Your small garden can feed your household and five other families nearby, thereby providing an extra income. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. If you try and fail, at least you would have gained experience,” she said. She also encourages parents to discourage their children from spending all their time on their gadgets or watching TV, but rather teach them basic farming skills as there is no telling where life might take them.

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