Improving livelihoods with crop diversification

Improving Rural Livelihoods in Zimbabwe through Crop Diversification. Many rural communities across Africa – Zimbabwe inclusive – and other developing regions of the world depend on agriculture for survival, either in the form of crop production, livestock farming, fishing and/or forestry; all making huge contributions to national economies. Sadly, despite these economic contributions, it is typical to find more rural population affected by food insecurity and stricken by the worst forms of poverty. This therefore begs the question; how can agriculture be practiced such that it significantly contributes to improving the livelihoods of its custodians?

Rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe

Rural livelihood in Zimbabwe is characterized by reliance on agriculture (crop production and livestock farming) and engagement in off-farm activities such as mining to earn extra income. Also low household income, hunger and in severe cases, malnutrition and other life-threatening diseases are common. While it is reported that about 85% of the world’s poor population reside in rural communities1, Zimbabwe records a rural population of over 4 million persons which is nearly 30% of the country’s population. That is, about one in four persons in Zimbabwe reside in vulnerable conditions in rural communities which are mostly farther away from the country’s urban cities2. These communities are dynamic, and are consistently affected by environmental, economic, social and political change drivers3.

The state of agriculture in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe, a landlocked country situated in Southern Africa, is home to approximately 15 million people. With a land mass of approximately 390, 000 Km2, agricultural and arable lands 42% and 10% of its land mass respectively, the country’s economy rides predominantly on mining and agricultural production, such that agriculture contributes approximately 12% to the country’s annual GDP and accounts for 67.5% employment of the country’s labour force4. Major agricultural commodities produced include cotton, tobacco, oranges, cassava, banana, maize and beef from livestock production. Cropping system in the country is categorized into two namely, cash crop production involving the cultivation and exportation of cash crops such as flowers, fruits, and tobacco (the country’s leading export commodity), and staple food production which involves the cultivation of staples such as maize for domestic use.

Despite its position as the highest employer of labour, and third largest contributor to Zimbabwe’s GDP after the services and industrial sectors, agriculture in Zimbabwe is set back by challenges such as declining soil fertility, soil erosion, water pollution and the incidence of climate change evident in extremely high temperatures and unpredictable rainfall patterns/drought. All these continue to affect agricultural productivity annually. Additionally, the land reform policy by government aimed at re-distributing land equitably between black and white farmers since the 1980s negatively affected the country agricultural productivity in the 2000s7. Needless to state that an overview of the Zimbabwean agricultural business environment reveals several challenges over the years. Nevertheless, this is not without redemption.

Crop diversification as a way forward

Crop diversification simply refers to growing more than one crop per time within a given area; crops of either the same or different species and/or varieties. It is a cost-effective risk and uncertainty mitigation strategy highly beneficial to farmers, especially small-holder farmers in rural communities seeking better living conditions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has suggested it as an successful tool for poverty alleviation5, considering that it provides farmers with an opportunity to increase their income generating streams. Although land size, availability of extension services, availability or non-availability or market, access to price information, and transportation costs make up a fraction of factors that influence farmers’ decision to engage in crop diversification6. Nonetheless, this cropping system summarily has the following benefits;

  1. It is an effective strategy for managing risks and uncertainties associated with the business of agriculture;
  2. It serves the purpose of increasing crop yield from a given area of farm land;
  3. Increased crop yield translates to increased income for farmers and their household;
  4. Crop diversification also serves the purpose of providing diverse nutritional benefits;
  5. It contributes to environmental conservation and protection;
  6. It is an effective approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation, and
  7. It builds farmers’ resilience to shocks and stress.

By cultivating more than one crop per time, farmers stand the chance of obtaining more harvests from different sources. This increased productivity which is also hinged on improved soil conditions invariably translates to higher income levels from the sale of farm produce. Furthermore, crop diversification as a sustainable approach to fighting food and nutrition insecurity provides farmers the opportunity to cultivate a range of crops with diverse nutritional benefits. A farmer for example may decide to cultivate a mix of sunflower, groundnut and maize; while sunflower serves as a cash crop, groundnut and maize on the other hand would provide different nutritional benefits. Also as a hedge against uncertainties, when one crop fails, the other crops on the field are available for nutrient provision.

Crop diversification through soil conservation also enables resource-use efficiency. Nutrient containing crop residues from the harvest of one crop may be used for mulching the soil for other crops in season. This protects the soil from leaching and breaks the cycle of pest and weed infestation. The former reduces the need for application of mineral fertilizers, use and cost of other inputs. As an effective climate change action or Climate Smart Agricultural (CSA) practice, crop diversification through cultivation of different crops contributes to more plants holding Carbon (carbon sequestration) which means less emission of carbondioxide6.

Therefore, it can be concluded that crop diversification is the “future” and a good agricultural practice that improves the livelihoods of persons living in the rural-most parts of Zimbabwe. Its benefits are quite significant to the pillars of sustainable agriculture by protecting the environment through reduced carbon emissions and land degradation; contributing to economic development through increased productivity and income, as well as contributing to social sustainability through improved livelihoods and resilience of rural communities to shock and difference forms of stress.


  1. Alkire, S., Conconi, A., & Seth, S. (2014). Multidimensional Poverty Index 2014: Brief Methodological Note and Results. MPI 2014 Methodological Note. University of Oxford.
    (PDF) A review on the contribution of crop diversification to Sustainable Development Goal 1 “No poverty” in different world regions. Retrieved from:
  2. Central Intelligence Agency (2021): The World Fact book: Zimbabwe. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) website publication retrieved from
  3. Fraym (2018): Where are Zimbabwe’s Most Vulnerable Communities? An online publication retrieved from
  4. Josphat M. & Ian S. (2012): Livelihood Change in Rural Zimbabwe over 20 Years, The Journal of Development Studies, 48:9, 1241-1257, DOI:10.1080/00220388.2012.6714 (PDF) Livelihood Change in Rural Zimbabwe over 20 Years. Available from:
  5. Food and Agriculture Organisation (2011). The state of food and agriculture 2010–11. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2011. Available at:
  6. Makate, C., Wang, R., Makate, M. et al. Crop diversification and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe: adaptive management for environmental change. SpringerPlus 5, 1135 (2016).
  7. Richardson, C. J. (2004). The Collapse of Zimbabwe in the Wake of the 2000–2003 Land Reforms. Lewiston, New York: Mellen Press. ISBN 978-0-7734-6366-0.

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