Having diversified her agricultural ventures to generate income, Zena primarily relied on tobacco farming for years. However, this method had its limitations. The fixed selling process through cooperatives meant delayed payments, forcing her to wait for her dues.

Determined to find a solution, Zena decided to embrace sunflower agriculture as a means to bridge the gap between tobacco payments. She realized that the yield from sunflower crops could serve not only as a healthy cooking oil but also as an alternative income stream during the waiting period for tobacco payments.

Reflecting on her experience, Zena said, "The tobacco harvest season lasts from February to March, but getting it to the market and receiving payment is not immediate. Sometimes, we have to wait until the start of the new farming season to get paid."

In 2005 to 2007, Zena ventured into sunflower farming for the first time. However, she encountered a pest infestation that severely impacted her yield, resulting in an average of 56 kg per acre. To compensate for the losses, she attempted to process sunflower oil for sale but struggled due to the lack of a reliable market.

In 2011, she made a second attempt at sunflower farming, only to face climate change-related challenges. The sunflower crops were affected by a disease, which Zena assumed was a genetic trait of the local variety she was using. She recounted, "In 2011, my farm faced a worse situation. The sunflower caps were shrinking, but my limited knowledge led me to believe it was a genetic feature, not a disease that required pest control. Additionally, I had no idea about improved seed varieties for sunflower cultivation. My productivity plummeted, and I barely managed to obtain 25 kg per acre."

Zena's fortunes changed when she worked with TEMNAR company, a CRAFT partner, in 2021. Through a farmer’s group, she participated in a series of climate-smart agriculture training sessions at a demo plot. Since 2018, CRAFT has reached 73,000 farmers, providing them with knowledge on climate smart agriculture practices and techniques, through 1000 demo plots. These workshops proved to be a revelation for Zena, as she learned about the benefits of using fertilizer and pesticides to enhance fertility and combat diseases.  Moreover, she discovered the existence of improved seed varieties and effective spacing techniques.

"The coming of the CRAFT project opened my eyes. Now, I'm well-informed about pre-season farm preparation, proper spacing, and the use of improved seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer. Last year, I achieved an abundant harvest of 455 kgs per acre on my 2-acre farm," beamed Zena. 

Thanks to the knowledge gained from the climate smart agriculture training, Zena had ample cooking oil at home and surplus produce to sell to the TEMNAR Company. The income generated from these sales enabled her to embark on building her dream home.

Zena standing in front of her dream that she has been able to construct through her earnings from sunflower

Eager to share her success and inspire fellow farmers, Zena encourages others to embrace sunflower agriculture and adopt climate-smart practices. "I encourage my fellow farmers to engage in sunflower farming. Firstly, you'll cut down on living expenses by having your own healthy cooking oil at home. The money saved can be directed toward other economic or living expenses, such as building a house or providing for your children's education," emphasized Zena Hekili.

By Renatha Chaula