They are calling it "the wonder crop". Nutritious, cheap and easy to produce, the soya bean has transformed the lives of poverty-stricken smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe's Mashonaland Central province.
At least 16,500 farmers were introduced to soya bean production through a project established by the US-based non-profit organisation, Africare. The project, which began in 2000 in the northern part of the country, has taught production techniques to farmers from the districts of Rushinga, Mt Darwin, Shamva and Bindura, and also trained them in processing and marketing soya-based products.
Africare's provincial project coordinator, James Machikicho, told IRIN that prior to the initiative, the farmers' options for making a livelihood had been confined to producing maize and cotton, both of which require expensive inputs, such as fertiliser, while soya beans are cheaper to produce, have higher yields and are less labour intensive.
"Soya beans need more seed per hectare than maize, but yield more in the same space," Machikicho explained.
The beans also serve as a high-protein livestock feed and, when grown in rotation with maize and cotton, improve soil fertility.
In the 2003/04 season, soya beans were selling at Zim $2.4 million (about US $396) per mt, while maize, which is subject to government controls, fetched Zim $700,000 ($116) per mt.
With a 40 percent protein content, the nutritional benefits of soya beans are apparent. Farmers were trained in the preparation of soya-based products such as flour, beverages, porridge and confectionaries. Soya beans have also rapidly replaced meat as a main source of protein for poor villagers. "Soya bean products are 10 to 20 percent cheaper than those derived from fish, beef and poultry sources," Machikicho explained to IRIN.
Health, income and lifestyles have all improved in the districts covered by the project.
By planting soya on just one hectare of land, the Shingai AIDS Support Group in Rushinga has been able to look after the nutritional needs of 23 orphaned children and six adults, three of whom are HIV positive.
The group grows enough to ensure soya porridge for breakfast as well as supper, enhanced with soya relish. The children are "fitter and healthier than those with living parents", said Tsitsi Mvemwe, founder of the 10-member support group.
A soya milk-production plant called 'Vita Cow', manned by trained community members in Mt Darwin, sells soya milk and related products to local households and shops, but also as far away as the capital, Harare.
Production by Vita Cow has risen from an initial 60 litres to 250 litres per week. "Production costs are 75 percent cheaper than for dairy milk, but because of soya's nutritive value, its price is comparable to dairy milk," Machikicho told IRIN.
Africare has helped local farmers to get the best deals possible by establishing links between their farming associations, the input suppliers and commercial buyers of their produce.
"Initially, the farmer was getting 50 percent of what their crop was worth, but middlemen are now offering competitive prices because of the linkages," Machikico pointed out to IRIN. To take advantage of the high demand for soya, farmers are constantly being encouraged to build up their produce and sell it to contracted buyers prepared to provide transport.
Africare has helped set up a village seed bank, managed by the farmers themselves, which also offers savings and credit facilities. By August 2004, the bank's membership had tripled to 4,169.
However, frequent spells of drought and subsequent high input costs over the past few years have brought their own challenges. Like maize, the soya crop is planted in the wet season from November to December, followed by a three-month maturation period.
"Of the five seasons the project has been in operation, three have been dry," Machikicho noted. "Some farmers have produced little, and there has been seed limitation and high prices." In the 2003/04 season, only 6,000 farmers harvested soya beans.
Africare had stepped in to provide support to the seed bank with small grants every season, because farmers still needed assistance "in accessing inputs and in strengthening their capacity to handle loans", said Machikicho.