Economic empowerment: The women of the Zambezi Valley


Binga is in Zimbabwe and located in the north-western part of the country. It was built to rehouse the BaTonga people whose homelands were flooded when Lake Kariba was created. It is indeed a hidden gem and you will soon understand why. Situated south of  Lake Kariba and six hours drive from the majestic  Victoria Falls, it is a magnificent place that is known little about.

Did you know that Zimbabwe is home to a sandy beach? Not many think of Binga as a centre for fishing, boating and cultural activities.

The importance of networks

A Linkedin post by a sound and media artist caught my attention seven years ago. The post outlined a media project named “Ibhayiskopo” in Bulawayo.  After following up on the artist and upon acquaintance with her, it transpired that we would both be travelling to Zimbabwe around the same time.  We met and I was told about the hard-working women of Zubo Trust. [Zubo means fishing basket in Tonga]. The seven year partnership has been fulfilling.

Inspired by the story of rural women finding routes out of poverty, I did not need much convincing and decided I would do whatever I could to support.  For years I had wanted to get involved in initiatives at community level, this was my opportunity. By way of email, I was introduced to the Executive Director of Zubo Trust. The rest they say is history!  Radio Continental Drift has done a fantastic job of documenting the stories which touch on the daily lives of the women, their economic projects as well as their rich history. Gender imbalance has played a part in the persistence of this poverty, but I must add that progress has been made to address this.

My first trip to Binga

My work with Zubo Trust has been ongoing since 2014. Thanks to remote technology, we connect mainly by email and other online tools. In early 2019 I decided to visit, so I scheduled in a trip whilst I was on holiday. Finally I was going to meet the team of Zubo Trust, this filled me with excitement Virtual communication works, but nothing beats face- to-face meetings. With a tight agenda, I set off on my journey, an 8-hour road trip from Bulawayo to Binga via Cross Dete. Together with the Zubo women, we had planned for me to visit two sites, a soap production workshop and Zubo’s Ilala crafts project where the signature baskets of the BaTonga women are woven.

The initial stage of basket weaving using ilala palm



In 2018 Zimbabwe ranked 150 out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index (UNDP, 2019). The life expectancy stands at 61.2 at birth.


Although there is a lot to appreciate in the Binga District, awareness of this is low. One of the reasons is due to poor accessibility. The roads leading to Binga are under-developed. A four-wheel drive is extremely necessary to travel to that part of the country, particularly the roads from Cross Dete to Binga which have not been redone and require maintenance.

The Victoria Falls and Lake Kariba attract many backpackers/tourists, the same cannot be said for Binga.  In recent years there has been a gradual increase in the number of visitors, however I still believe that more should be done to promote local tourism. Efforts have been made to encourage heads of schools to feature Binga on their educational excursion lists.

The airstrip has boosted the economy, linking Binga to Victoria Falls and Hwange, but the real question is just how many can afford to fly? Not many. Realistically speaking it is mainly international travellers and the affluent/ middle class who can afford the service. Most people travel by foot.

Wi-Fi/Connectivity issues and electricity short supply

This makes remote meetings difficult to coordinate and requires flexibility.

Weak and unstable telecommunication networks make access to advanced online communication difficult or unreliable; plus, costs for Wi-Fi access are very high, often above national average due to just one provider in the area; thus, for many modems and “daily bundles” are the budget option.


Matabeleland North has comparatively less rainfall than the national average. Farming in this region is thus limited to drought-resistant crops such as sorghum, millet, rapoko and livestock production. Since the forced resettlement of the BaTonga the district has always depended on food supply from outside; local yields cannot feed the population.

There is limited rainfall in a year, 755mm and the average temperature is 24°C . The erratic weather patterns and climate extremes threaten agricultural production, food security, health, water and energy security in Zimbabwe. Severe and prolonged droughts, flooding and loss of arable land due to desertification and soil erosion negatively affects agricultural yields. This results in crop failure and in very unfortunate circumstances, loss of livestock. In the recent 2019/20 drought this was the case! Zubo women saving projects are often centred around livestock, i.e. chickens, goats. The poor are hardest hit because of their vulnerability to the effects of climate change. In February 2020 the region experienced severe floods.

Livelihood projects

Hand-made natural soap

The jatropha seed grows naturally in the region, which has the best soils for its growth. It is a fast growing, drought -resistant indigenous plant of the local bushland, commonly it has found usage as hedge around homesteads

Jathropha seed
Jathropha seeds before extraction

In 2015, with support from Welthaus Bielefeld a jatropha soap-production workshop was built to house an oil extractor.

Oil extracted from the seed

The soap making process

The black seeds are pressed, and the clear oil produced is poured into moulds. The solidifying process takes 3-4 days. Precision is taken when cutting the moulds into pieces.

The hand-crafted soap, which is packaged according to EU standards, is sold to local lodges.  The pieces have previously been exhibited at events such as the Harare Agricultural Show, the Lusaka Fair 2018 and the ZITF

The natural oil soap has been received well in Germany.  Now more than ever natural products are on the rise in the commercial market. A Zubo volunteer is currently pursuing studies in Germany and she had been doing a sterling job of promoting the product at fair-trade workshops. We chatted a couple of days ago and she advised that the attracted clientele is particularly keen on the soap not only because it is made using natural resources, but also for its environmentally friendly packaging. Parchment paper is used as wrapping. This is ideal as globally we are going green and moving away from using plastic. The right steps are being taken towards saving the planet! Innovation at its best. The goal is to reach a wider international market.

Practicing hygiene is important now more than ever due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The soap is utilised by the women, their families and the wider community.

Testimony *motivation*

One client who attended the 2019 Good Food Festival in Harare shared a testimony “I have a six-year-old daughter with skin problems. We tried so many different products with no success. I bought the soap at the festival and seen the best improvement in her skin since she started using it”. 

Ilala palm basket weaving

Ilala basket weaving is a long-standing tradition of the BaTonga women. Binga District and the BaTonga are well known for their unique baskets within Zimbabwe and internationally.

Communal craft weaving provides a social space for women’s coherence. This collaborative working approach gives the women an opportunity to learn skills from each other. The more experienced weavers take the lead on ensuring quality control measures are in place. I met with the women at Siachilaba Ward and they gave me an update on the challenges, one of them being around transportation of big calabash baskets from the wards to Binga Town Centre. A large vehicle was cited as a need to transport their wares.  The conversation was made possible by translation from Tonga to Ndebele.  As they chatted away whilst working, I enquired how long it takes to make a basket and one of ladies responded, “In one day, I can produce a basket. I have to perform household chores, however, so it takes me 3 days to produce a basket of 30 cm in diameter”.

The baskets’ colour variations are due to natural dyes such as red ivory.

One thing that came out strongly was the solidarity amongst the women. Their lives seemed to be interwoven. Despite the difficulties, they soldier on!

Communal basket weaving at community level, here the Bunsiwa weavers near Siachilaba, one of the local groups partnering with Zubo

Zubo Trust works in partnership with the Lupane Women’s Centre, Zim Handcraft and Collaborative Crafts Project, this has increased the income of the craft weavers.

The baskets are available for purchase at the National Art Gallery or from the curio stalls outside of the Large City Hall, Bulawayo.

National Art Gallery, Bulawayo

What other projects (initiatives) do the women work on?

Baobab fruit project

The baobab, commonly known as a superfood, is used by the women to produce juice and powder (which can be used to make yoghurt). The seeds are also used to make cooking oil.

Appropriate storage facilities are necessary, and funding is needed if the projects are to be sustainable. The Baobab Muyaya is one of the most successful projects.

The baobab value chain has offered a route out of poverty not only for small scale farmers, but wild collectors and their families have benefited as well.

Fishing Rig and fisheries

Historically the women did the fishing on the Zambezi, which was a stream. On construction of the Kariba Dam it became a lake and women were prohibited from performing their roles. It was now a male only industry!

Breaking the barriers! Since displacement of the Tonga’s in the 1950s, the first ever Bbindawuko Women Fishing Project at Simatelele Ward was formed in 2012.

The women are now the breadwinners and in positions to employ the men. One thing that has been maintained is the respect that they have for their husbands.

Kapenta fish farming is a source of livelihood for the community. However, depreciating water levels in the Kariba dam affect the catches by the fishers on the lake. Economic constraints present problems, the returns from selling the kapenta do not cover the admin costs which include the fuel for the boats and servicing of the rigs. The project also includes bream, tilapia and tiger fish.

The importance of partnerships

In addition to Welthaus Bielefeld and the Lupane Women’s Centre,  Zubo Trust benefits from partnerships with St. Annen Soap Manufacturer. The Zubo women received training in producing soap in accordance with EU standards. St Annen then became the German importer of Zubo’s Jatropha soap, as well as Weidmuller, a German company who went into a two-year contract with Zubo. The pieces of soap that they import in large quantities are used as promotional gifts for clients by the company.

Radio continental drift has continued ongoing relations with the Zubo women since 2012 for voluntary media support, training and advice.

EMIC Media is a UK publishing house that focuses on media development for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and CSOs (civil society organisations). EMIC which stands for (Empower, Mentor, Inspire, Connect) tracks the progress on the roles of government, CSOs and business towards achieving the UN SDGs 2030 agenda. The organisation is playing a key role in promoting monitoring and evaluation, ensuring that Zubo projects (objectives) are in line with the relevant SDGs.

To facilitate mindset change, Zubo Trust engaged with a men’s organisation, PADARE.  Men’s Forums were formed in 2012 to address gender issues. The main task of the forum was to provide a platform for sharing information and knowledge on women’s rights and to exchange their experiences and progress in mobilising other men to participate in the movement for a gender sensitive community.

Cultural values and expectations led to women’s inequality of public space. The organisation worked closely with local leaders and other stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Women Affairs, to influence the shift in attitude towards such practices in the district of Binga. The benefits of working with the men, and not in antagonism, were realised when the traditional leadership welcomed the rural womens’ venture into the male dominated space of fishing, for example the kapenta project. Strategic advocacy!

Success stories

Access to Finance

The Village Lending and Saving Schemes have transformed the lives of the women. The initiative which involved pooling resources together kicked off in 2012. In that year (2012) a total of 694 women was able to produce 23, 500 USD

However, due to climate change related food insecurity, they had to cease operating between 2014-2017.

For the period 2018-2019 achievements noted were the construction of low-cost houses, purchasing of livestock such as goats, improving the nutritional well- being of their families and paying school fees for their children.


While substantial progress was made by the Government of Zimbabwe in developing educational opportunities for the indigenous since in the 1980s, only a minor fraction of the Tonga women are/were educated, with the majority being illiterate.

In recent years the women have used the proceeds from the income generating projects, specifically ilala basket weaving and the soap making projects. This has opened opportunities for them to attend adult education centres.

Zubo’s elder sister organisation, Basilwizi Trust runs an education and cultural program which makes education accessible to marginalised individuals. “The Zambezi Valley Refrain” 2016 tells the story of the successful fight of the BaTonga through Basilwizi for the rights of their own indigenous language. This made way for the recognition of minority languages in Zimbabwe as a whole.

Today ChiTonga can be studied up to university level. This accomplishment became the foundation for self-empowerment on many other levels.

Other benefits

Positive changes in family dynamics, with gender balance being realised in terms of roles and responsibilities.

Some women have been able to send their children to school, especially the girl-child. A lack of social protection in marginalised communities has a bearing on their education. In Binga the girl-child faces many challenges, having to walk up to 20 km to and from school and also perform household chores. This discourages some girls from completing their education and thus dropping out. Therefore, initiatives such as the lending saving schemes are very instrumental in bridging that gap. Throughout the years, Zubo has done exceptional work through their Women Forums, which have taken care not only of sharing income with the needy in the community, but also with the elders and orphans. Zubo has also played a big part in promoting and tracking girl-child education!

Scenic Binga

Binga District has such beautiful landscapes, I was totally blown away by the hills and plains which were breath-taking. I must confess I asked myself why it took me so long to visit.

I took a drive with colleagues of Zubo Trust from the Lake Inn Lodge to the Chibwatata Hot Springs, (also called the miracle waters by the locals). There is a lot of history about the rain ceremony calling and the displacement of the BaTonga: Find here an interview with ritual rain maker, Thembi Ngwagi aka Gogo.

On the way to the hot springs we stopped to capture the beautiful view of the Zambezi River. It was magical and the atmosphere was serene. I was in complete awe of the natural beauty.

Zambezi River
Sandy beach

As you drive around Binga (or walk as most of the locals do), the routes are picturesque, with baobab trees on either side of the road. As per Tonga mythology they are called the upside-down tree, owing to their structure, the tree trunks spanning almost 25 metres. Not only are they fascinating to look at, but they have nutritional, medicinal and traditional uses, hence named “the tree of life”. The trees thrive in Matebeleland North which is dry with limited rainfall.

Baobab tree overlooking the Zambezi River

Concluding thoughts

The beauty of Binga is undeniable and within that community there is so much talent, human resource and potential to tap into. The women led pioneering initiatives are made possible through the coordinated team efforts. They have the technical know-how and are well organised. Additionally, they are resilient and continue to thrive despite the numerous predicaments that they face. That link between ecotourism and economic empowerment needs to be strengthened.

Capacity building is central to empowerment. With consistent financial support the Zubo women can reach great heights. Learning how to work together as women and men is critical to advancing community development and this should be ongoing. My involvement with Zubo Trust has illuminated to me the significance of giving women the space to grow. Zubo Trust has done exceptional work over the years in this respect, which could inspire many other organisations. They are unstoppable and I envision more prosperity. In order to achieve the UN SDG Agenda 2030, we need to connect with all levels of society. We cannot leave rural communities and women behind, after all they [women] hold up half the sky. We can do more to help these women who are the heartbeat of society. True agents of change!

Stay tuned for more on the women’s self empowerment journeys.

By Tandi Pilani

Fishing culture in Binga: Indigenous foods – from source to table

By Tandi Pilani Some weeks ago many of us commemorated Africa month and I was overcome with nostalgia. A trip down memory lane reminded me of the continent’s rich resources. Natural resources! Healthy eating and nutrition are important subjects nowadays as we become more and more conscious of what we eat, and promote sustainable farming …

5 thoughts on “Economic empowerment: The women of the Zambezi Valley

  1. You took me on this journey as I read along and recognised these industrious, under rewarded women from so many other rural African communities. They are the carriers of our traditional arts and crafts whose knowledge and skill is largely neglected. Beautiful to se their work and to learn of how you engage with the grassroots

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Their ability to thrive despite the challenges presented to them is admirable. I look forward to seeing the women do more in the coming years. It is important that they continue to make use of the resources available to them. Collaborating with more like-minded partners is critical.

      Liked by 1 person

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