The Chisumbanje story


Lying below the foothills of the Chimanimani escarpment in the south-eastern lowveld of Rhodesia is the Ndowoyo Tribal Trust Land, home of some 37 000 Shangaan tribespeople. Apart from its inhabitants, the area is unique in the agricultural sense: Ndowoyo contains the largest single tract of the most fertile black basalt-derived soils in the country, (over 41 000 ha or 100 000 acres) and they are washed by the waters of the Sabi River.

Harvesting wheat grown under irrigation on the Chisumbanje estate.
Harvesting wheat grown under irrigation on the Chisumbanje estate..


In the local Chindau or Hlengwe dialects the word ‘Chisumbanje’ means literally “the place where mbanje, or marijuana, is smoked”. The reality that is Chisumbanje today – even at this early stage of its development – undoubtedly exceeds the wildest dreams of those early men who coined the name.

The Chisumbanje irrigation scheme is being developed by Tilcor (The Tribal Trust Land Development Corporation) to harness the area resources of soil and water for crop production for the benefit of the country as a whole and the local tribespeople in particular. Initial development work commenced in July 1966 with 486 hectares (1 200 acres) and at the time of writing, (September 1972), a total of 1 376 hectares (3 400 acres) is under irrigation.

Chisumbanje lies in the south east corner of the country. The Dott's Drift Dam will unlock even greater harvests in years to come.
Chisumbanje lies in the south east corner of the country. The Dott’s Drift Dam will unlock even greater harvests in years to come. (see here for 1 : 50 000 map)


A water right of 1,568 cumec (56 cusecs) for the irrigation of 1 619 ha (4 000 acres) was granted by the Water Court in 1966.  Tilcor has invested over $1 million (1972 prices) or $741 per ha. ($300 per acre) including infrastructure.

Sociologically, the effects of such a massive injection of capital and activity on a primitive population which had previously subsisted on an average of $40 per family per year can be imagined; after six years the project employs about 500 local tribesmen on a full-time basis and during the cotton picking season provides work for almost 3 000 others.

The “pilot” or “exploratory” phase of the scheme is now over in that irrigation techniques have been successfully developed, and the engineering problems associated  with construction work on the basalt soils have largely been solved. In addition, the economics of the scheme, within the framework of the national marketing situation, is satisfactory and a return on Capital of between 14% and 20% is currently obtained.



Electricity comes to Chisumbanje - a great event in rural Africa
Electricity comes to Chisumbanje – a great event in rural Africa


The scheme is situated on the basalt-derived plain on the east bank of the Sabi River, approximately 100 km (62 miles) south of Birchenough Bridge.

The nearest railhead is at the lowveld town of Chiredzi which is 80 km (50 miles) distant by road. A high level bridge over the Sabi River, 24 km (15 miles) south of the scheme gives “all weather” access to Chiredzi with which there is also a telephone link.  Electrical power supplies are adequate.



Highly fertile black basalt soil at Chisumbanje in the Ndowoyo Tribal Trust Land.
Highly fertile black basalt soil at Chisumbanje in the Ndowoyo Tribal Trust Land.


The Chisumbanje basalt-derived soils cover an area of over 41 000 ha (100 000 acres). They show very little influence from any other parent material and only towards the northern end of the tract, where the basalt merges with the triassic sandstone, are reddish contact soils found.  The Musaswe River, which flows roughly through the centre of the basalt area, provides the main surface drainage. Slopes are gentle and seldom exceed 0,5%.

Water Supplies

Normal flow in the Sabi River during the period mid-December to mid-August each year is officially averaged at 1,68 cumecs (60 cusecs).  Water shortages during September, October and November appear to be normal, and during the past 4 out of 5 years have seriously curtailed the establishment of summer crops.

An irrigation canal at Chisumbanje
An irrigation canal at Chisumbanje


The construction of major dams on the Sabi will eventually overcome this difficulty but as a temporary expedient a “sand pumping” pilot scheme has been installed. Estimates indicate there should be water supplies from this source for up to 4 050 ha (10 000 acres) of crop establishment.  Long term plans provide for 3 major dams on the Sabi River, which will then supply sufficient water for the irrigation of 202 300 ha (500 000 acres) of land.


At the present time two crops are grown annually – cotton in the summer wet season and wheat in the winter dry season.


Cotton growing under flood irrigation at Chisumbanje
Cotton growing under flood irrigation at Chisumbanje


So far as cotton is concerned, the Deltapine 16 variety has been successfully grown for the past four years and yields in excess of 3 811 kg per ha have been achieved. Deltapine 16 is a quicker maturing variety than Albar 637, and tends to ripen over a shorter period.  Of medium staple length it has been bred specifically for machine picking.. Normal cotton yields average 3,4 tonnes per hectare (3 000 lbs. per acre) rising to 4,5 tonnes per hectare (4 000 lbs. per acre) in individual fields.


Irrigating wheat at Chisumbanje
Irrigating wheat at Chisumbanje


The Chisumbanje winter climate is too warm for high wheat yields.  Nevertheless, profitable crops have been grown using Rhodesia bred varieties which have been developed from European “Spring” wheats. Varieties which perform well are Zambezi, Devuli, Chiredzi and Tokwe. Wheat yields are averaging 3,5 tonnes a hectare (16 x 200 lbs. bags to the acre rising to 5,1 tonnes per ha (23 bags to the acre).

Ideally the crop should be planted during the first two weeks of May, but with cotton lands to be picked, ploughed or disced in preparation, the planting period extends from mid-April until mid-June.

Other Crops

The Chisumbanje Experiment Station has demonstrated that a range of crops can be grown at reasonable levels of production, but which are unprofitable or only show marginal profitability within the national marketing system. The range of crops includes maize, groundnuts, rice, linseed, sunflower, sugar cane, most vegetables (winter), castor beans, rapoko, soyabeans, burley tobacco, citrus and bananas.

Some of these crops will undoubtedly be grown on a large scale in the future, when either yields or prices make production profitable. However, small acreages will be grown to gain experience and identify problems, thus paving the way for large scale production in time to come.

The Development Company plans to continue expanding the area  under irrigation to eventually cover the whole of the usable land.  To achieve this potential for some 20 000 plot-holding families it will be necessary to provide secondary industry for the beneficiation of the crops and by-products, and the infrastructure for ancillary necessities including commercial and administrative services.  A typical development of this type based on cotton could include ginning, spinning, weaving, textile  production and clothing manufacture. It would also assist beef production by providing cotton seed cake for the establishment of a cattle holding area and the eventual establishment of an abattoir.

Employment Opportunities

The Chisumbanje Scheme, at the present stage of development, provides employment for 500 tribesmen throughout the year and casual employment for several thousand workers during the cotton picking season.

Section managers have motorbikes to oversee large areas of the estate
Section managers have motorbikes to oversee large areas of the estate


Although 1 376 ha (3 400 acres) have been developed for irrigation, water limitations (pumping capacity) allow for approximately 1 012 ha (2 500 acres) under crops in both summer and winter, ie. a total of 2 023 ha (5 000 acres) for the year.  Thus one family, earning an average of $350 per annum plus housing, is required per 2 ha (5 acres) of irrigation land, and producing 4 ha (10 acres) of crops per year.

The Settler Scheme

Already a settler scheme is in operation whereby local African tribesmen (120 at present) lease up to 2 ha from the Development Company.  Their farming activities are closely supervised and directed and in this way profitable levels of production of both cotton and wheat are obtained. A settler leasing up to 2 ha of land can show a net profit of $500 a year from cotton and wheat production, but there are additional, essentially labour intensive crops, eg. burley tocacco, vegetables and flower seed grown on an individual basis which considerably increase this figure.

When, ultimately, the whole scheme, 40 468 ha (100 000 acres) is made available for lease to tribespeople at an average of 1,2 ha (3 acres) per family, 33 000 families or 165 000  people will be supported from the profits of their irrigation land.


Current Development (1972)


  1. Sand Pumping Scheme

Mention of this scheme has already been made.

Arising from a severe water shortage in July/August 1971 – brought about by excessive abstraction on the part of riparian users upstream – urgent measures were put in hand for the design and installation of a sand pumping scheme to augment dry-season water supplies. Utilising the basin of Gudo’s Pool in the Sabi River (1 km wide by 2½ km long) and designed by Ministry of Water Development engineers, a pilot abstraction unit was installed by the end of September 1971 and commenced operation early in October. Cost was approximately $30 000.

Pumphouse and intake works on the Sabi River at Chisumbanje
Pumphouse and intake works on the Sabi River at Chisumbanje


Delivering almost 13 million litres of water per day into the main irrigation canal, the unit consists of six independently operated 20 hp electric pumps mounted on the east bank of the river.  Suction points 6 m below each pump are located at the junction of a 22 m network of 15 cm piping laid in the sand of the river bed. Attached to the piping and penetrating a further 5 m into the sand are 20 well-point pipes of 10 cm diameter.

In the first fortnight of operation the pilot plant made possible the early planting of 280 ha of cotton – an operation normally postponed to coincide with the commencement of the main rains. Draw-down and replacement flow has been carefully evaluated and large scale suction plants elsewhere in the river bed are already contemplated.

2. Tenant Training Scheme

In the course of investigating a considerable number of potential projects with the object of raising the standard of living of rural tribesmen. Tilcor has realised that the application of capital without direct and competent management of unsophisticated tribesmen is both unprofitable and unwise. For these reasons capital has been channelled, wherever possible, into schemes with expansion potential and management availability.

It is also realised that it is not sufficient merely to provide employment on an unskilled, or semi-skilled basis; unsophisticated labourers can make costly mistakes. With this in view, it now policy that, wherever possible, Tilcor will provide training for labourers before they are permitted to work on a scheme.

Chisumbanje training centre for Africans
Chisumbanje training centre for Africans


Chisumbanje has recently introduced a Tenant Training Scheme which provides labourers with sufficient skills to play their part in the long term plan. Financed by a loan from the private sector, and designed to be self-sustaining within a comparatively short period, the Training Centre has been planned to cater initially for the needs of the Chisumbanje Development Company.  An area of approximately 120 ha has been allocated for the growing of crops for training purposes.

Students are taught the fundamental aspects of agriculture with particular reference to plant, soil, water and climatic relationships.  Particular emphasis is on the techniques related to flood irrigation such as layout of furrows, fields, grading, rates and methods of application and water requirements of plants.  After a period of approximately one year, trainees are assessed on their capabilities and given the opportunity of entering the main irrigation scheme as employees.

Thereafter, dependent upon their ability, they can aspire to a supervisory post of a more senior nature on the Estate.  Alternatively, where a trainee/.employee on the irrigation scheme demonstrates his competence and responsibility to manage an area on an independent basis, he is allocated 1-2 ha within the scheme. 100 trainees per annum are accepted.

3. Crop Processing

The economy of the training scheme outlines above is based on the growing of cotton and wheat.  As a necessary adjunct to the agricultural activity at Chisumbanje, a secondary area of some 20 ha (50 acres) has been set aside for the planting of sundry crops such as maize, rapoko, groundnuts, munga, rice, sorghum and, where possible, suitable legumes such as soyabeans. The area is managed and grown by the Tilcor Crop Processing Investigation Unit. The results of such investigations will be applied, where possible, in Tribal areas round the country – particularly at Tilcor’s growth points.

4. African Village

The establishment of Estate employees and the provision of a sophisticated housing development scheme has become an urgent necessity at Chisumbanje.

Tenders have recently been awarded and construction commenced on our first “village” of some 4 000 detached housing units. In addition, a Tilcor associated company, “Tiltrade”, has completed a modern supermarket complex to serve the village and Chisumbanje area.

Chisumbanje supermarket - the arrival of modern living!
Chisumbanje supermarket – the arrival of modern living!


The full development of the Chisumbanje area offers an exciting challenge, which will involve considerable capital and human resourcefulness. The rewards will be measured, not only in profits, but in social and human progress resulting from economic employment in the agricultural and industrial sectors for up to 500 000 African tribespeople.


Update 1978

Chisumbanje – growing fast

Chisumbanje is a Tilcor growth point which has developed past the embryo stage, with schooling, training, hospital and commercial facilities well established.  The estate provides work on a permanent basis for many Africans, including some Chibero Agricultural College graduates in charge of sections.

In addition to the Tilcor estate farming operation, there are 160 tenant farmers who, on a 1,8 ha section, can normally make a profit of anything between $700 and $2 200 a year.

Despite current difficulties, expansion as Chisumbanje is proceeding apace. With tremendous scope for further expansion it is inevitable that industrial activity associated with locally-produced raw materials will not be too long in coming.  This fascinating area of the country holds out a promise of unbounded opportunity for still further contributions to the national income and for providing numerous additional opportunities.


Bumper cotton crop

Chisumbanje’s general manager, Malcolm Hewlett, recently disclosed that 2 365 ha of cotton have been planted in the current season, with 57 ha lying fallow. He said that the present crop looked even better than last year’s did at the same time, and if the rains held off he expected a bumper crop.

Staff consists of 18 Europeans, 14 senior African management (including 10 section managers), 700 permanent African employees with anything between 300 and 400 casual labourers a day employed in addition, and about 3 000 total complement in the cotton picking season.

A prospective settler with some fine cotton at Chisumbanje
A prospective settler with some fine cotton at Chisumbanje


Chisumbanje is in the fortunate position of having water available for 10 000 ha of irrigation as a result of the building of a dam northwest of the estate for the purpose  and, if funds are available, it is hoped to increase the area under irrigation by another 400 ha next financial year.

Malcolm Hewlett said that as far as future expansion is concerned this depends very largely on further injections of capital and the lifting of UN sanctions.  Given favourable conditions, full development of the estate, including the addition of sugar production, could be achieved within five years, using detailed planning already drawn up.

Development currently under way at the estate involves expenditure of $40 000 for additional African housing and recreational facilities, including a swimming bath, athletics track, football ground and the like. This work is expected to be completed towards the end of the year.  There are at present some 400 labourers’ houses in the African township on the estate and this has been surveyed to cater for any foreseeable  future requirements.  There are, in addition, 19 houses for senior staff.


Takwirira School

The African school at Chisumbanje, built and run by Tilcor, is proving a great success.  Headmaster A Sithole is proud of the fact that of 25 of his pupils who sat Grade VII examinations at the end of last year 15 passed, some with flying colours and that they are now all at secondary school.

An outdoor lesson at Takwirira School, Chisumbanje
An outdoor lesson at Takwirira School, Chisumbanje


Subjects taught include mathematics, English, Shona, geography, history and science.  The school is now in its third year of operation and has 381 pupils in attendance this year, with three Grade I classes.  The only subsidy received is 95 per cent  of teachers’ salaries, paid by the Government.

Senior staff at Takwirira School, Chisumbanje: assistant head Mwena, infant teacher Miss Chatama and headmaster A Stihole.
Senior staff at Takwirira School, Chisumbanje: assistant head Mwena, infant teacher Miss Chatama and headmaster A Stihole.


Headmaster Sithole, assistant headmaster Mwena and the specialist infant teacher Miss Chatema, tohether with some of the pupils, were asked for their views on the progress of the school and without exception all seemed satisfied  that from Chisumbanje many valuable citizens would be moulded at the school.

Takwirira School group: assistant headmaster Mwena at rear left, Miss Chatema in centre and headmaster Sithole far right.
Takwirira School group: assistant headmaster Mwena at rear left, Miss Chatema in centre and headmaster Sithole far right.


It is envisaged that the training school at the estate may be developed into a community development school for those who have passed Grade VII, to enable them to be trained in nursing, as artisans and in other occupations. Its main function will be to train people for useful and fulfilling work on the estate and to keep them in the area.


Higher standard of living

Asked to comment on the effects of development of such a large project in the area, Malcolm Hewlett remarked that one of the most dramatic results had been a considerable rise in the standard of living of local inhabitants in the light of the large amount of ready cash earned on the estate.

Much more emphasis was being placed on superior type of furniture and other household fittings, the purchase of cars and trucks and, in particular, consistently improving dress standards among African women as a result of a substantial amount of cash being generated by Tilcor operations.


Chisumbanje Clinic

Clinic staff at Chisumbanje
Clinic staff at Chisumbanje

The wife of the gm, Mrs J Hewlett, is sister-in-charge of the clinic, with senior medical assistant, Patterson Muroyii as her second-in-command. The latter arrived at Chisumbanje in 1973 after having trained at Harari Hospital between 1962-72.  He was promoted to his present position in December 1974.  Other staff comprises four nurses, one of whom was trained at Nyaderi and three of whom did Red Cross courses. Patients other than residents of the estate and their families are treated at the clinic, and an average of between 60 and 65 a day are seen.

Chisumbanji clinic 1978
Chisumbanji clinic 1978


Although the clinic is coping well at present, it is obvious that with further expansion of the estate, facilities at the clinic will also have to be expanded. Patterson remarked that it has been increased in size  and greatly improved since his arrival and was impressed with the standard attained. He gives lectures on different aspects of both nursing and medicines. These, which were started recently, have proved very popular with the staff.


Pre- and anti-natal care

Mrs Hewlett explained that there are wards for four male and four female patients at the clinic, as well as one for four babies and a small maternity ward which can cope with two patients at a time.  Both pre- and anti-natal care is given and, if mothers attend for the latter, a reduced charge is made so as to encourage them to ensure that the baby gets full care. Family planning is also undertaken on a small scale, she said, and one of the assistants recently attended a course on family planning, which is seen as an important element in the socio-economic field.



1972 text by J. Wark – 1978 text from Tilcor

This account of irrigation and related development in the 1970s may be compared with the earlier example from 1920s Mazoe.