JB Gill sits on the ground in Zimbabwe surrounded by children

JB Gill with children from Mwenezi, Zimbabwe ©BritishRedCross/Jordi Matas

Former JLS band member turned farmer and TV presenter JB Gill writes about his visit to Zimbabwe with the British Red Cross.

Last month, I was gripping the wooden handles of a traditional farm plough in a dry, dusty field, struggling to control the restless cattle pulling it along.

But this was not an item for Down on the Farm, the CBeebies show which I present to teach children about the skills and work that go into farming.

I was in Zimbabwe to see first-hand how extreme weather, drought and climate change have made life hard for farmers there.

But I also saw how a Red Cross project, with support from players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, is empowering people to change their lives.

Climate change leads to hunger

Eighty per cent of people in Zimbabwe rely on the land to feed their families and earn a living.

But in 2015-16, El Nino, a change in climate patterns that affects Africa every few years, caused a serious drought.

It left more than four million people across Zimbabwe and Southern Africa without enough food. This adds up to over twice the population of Birmingham in the UK.

This year, when the rains do eventually arrive, it’s predicted they’ll bring less rainfall than usual. Crops may not grow and people could go hungry again.

Farming is not easy at the best of times, but when the rains don’t fall you can clearly see how these communities suffer.

A birth, a death, a struggle and some help

JB Gill sits with Tirisai Mubhoyi under trees near her home in Zimbabwe and does a high-five with her daughter, Patience.

JB Gill with farmer Tarisai Mubhoyi and her youngest daughter, Patience ©BritishRedCross/Jordi Matas

Tirisai Mubhoyi, a widow and mother of four, gave birth to her youngest child the day her husband was buried.

She lives in a simple homestead in an impoverished area in the Zimbabwean district of Mwenezi.

Struggling to drag herself out of intense mourning for her husband to care for her newborn, she was terrified of how the family would cope without him.

Sadly, her life became much harder after he died.

The landscape in Mwenezi is very, very dry and totally exposed to the elements. Last year Tirisai struggled to grow crops as the rains were late.

However, when they did arrive, they brought hailstones and completely wiped out the food crops she was hoping to harvest.

She had to rely on neighbours’ generosity to feed her family.

Key to a better future

JB Gill waters plants in Tirisai's keyhole garden in Zimbabwe as she looks on.

JB and Tirisai in the keyhole garden ©BritishRedCross/Jordi Matas

With help from the Zimbabwe Red Cross, Tirisai built a keyhole garden next to her home.

She proudly explained how this simple yet ingenious raised, sloping structure allows her to use water from washing. Before, she would simply have thrown that water away.

With it, she grows vegetables such as okra, tomatoes and spinach to supplement an otherwise basic diet lacking vital nutrients.

The garden is built from layers of compost, manure and ash so is more productive than most home gardens. It’s also very efficient at holding on to precious water.

The best thing about the keyhole garden is that Tirisai does not have to bend down to tend it, which is incredibly beneficial to her health.

HIV and hope

Tirisai stands a smiles with her four sons and one daughter in Zimbabwe

Tirisai and her children ©BritishRedCross/Jordi Matas

Tirisai is currently struggling with HIV.

She eats just one or two small meals a day. If she doesn’t have enough food to take with her medication, the drugs can make her ill.

Tirisai has so little energy to work in her fields that her son, Thomas, has had to drop out of school to help her.

But despite this hardship, Tirisai still has hope.

She recently learned new farming techniques at the Red Cross Farming School of Excellence, which will help her grow food despite the changing weather.

A staggering improvement

JB Gill walks down a path between two maize fields, one of which is growing well while the other has only sparse growth

The difference between two maize fields ©BritishRedCross/Jordi Matas

A visit to the small village of Mhaaradeze, home of farmer Tadios Chikuko, gave me the chance to hope, too.

Tadios, who comes from a family of farmers, is adamant that extreme weather conditions today are very different from when he started farming as a young boy.

However, he is also confident that new skills, such as mulching techniques, he learned from the Red Cross and our partners can help him deal with the changes.

Two of his fields show the staggering difference this made.

In one field, the maize planted using the new farming methods is a foot higher than the maize planted in an adjacent field using traditional techniques.

Tadios is now able to feed his family and to make a little bit extra to buy things they need. He’s also passing on that knowledge to neighbouring farmers.

What farmers in Zimbabwe and the UK have in common

JB Gill and Tadios kneel next to maize plants and talk about them in his field in Zimbabwe.

JB Gill with Tadios in his maize field ©BritishRedCross/Jordi Matas

Visiting Zimbabwe reinforced my understanding of extreme weather and climate change.

All around the world, farmers are beholden to the elements.

Last year in the UK we had snow in April and many farmers were struggling to keep some of their newborn livestock alive.

Then we had an unusually hot summer but, ultimately, we are only just starting to appreciate the effects of climate change in the UK, while here in Zimbabwe the effects are vast.

In the UK, if you happen to lose a crop or some of your livestock, perhaps you’ve lost your profit for the year.

In Zimbabwe, if you lose a crop, you have pretty much lost your ability to put food on the table for your family.

The difference is stunning. But by being more hands-on and using new farming techniques on the ground, we can remain hopeful that those most exposed to the elements and most at risk from the effects of climate change, will still be able to survive.

JB Gill was a member of one of the UK’s biggest boy bands, JLS. He is now lead presenter on CBeebies’ Down on the Farm and regularly contributes to the BBC’s Countryfile, Springwatch and Songs of Praise