Climate action from the ground up

Zimbabwe — Apr 2023

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“Growing up, I always wanted to solve things,” says Cynthia Mutsindikwa. That desire propelled her into university studies in engineering.

Today, as a clean energy officer for MCC partner Score Against Poverty (SCORE) in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe, she is doing just that. Her work is bringing technology like solar panels, fuel-efficient stoves and biodigesters to women in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe. It’s solving problems at an individual level by making life easier for women, but also working to try and solve the larger problems communities are facing due to climate change.

“Choosing the energy field was more fulfilling because the world is about energy. It’s about going green. It’s about how can we mitigate the climate change effects? How can we adapt our communities?” she says. “I was like, ‘This is the field I should choose because I will be making a positive impact in the environment.’”

And she is.

In some places solar panels are being installed and helping to light homes and even clinics, illuminating not only a child’s homework but also labor and delivery rooms.

A woman smiling for a photo
Cynthia Mutsindikwa, a clean energy engineer from MCC’s partner SCORE Against Poverty. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Other families receive biodigesters that transform manure into biogas for cooking and other uses. Because biogas production does not require extraction like natural gas, and because it’s made from plant matter or animal waste, the production of biogas is generally considered carbon neutral. The biogas is produced naturally and locally and its emissions are much lower than those from natural gas and other fossil fuels.

Other families have received fuel-efficient stoves that are reducing their reliance on firewood. Because of their structure, the stoves require only small amounts of fuel to run, rather than large amounts of firewood. Compared to open fires, the heat is much more concentrated, which cuts cooking time in half.

With these three technologies, SCORE is providing rural households in Zimbabwe access to clean energy technology that has much lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than what households in Canada or the U.S. are using for lighting, cooking or running televisions or other electronics.

Empowering women through climate adaptations

These new technologies help reduce emissions to mitigate climate change. In the process, they are transforming the rhythm of life for women like Ntombizodwa Mapfacha, who no longer has to walk six miles every other day to gather loads of firewood to burn.

The stove she received can cook food in half the time it used to and uses just a few pieces of wood and dried corn cobs to do so, which Mapfacha can collect close to home. She no longer has to spend two to three hours nurturing an open fire to cook a single meal, smoke and heat billowing into her eyes and lungs and into the surrounding environment.

Instead, she has more time for family, leisure and activities that generate additional income for her family. This kind of transformation and empowerment for women was built into the design of the clean energy projects.

In this rural area of southern Zimbabwe, SCORE staff see the impact of climate change — inconsistent rain, high heat, unpredictable growing seasons, heavy flooding — as one of the biggest threats to life in their community. They also see how gender inequities cause women to bear the brunt of those impacts.

Women are expected to grow the food they cook for their families and collect firewood and water, tasks that get increasingly difficult as the effects of climate change grow.

A tin rooftop
Juliana Hahlani’s roof top with two solar panels. MCC photo/Christy Kauffman

They are often fully responsible for caring for children and the homestead. If their husbands migrate to look for work, women’s responsibilities grow, but culturally they are not allowed to make decisions without their husbands, says Caroline Pugeni, project coordinator for SCORE. Often, they lack resources and money to help them care for the family.

So SCORE decided to focus its clean energy project on women. Access to clean energy technology increases opportunities to earn money, gain expertise and respect, and share what they learn with their neighbors.

At Juliana Hahlani’s house, for example, solar power allows her son to do homework after dark. The power helps her operate a television, giving her access to information about the world outside of her immediate context as well as the weather forecasts she uses in her farming.

And when she and her husband can save enough to purchase a freezer, which would be powered by solar panels, she plans to store popsicles to sell at a nearby school and freeze chicken parts to sell in the community.

“When we have empowered [women], they can be able to stand on their own, and also they can be able to have a voice in the house,” Mutsindikwa says.

A woman smiling for a photo
Elita Moyo is a part of the Women’s Coalition on Climate Change. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

A multi-faceted effort

The changes Mutsindikwa and SCORE are bringing to Mwenezi aren’t just making a difference for families that receive a biodigester, solar panel or fuel-efficient stove. They are also working to mobilize communities more broadly to take action against climate change.

“We are one of the countries that will be severely hit by climate change,” Mutsindikwa says. “So we should work more on adaptation, and I would say, at the same time, mitigation is also important, whereby now we are looking at ways we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.”

In this rural area, where families are struggling enough that MCC is providing emergency food distributions, more than two dozen women take time out of their day to join a meeting of SCORE’s Women’s Coalition on Climate Change.

“There is no Planet B,” they chant together.

It’s a message they will take back to their family and neighbors.

Their commitment isn’t just in words.

At the meeting, Elita Moyo shares how she moved her church’s all-night prayer meetings to become daytime meetings, so they didn’t need to use carts of wood to light the space. She convinced all the churches she leads to plant trees on their properties.

An assistant to the district chief of Mwenezi said the district now has a law that makes it illegal for anyone to cut down a live tree without permission. Cut down a tree? Pay the fine with a goat.

“We are showing the world that going green is the only way,” Mutsindikwa says.

But is the world listening?

A group of three people unloading food to distribute
From left to right: Clemence Jawanda, Nyaradzo Jawanda and Nyadzisai Jawanda unload food that came from a monthly food distribution. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Looking at emissions across the globe and close to home

The lifestyle of rural families in Zimbabwe did not cause climate change. In the big picture, their contribution to climate change is a drop in the bucket.

At the Women’s Coalition on Climate Change, speaker Esnath Guvuriro singles out gases from industries, vehicles and nitrogen fertilizer as some of the top culprits of ozone layer destruction — factors that are prevalent in countries like Canada and the U.S.

Measuring global climate change comes down to three things: looking at global emissions of greenhouse gases over history, looking at present global emissions and looking at global emissions per capita.

By all three counts, countries like the U.S. and Canada have been much more responsible for climate change, and the impacts that come with it, than countries like Zimbabwe.

The U.S. is the largest cumulative emitter of climate change causing greenhouse gases at over 400 billion tons total, according to historical and current numbers. Canada is number nine at over 30 billion tons. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, is at less than 0.8 billion tons.

Figures focused on present global emissions tell a similar story. As of 2019, the U.S. is the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases, at around 6 billion metric tons per year, with Canada 10th with 737 million metric tons. Zimbabwe is at 30.5 million metric tons.

When it comes to per capita emissions, Canada is 7th at 15.4 tons per person and the U.S. is 10th at 14.8 tons per person. Zimbabwe, by comparison, has a rate of 0.8 tons per person.

A woman looking at a lightbulb outside in the evening
Cynthia Mutsindikwa looks at a light she has installed at the Nehanda clinic that draws its energy from the solar panels on the roof of the clinic. MCC photo/Christy Kauffman

The painful costs of a changing climate

Yet it is countries like Zimbabwe that are suffering the costs of a changing climate.

In Mwenezi District, farmers have watched weather patterns become less reliable over the years, cutting into the harvests they rely on to support their families.

At an MCC-supported emergency food distribution, Clemence Jawanda, a father of eight, shared that inconsistent rains during the last two planting seasons resulted in a very poor harvest. The food he and his wife grew was gone six months before they could harvest again.

As he returns to his home, he unloads the emergency rations of beans, finely ground cornmeal, oil and salt from a donkey-led cart into a storage shed where shelves were empty.

On the floor, a few chickens brood, eventually producing other chickens to sell or eat. The family adds termites, caterpillars, mushrooms and other naturally growing ingredients to their cooking, but that’s not enough.

If the upcoming planting season isn’t better, Jawanda says he may need to migrate to look for work, like other men in the community have done.

“Personally it is very painful, just to leave my family here because of a circumstance that is beyond my control,” Jawanda says.

A group of three people looking into a dug hole in the ground
Addlight Mudombo (left) and Elnathan Mboweni (white shirt) and Tariro Cynthia Mutsindikwa (white hard hat) check the condition of the biodigester at Mudombo’s farm. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

What is our responsibility?

Climate change is a justice issue. Climate change affects families around the world, including in the U.S. and Canada, and has a disproportionate impact on those who are most vulnerable and least able to cope. As two of the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, the U.S. and Canada have a moral obligation not only to reduce our emissions but also to actively support countries with historically lower GHG emissions that are disproportionately impacted by climate change today.

Adaptation and mitigation strategies, though urgently needed, can sometimes make existing inequalities worse, or even cause direct harm to communities. For example, when such strategies involve the mining of critical minerals for renewable energy components, policymakers must consider how to prevent further damage and oppression.

MCC in the U.S. and Canada engages in advocacy to support the reduction of GHG emissions, to hold governments accountable to global climate agreements and to ensure that domestic reduction policies are employed equitably and do not cause additional harm.

A woman pointing to a solar panel of the roof of a small house
Cynthia Mutsindikwa points to a solar panel on a beneficiary’s house. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Take action, even when it feels daunting

The challenges of climate change, admittedly, are huge. Knowing what steps to take next can feel impossible.

Act anyway.

Even though they live in one of the lowest emitting countries, one after another, both women and men in Mwenezi share the strides they are taking to heal and protect their environment, even when it’s planting a single tree, most often a mango tree that will provide food as well as shade.

In Mwenezi District, the Women’s Coalition on Climate Change provides a gathering point to learn about ways to cope with and mitigate the impact of climate change. Women share that information and their experiences with neighbors and friends while learning to advocate for healthy climate policy with all levels of government.

Will you stand in solidarity with these families who are giving their time to act?