Zimbabwe requires new thinking on agriculture*
Posted by CM on December 12, 2007
By Chido Makunike
Several years after the start of Zimbabwe’s effort at land reform, it has so far been a colossal failure. The country is no longer self-sufficient in its staple foods, exports have plunged, and industry that depends heavily on agriculture has been decimated.
The effect of all this on ordinary Zimbabweans needs no repeating here. There has been a loss not only of economic performance and well-being of the country and of individuals; it has also dramatically diminished our sense of pride, confidence and nationhood.
For the ruling political establishment that staked desperately needed legitimacy on the outcome of what many considered a cynically-motivated process of change in the patterns of land tenure, that legitimacy has been further shattered by the embarrassing failure of this version of land reform.
After the initial disagreement among various sectors of the Zimbabwean public on the nature of the land reform effort, we needed the process to be repaired to simply work for the benefit of the country. The old white dominance of the farming sector and the nature of that dominance in the light of Zimbabwe’s pre-independence history and the post-independence social and political reality that resulted was simply not sustainable. That there was need for change to a more politically and socially-realistic system is not a point of contention.
There has had to be a wholesale change of a system that was unpalatable but deeply entrenched and functional. The challenge was how to bring about the desired change while retaining the functionality. In the case of Zimbabwe the long-term process implied by trying to satisfy these often conflicting needs was something an increasingly unpopular and embattled ruling authority did not have the time or the resource to implement. So they blundered into a programme of “revolutionary” change in the hope that the dust of world opprobrium would finally settle and that the final outcome would vindicate the whole controversial process.
Not only has that not happened, but the policy and implementation blunders seem to worsen from year to year instead of agriculture recovering. We are now accustomed to pre-rain season laments from all sectors of the economy about how ill-prepared the nation is for the impending planting season. We can pretty reliably predict that there will be cries of,”There is not enough seed, fertilizer, fuel or other inputs,” or that some other critical or predictable aspect of planning has not been attended to. It has become a predictable, costly and nation-destroying circus.
The situation has deteriorated to a level where agriculture is just one more area of national life that is hostage to the country’s diplomatic isolation, poor image and its overall economic crisis. As such it is not possible to fix agriculture’s problems outside the context of the issues that are facing the whole nation. There is therefore no pronouncement that the president, any minister or other official can make or action they can take to quickly fix agriculture’s problems, any more than anybody can magic-wand away any other of the nation’s deep ills.
Yet we also cannot just sit back hoping that if and when the country’s dog-house reputation ends, all the many problems we have caused ourselves will miraculously disappear. Both to try to reduce the effects of the problems of the present and prepare ourselves for a hopeful future in which we will have an enlightened political leadership than a destructive one, we must begin to interrogate whether our whole approach to agriculture dovetails with the situation on the ground.
Part of the reason why agricultural production, despite all efforts in recent years, continues to deteriorate is that we are still applying to it the thinking and the rules of an era when conditions were dramatically different from the current situation. For better or for worse, the agricultural conditions are completely different from those of ten years ago, but all of us seem to insist on hitting our heads against the wall by trying to do things in the same old way.
Even if we didn’t have our current punishing hard currency problems, it is no longer realistic in today’s changed agricultural environment to hope that manufacturing or importing greater amounts of fertilizer can by itself make a dramatic difference to yields. This might have worked in a system where a relatively small number of well-heeled farmers could incorporate borrowing large amounts of money from banks for fertilizer and other inputs into their annual budgets.
But the reality on the ground now is of a far larger number of smaller, inexperienced, under-resourced, tenure-insecure farmers just trying to scrape a subsistence living. Even when available, by the nature of its production process fertilizer is going to be expensive and, therefore, out of reach of most small-scale farmers. Many countries have tried to get around this by subsidizing it, but in Zimbabwe we are now painfully aware of the hidden costs and un-sustainability of large-scale subsidies.
So with the situation obtaining in Zimbabwe today, even if import and trade in fertilizer were opened up and subjected completely to market forces, the cost of the black market hard currency required to manufacture or import it and then sell it at a profit would be such that very few farmers would afford to buy it in quantities meaningful enough to make any appreciable difference to yields. Apart from that, even for those who would, the price of their produce would be so high that none of us could afford to buy it!
So we have ruined things to such a level that the old cry of “there is not enough fertilizer” that we now utter every October is obsolete. We need to think along a different track that takes into account the holistic reality of our present situation.
Both because of its economic crisis as well as for reasons of long-term soil health and fertility, Zimbabwe needs to pay more serious attention to sustainable farming techniques that do not enslave farmers to high inputs they cannot afford to purchase anyway. Yet we have failed to adjust to the new situation which we have created for ourselves, and keep on using a frame of agricultural reference that is no longer available to us.
It is a bit like running very hard and fast, but in the wrong direction. No matter how much faster you run, you will never reach your destination. You would be better off turning to the right direction, even if by then you are too exhausted from your previous error to maintain your previous wrong-headed speed.
While the large-scale commercial farming model that obtained and dominated until about 2000 may be difficult to practise with sustainable, chemical input-free methods, the model of small-scale, less intensive farms that has resulted by default is ideally suited to them. A central part of agricultural policy should be to wean these farmers off the idea that without fertilizer they cannot farm meaningfully or profitably. The fertilizer mindset that made at least temporary sense (“temporary” partly because it did not address the long-term, unsustainable rape of the soil as a result of heavy use of synthetic fertilizer) for the successful model of the heyday of the large-scale white farmer is doing tremendous harm to our chances of devising another successful model to replace it.
Another example of how our thinking is stuck in the past despite new imperatives that require fresh insights is the issue of farm workers. The previously dominant model of large-scale farming estates required large numbers of lowly-paid workers. When the farms have all been divided up into smaller units and the former farm workers have been both encouraged to be farmers in their own right (disregarding for the moment how impractical this is in the prevailing environment) the approach needed has changed faster than our thinking.
For new farmers who aspire to be big in the mould of the white farmers, labour is a bigger problem than it was in the olden days of the white farmers’ dominance. The farm-workers have been scattered. They are anxious and unmotivated in light of the country’s many tensions. They are resentful of a new farmer who they know did nothing to be the “owner” of the farm.
Having the latitude to pay low wages is definitely a benefit to a farmer trying to get established. Payment of low wages is, however, now more politically-incorrect than it was during the era of the large-scale white commercial farmer. So while the new farmers may pay even less now than the low wages paid by the white farmer and provide fewer or no other non-cash “benefits,” the cost for that in reduced loyalty, low productivity, high absenteeism and so forth is far higher.
Apart from a farming scenario suddenly and dramatically changed by political vicissitudes, there are many other urgent imperatives that should have us seriously re-examine everything we have previously taken for granted about farming. Climate change is making rain-fed cropping seasons far less predictable, yet Zimbabwe is too broke and dysfunctional to seriously increase irrigation and water-storage capacity. We should be paying more attention to traditional grains better adapted to dry conditions than the hybrid maize varieties that require large quantities of water and chemical inputs to realize their high-yielding potential.
Many of our agricultural and other problems may have political, self-inflicted causes, but for any hope of finding solutions to the mess we have created, we need fresh thinking far beyond the political.
*first published in The Zimbabwe Times in 2006