Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Are we seeing a wasted farming season of abundant rain?

Posted by CM on December 17, 2007

If the rain season continues until March or April 2008 like it has begun, there will no one who will be able to talk about drought as an excuse for any crop yield shortfalls. “Drought” has been one of Mr. Mugabe’s favourite refrains to explain why agricultural productions has plunged in the last several years. This season excessive moisture may actually develop into more of a problem if the current rainfall pattern continues.

Over the last few weeks I have been tracking and commenting on how the farming season has been progressing so far. Here are some excepts from a December 17 Zimonline story headlined Seed shortage cripples Zimbabwe farming season.

Zimbabwe’s defense department has told President Robert Mugabe that it can do little to revive food production in the face of a shortage of seeds that is hampering planting operations.

Mugabe has put the army in charge of agricultural production under a programme codenamed Operation Maguta aimed at boosting food production and end hunger stalking Zimbabwe for the past seven years. Under the programme soldiers have deployed at large farms across the country to produce strategic crops such as maize and wheat, the country’s main staples.

However, army commanders running the programme are said to have reported to Defence Minister Sydney Sekeremayi that Zimbabwe faced worse food shortages next year because a shortage of seed and resources for tillage had all but dashed hopes of a successful farming season.

According to our sources, Sekeramayi raised the following points with Mugabe:

•That since the onset of rains two weeks ago, less than a third of commercial and small scale farmers had started any planting because of a serious shortage of seed and tillage resources. The situation was worse among poor villagers.

•That the country had secured only 15 000 tons of seed maize instead of the required 50 000 tons. That seed shortages were more acute for soya beans, a key crop used for stock feeds and cooking oils among other products.

•That even those farmers that had secured seed and had planted grains faced low yields because of an acute shortage of compound fertilizers used for basal application when planting. Soldiers were only distributing Urea, a top dressing fertilizer only helpful after germination.

•Urged Mugabe’s intervention to ensure that seed manufacturers were paid market prices to entice them to supply seed to the local market instead of exporting the product to more lucrative regional markets.

•That the country was forced to import maize and soya bean seed from neighboring countries, yet local seed houses were exporting the same seed to the same neighboring countries. Raised a possibility that the country was importing at a higher cost seed exported by local firms.

•Urged Mugabe’s intervention in ensuring that the central bank released enough foreign currency to import seed to make up for shortfalls. Cited that only 3 000 tonnes of the anticipated 15 000 tonnes of imported seed had arrived in the country. Emphasized that even the 15 000 tonnes were not enough to meet demand.

The sources say Mugabe promised to look into the issues raised by Sekeramayi.

One could write a long commentary about this sad story, but it really isn’t necessary. It has been the same story each farming season for years.

But briefly:

The “shortage” of seed, fertilizer and other inputs is a symptom of the many others things that are wrong in the economy and the country in general. Because those things are so deep and widespread, it is possible that even with “enough” side and fertilizer, there would still be many other factors leading to a less than successful farming season. Fuel and labour availability are issues, the economy’s hyper-inflation affects everything, the general dispiritidness of the country.

The situation in Zimbabwe has reached a stage where it is no longer possible to isolate factors like agricultural inputs to explain or fix agriculture. The word “crisis” might now be over-used, but it aptly describes how so many systems have broken down that it is difficult to make any sector work as it should without addressing the holistic “state of the nation.”

With “shortages” of fertilizer every farming season having become utterly predictable now, it is astonishing that agricultural thinking has not broadened to think of encouraging alternative, non-fertilizer ways of building up soil fertility. They are particularly suited for small holder farming and are gaining increasing interest and respectability across the world.

Cuba was forced to do this when the Soviet Union collapsed, removing the supports it had received from there. They have built up a different type of agricultural system entirely, with a heavy reliance on ecological agriculture. This has drastically cut their dependence on expensive imported farming inputs while retaining admirable agricultural productivity.

The foreign currency “shortages” that are a big part of the reason we can not import so many things are going to be with us for some years to come. They should encourage Zimbabwe’s agricultural authorities to begin to think outside the box for solutions to many of agriculture’s problems. Instead they continue banging their heads against the wall every year with plans that are simply no longer workable in the prevailing economic environment.

A particularly sad and ridiculous development is re-purchasing our our own repackaged seed from neighbouring countries. Exporting it is the only way the seed companies can make a profit because of populist, well-meaning but unrealistic price controls at home.

The now deeply entrenched idea of the central bank “releasing” hard currency to purchase farming inputs or anything else is largely warped. This might apply to that component of essential imports, perhaps those being subsidised to make them affordable to the neediest.

But there would be no need for the RBZ to be the only source of forex for seed, fuel or anything else if private players who have or can get their own hard currency were allowed to do their own importing and to recoup the costs of doing so. In this case the seed, fertilizer and other companies would not be importing finished product, but the raw materials, as long as they could be assured their prices would cover the high costs of black market forex.

There would be many sharks who would take advantage of the situation of shortages and chaos to fleece the public. But trying to control that while ensuring essential goods are available, even if expensive, seems better than relying on a system of total dependence on the RBZ we now know cannot work.

All this is part of what I mean when I say the problems in agriculture or any other sector can no longer be isolated into shortage of one or another item. The country’s dysfunctionality has assumed much bigger dimensions.

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