Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Who is minding Zimbabwe’s agriculture?

Posted by CM on July 13, 2008

by Chido Makunike

One of the most alarming things about the total pre-occupation on maneuvering for power of Zimbabwe’s political parties is the continuing neglect of of the country’s agriculture.

This is dangerous not only because of the worsening hunger, but of the generally agreed on idea that a dramatic improvement in agricultural production is still the most realistic means of stemming the economic slide and eventually helping to reverse it. If serious enough attention were paid to agriculture to just get the country to feed itself, that would be an important achievement with wide-ranging benefits for the rest of the economy.

The question of what to do about land reform is a long-term issue. The question of who is “running” the country’s agriculture is posed here in the immediate term, the planting season that will begin this coming October/November. It is already getting late for that season to not have plans in place for seed, fertilizer, fuel, equipment and so forth. Yet it is hard to imagine that in the current uncertainty over everything anything is being seriously done in this regard.

The large scale commercial farming model has largely been destroyed and there is no prospect of that situating turning around tomorrow even if the political parties pulled a miraculous rabbit out of the hat of their negotiations. But it must be remembered that even at the height of commercial farming as practiced by large scale white farmers, it was small scale farmers who produced most of the nation’s maize, which is the main food security crop in Zimbabwe. The small grains like sorghum and barley have also been grown mostly by small scale farmers, as have most vegetables for local consumption.

So while reviving commercial agriculture is important for supplying industry many raw materials and for export, achieving food security does not necessarily depend on settling the difficult question of what to do about the large scale commercial agriculture model that has been mostly dismantled within the last 10 years. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that diligently enabling the small scale producers with the appropriate inputs, incentives and sense of security could in one season have a dramatic effect on the country’s food security situation.

Year after year there have been the announcement of plans to ensure all inputs were in place for the country’s main cropping season. And year after year those plans turned out to have been much less than announced, or to have floundered for one of many reasons to do with the economy’s many inter-linking crises.

One of the things that is so puzzling about the Mugabe government’s failure to seriously tackle this issue is that it would be the most effective way of justifying a land redistribution exercise that has been largely judged to be a colossal failure, and to be characterised by cynical cronyism.

Yet there is no sign that there is any re-doubled commitment to addressing the problems of agriculture.

Zim agriculture now a disgrace in the Financial Gazette makes sad reading:

When the (tobacco auction) floors opened for sales in May this year, farmers almost staged an ugly riot over poor prices and there was no activity for days. Since then, after the sales resumed and stopped only to restart again, just over 26 million kilogrammes have been delivered at the country’s three auction floors. Overall, a mere 75 million kg are expected from farmers by the close of sales later this year compared to a seasonal flow of well over 200 million kg before the year 2000.

“Right now it’s dark. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Jabulani Gwaringa, the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union director, trying to forecast the country’s grim agricultural future. But he believes that in terms of food security Zimbabwe can recover in a single season if the farmers, especially those in communal and A1 resettlement areas make preparations in time, with timely access to inputs, because they have since independence in 1980, supplied more than 90 percent of the staple maize to the Grain Marketing Board.

The factors required to make this happen again are not completely independent of the country’s present crisis. For instance, hyper-inflation, fuel shortages and the overall sense of fear and uncertainty would affect the best laid production plans in many ways. But it is also true that a more serious commitment to addressing the production constraints would likely result in dramatic gains in a single good rain season.

Besides agriculture being crucial to Zimbabwe’s food security, farming should bring good returns for all the hard work farmers put into it , be they communal or commercial. Many communal, small scale resettlement and commercial farmers have already sold this year’s produce and spent the cash on items that have no bearing on the coming season while hyperinflation is fast corroding the cash still in hand.

It is unfortunate that for the nation’s many eager farmers, agriculture is fast becoming a futile enterprise. At the tobacco auction floors farmers are paid in part by cheque plus $200 billion in cash. Cashing their multi-trillion-dollar cheques is a living nightmare.

“There are some retail shops that are very keen to accept our cheques, but they double the price of any item we buy. It’s a take it or leave it game. They say by the time our cheques mature they will have devalued due to inflation,” said a farmer from Guruve who chose to remain anonymous.

“We are buying useless items that don’t help us to continue farming just to convert our cheques into cash. I would not mind the retailers doubling the price if they were selling me fertiliser because it is a critical ingredient in tobacco farming. But if you go around, there is no fertiliser and our money is losing value every minute,” he lamented.

In February this year, the government distributed, among other things, hundreds of tractors, ploughs; thousands of animal-drawn scotch carts, harrows, grinding mills, generators, planters and cultivators; as well as combine harvesters and diesel.

While these efforts to revive the ailing sector are commendable, some farmers have accused the government of somewhat misplacing its priorities. “If the government imported and supplied the local fertiliser manufacturing industry with all the critical inputs such as potash required for fertiliser manufacturing, would it not be cheaper and make more economic sense than importing the fertiliser?” asked one industry expert who declined to be named.

As commendable as the move to promote greater efficiency and productivity through mechanization was,  there are several factors that mean that even those well-intentioned efforts could not on their own cause a dramatic turn around in the country’s agricultural fortunes, and they didn’t.

Tractors and other such equipment are mainly meant for the benefit of the very few present and aspiring medium to large scale farmers. The problem is that in the present climate, there are many other things working against the success of these farmers: fuel is hard to come by, hyperinflation makes operating difficult at every level, they need credit which is hard to get, labour is a problem because wages are not worth the effort in the hyper-inflationary environment, and so forth. Tractors and other such equipment are not the most important limiting factor to production. Therefore, it is possible to have them and still not see big productivity gains, because the real, most significant current constraints to production are still in place and largely unaffected by whether a farmer has a tractor or not.

For now, the tractors would be much more useful if they were used to till for large groups of small scale farmers than they are in the hands of individual medium to large scale farmers who cannot presently use them optimally even if they are very committed. The present mess in the country simply means that for many reasons, the best hope of production gains in agriculture rests with supporting the small scale farmers, who do not have the crippling costs and many other burdens of large scale farmers.

Small scale farmers often rely on family labour, they often use their own rather than commercial seed, they have small enough holdings that for some crops they could rely on manure and compost for fertility enhancement, rather than expensive and hard to get fertilizer. They use inefficient, back-breaking hand cultivation, but in the present climate where a farmer with a tractor can’t get fuel for it, obviously the small scale farmer can get on with business in a way the other farmer cannot.

Various ways of helping the small scale farmer on whom the nearest prospect of food security rests include favorable overall policies and market-driven prices (or the total lifting of crop price controls to spur production, although this is controversial because of the effects on the consumer. But in Zimbabwe, shortages caused by depressed production have shot prices sky-high anyway. So we have shortages and high prices, hardly an ideal situation for the consumer.)

There are many other things one would have on a wish list for aiding small scale farmers, such as affordable transport to market, better storage facilities, etc. But these and many others are not realistic in the current environment. Yet even with minimum assistance, or even just minimum interference in the things that make small scale farmers want to work hard to produce, yields of many crops would boom, with positive effects on food security, inflation and an overall revival of confidence in the country’s future by its own people.

Continues the FinGaz article, “Agriculture used to generate a lot of foreign currency, but other sectors such as mining and tourism propped it up too. So, is the government properly channelling the little available foreign currency to the key areas that need a little investment to make them tick again? There might be other impediments, but internal co-ordination is lacking. Proper organisation is lacking and mired in too much bureaucracy,” the agricultural expert said.

He cited the involvement of the military, under the Operation Maguta programme, as being absolutely unnecessary since there are structures in place such as the Agricultural Extension Services and farmer organisations that can perform better if empowered.

“A farmer will think twice before entering an army barracks to collect seed or fertiliser. Why doesn’t the government give these responsibilities to those who have agriculture at heart? “Some politicians take advantage of this disorganisation. They delay the distribution of inputs to farmers until the people are desperate, just to gain political mileage.”

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, extricating agricultural issues from politics at present is impossible, as the two have become wedded in unholy matrimony that has left millions on the verge of starvation.

It is ironic and tragic that the ‘politics’ that were said to guarantee wider ’empowerment’ and greater possibilities for food security and wealth creation have done the exact opposite.

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