Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘farming productivity’

Impressions of Zimbabwe in August 2009

Posted by CM on October 25, 2009

Visitors to Zimbabwe who have been fed a BBC/CNN-type diet of news about ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis’ and how everything in the country has ‘collapsed’ will be surprised at how ‘normal’ Harare looks at first glance. Driving from the airport into town, there are certainly signs of decay since a few years ago, but no immediate or obvious signs of the ‘collapse’ that certain media have in recent years hysterically, lovingly and perhaps even hopefully talked about.

Looking out of the airplane’s windows as it circled to land and on the drive into town in early August, the most obvious change for me was how areas that had once been at least semi-savannah on the outskirts of Harare had been stripped of trees. One manifestation of ‘The Crisis’ in recent years has been the difficulty in accessing forms of modern energy that had once been taken for granted: petrol, diesel, paraffin, butane, coal, electricity, etc. Their availability had been erratic for many years and their cost prohibitive, forcing many people to resort to firewood for energy. Hence the massive deforestation, which I later found was widespread.

The still newish airport is clean and well maintained, though the number of vacant boutiques compared to, for instance, Nairobi airport’s full complement of seemingly thriving over-charging boutiques was one indicator that things were not quite ‘normal.’ On the drive home from the airport there was no dramatic evidence of ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis,’ though the buildings did look shabbier than before and there were definitely more potholes to dodge on the roads. But the over-riding impression for me was the powerful natural beauty and colour of Zimbabwe, not the indices of the difficult times the country has undergone in recent years.

Having had a few days to unwind at home, I began to gradually drive around and explore my home city Harare. There definitely seemed less traffic on the roads than I remembered from a few years ago. Finding a parking spot in the city center was surprisingly easy at any time of day and the roads there were generally in very good shape, as appeared to be most of the visible infrastructure.

In town and in many of the suburban shopping centers there were many more vacant shops than before, but I was also impressed by the number of businesses that had hung on during the difficult years. But almost all had ‘diversified’ in various ways, with all selling a much wider variety of goods and/or services to survive. I thought the general level of service in shops had declined noticeably. I didn’t encounter any outright rudeness but it seemed noticeably common to be met by disinterested, bored and sometimes almost sullen store personnel. Almost all stores I remembered from a few years ago had a much narrower range of goods than during ‘the good old days,’ but many people mentioned to me that what I thought was a limited range of goods was a vast improvement from the situation a few months ago, and that the availability of goods was improving dramatically by the day, one of the early benefits of the US-“dollarization” of the economy.

While the widespread shortages of all kinds of goods was rapidly receding into the past as price controls and currency restrictions fell away, most things seemed very expensive, sometimes absurdly so. In the weeks before my visit home I had visited Europe and the U.S., as well as having passed through Senegal’s capital city Dakar,  a city not known to be cheap, and so I particularly keenly felt the comparatively high cost of goods and services in Harare. It was easy to understand why many Zimbabweans are only grudging in their praise of the ‘normalization’ that has begun to take place. “We are happy the shops are full again but we can’t afford the goods” was a frequent complaint I heard. But even as people grumble about “we can’t afford anything” the shops are certainly not empty of customers, although many merchants and traders said the level of spending was still low and still limited mainly to necessities. Yet all I spoke to agreed that the situation was significantly better than before, and dramatically better than in 2008, the period everyone agreed was Zimbabwe’s low point, with hyperinflation, shortages, violence and political tension and so on at their worst.

As ridiculously expensive as almost everything seemed to be, even in just the one month I was there prices were creeping down to more realistic levels. And if one took the trouble to shop around, which many more people were doing than I remember from before, it was possible to find widely varying prices for the same thing. A big culture change was that even in ‘formal’ shops it was possible to negotiate for price reductions, common in many countries all over the world but previously almost unheard of in Zimbabwe’s stiff formal economy. So merchants are feeling the effects of consumer resistance and growing competition from the opening up of the economy and the greater availability of goods, and they are being forced to respond by lowering their prices. In the shortage economy that had prevailed for several years, the relatively few people who could raise the hard currency to import goods became accustomed to charging huge, arbitrary mark-ups. The merchant was king, not the customer.

One of the most disheartening remaining signs of how Zimbabwe has slid was in the complete absence of a daily media alternative to the state media. There are no daily independent newspapers and at US$2 an issue, the weekly private newspapers are way out of reach of most people. Of course there is no private TV or radio so there is a huge information deficit. But this is not to say the state media dominates the shaping of opinion. Despite its near monopoly, state newspapers, TV and radio are so dull and so blatantly pro-establishment that their credibility is extremely low. The public has largely learned to sense when they are being fed propaganda instead of news, which is rather often, and to dismiss and ridicule it even if they don’t know for sure what the other sides of the story are. Even more than before, the propaganda is so crudely done that I found myself often marveling that the government didn’t find it embarrassing and a negation of its attempt to win heart and minds. The stiffness, awkwardness and the over-the-top nature of much of the state media in the support of Mugabe and ZANU-PF and against Tsvangirai and the MDC had an almost surreal, self-defeating quality in its crudeness.

President Mugabe is still ass-licked by the state media as much as ever before, and in a way that I do not think does him any credit. One big change was that Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono was no longer the swashbuckling public hero the media had tried to make him out to be when he was first appointed five or so years ago, promising to swiftly bring down hyper-inflation and perform all kinds of other miracles. Even in the slavish state media Gono’s gloss had long turned dull, with him now struggling to defend his controversial legacy to a tired-of-him, sceptical public. One would have to have been there in his early days in office and to experience what a dominant public presence he came to be to understand how far the man has fallen in public esteem.

Electricity and water cuts were frequent, although even in these regards many people said I had visited when the situation was getting much better than it once was. People are inconvenienced but out of necessity have had to adjust, and the down times are handled very matter of factly. Up until a few years ago I had never even seen a fuel-powered electricity generator but now many in the cities who can afford them have them and they are widely advertised in the Press. Those who have boreholes or wells can avoid the worst inconveniences of the periods without running water, but I was shocked by the number of people who calmly mentioned having gone for months without seeing a drop of municipal water in their taps, a major cause of last year’s cholera outbreak.

Visits to some of Harare’s once-bustling industrial areas were depressing. A few years ago a quick drive through any of them would have been enough to show anybody why Zimbabwe’s economy was the sub-region’s most dynamic after South Africa’s. Now they are quiet, many companies still open but quite clearly operating at a low level. The areas do not have the bustle of before; buildings, roads and company premises are no longer maintained like they once proudly were. But from job-seekers to company owners, many people said whereas most companies were just treading water for several years, there are now signs of activity picking up as a result of the policy changes in the economy and the relative political calm.

With low productivity in agriculture and industry for several years, and given all the crises the country has undergone, it is startling to see the number and proportion of smart late-model luxury cars on the streets of Harare. There seemed a very bizarre disconnect between the economy under-performing as it has done for years and the number and types of expensive cars which would have turned one’s head even in a wealthy, ‘normal’ economy. While the signs of the lack of investment in many critical areas of the economy were everywhere, this certainly did not seem to extend to the cars many higher-ups in government and the private sector drive. I’m still trying to figure out what this says, and whether this is positive or not.

My impressions are of a tiny slice of life in Zimbabwe. For instance, I only made two one-day forays into rural areas to visit relatives, and only made one other one-day trip out of Harare during my one-month stay. There are obviously many parts of the traumatic economic and political period Zimbabwe is just coming out of that will only be fully understood by those who were there during it. But the instinctive adaptation that one “who was there” undergoes to the rapidly changing situation is also precisely why it can be hard for them to pin down and catalogue the changes, even though they will have an insider’s deeper understanding of events they were a part of. On the other hand an inside-outsider like me, visiting for the first time in about three years, can much more quickly see what is different even if he has no first-hand knowledge and experience of the factors and events that drove the change.

When I ended my previously visit to Zimbabwe, in early 2007, it was with a very heavy heart. The economy was very steadily declining and the tensions between the rival political parties escalating. That state of affairs had been on-going for close to 10 years. There was a widespread sense that the country was still going down, with no one able to guess when we would hit bottom or how bad things would be then. I left home then worried and depressed.

My feelings were quite different this time. There remain many political and economic problems but there is now a widespread feeling that the worst is behind the country. There is not the same feeling of widespread political dread and economic desperation, even though things are far from easy or back to any definition of ‘normal.’  Everybody grumbles about how high the cost of living still is, but unlike before, prices are stable and in many cases even declining, and goods are widely available, which is a very different scenario from early 2007!

I found widespread relief at the existence of the inclusive government of the major political parties, and I thought that most people were generally much less passionately partisan than I remembered. I also think cynicism about all politicians was higher and more widespread than before, which may be a good sign!

The last ten years or so have been a lost decade for Zimbabwe in many ways. And there is no guarantee that the beginnings of stabilization that are being experienced will take hold or that the country will organize itself to get close to meeting its great potential. The possibility of the political parties going back to the bitter fighting that has contributed so greatly to Zimbabwe’s misery remains very real. But when I left Harare in early September after a month at home, for the first time in many years I felt the stirrings of hope about the country’s prospects.

Posted in business, Economy, People | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The speech Mugabe is unlikely to ever make

Posted by CM on January 9, 2008

Excerpts from an article in the January 3 edition of the Malawi Daily Times:

President Bingu wa Mutharika, in his New Year special message to the nation, said Malawi was on the road to prosperity, promising the country would see more development this year.

He added that based on the experience of his government’s impressive performance in 2007, prospects for 2008 looked brighter. “Malawi is on the road from poverty to prosperity,” he said. “We shall see new growth in our country. We are poised to implement more projects than we promised you in 2004.”

Mutharika said 2007 was a good year for Malawi and its people…

Mutharika said.. he inherited a “sick economy” in 2004 and decided to institute reforms in the public sector and the civil service. They required enforcement of strict fiscal discipline within the social framework of a home-grown development strategy. “We now own the development process and are responsible for its achievement.”

He said in 2007, his government reduced interest rates to 15 percent, making it affordable for businesses, especially small scale and medium scale enterprise, to borrow and service loans.

“We have also reduced inflation rate down from 17.1 percent in 2006 to 8.5 percent during the year. This has been in response to vibrant business activities in the private sector,” he said.

He said his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had delivered on what it promised, adding “we didn’t promise what we couldn’t deliver, but delivered what we promised.”

Mutharika in the message said the country was no longer experiencing food shortage during certain months of the year as was previously the case. He said due to sound agricultural policies, Malawi last year produced 1.3 million metric tones of food, which was more than what the country needed annually.

And to give people more money in their pockets, government negotiated higher prices of some agricultural commodities like tobacco, cotton, groundnuts, soya beans and maize. “As a result, many people have had increased purchasing power that enabled them to have effective demand for products. This made many business traders really rich in 2007,” he said.

To reduce dependence on rain-fed agriculture, government built large dams during 2007 and rehabilitated many irrigation schemes that were constructed during the Kamuzu era, to give clean water to rural communities and develop aquaculture industry.

For anyone familiar with the sad reality of present day Zimbabwe, the contrast between how 2007 was for it and its small neighbour Malawi are stark indeed, even keeping in mind that some of Mutharika’s speech was merely the self-serving triumphalism of a politician.

But there are lots of independent indices of how 2007 was indeed a very good year for Malawi. Without a lot of fanfare, Malawi achieved its second maize bumper harvest in a row. Some of the surplus maize was sold or donated to bigger, more “developed” but impoverished and hungry Zimbabwe. And it was done not with any dramatic, wholesale changes to anything, but by the application of simple incentives like a fertiliser subsidy.

After vowing not to repeat the indignity of the country having to beg for food aid as it did during the famine of 2005, Malawi accomplished in two years what Zimbabwe has failed to do in the close to 10 years since “the land revolution.”

Malawi’s achievements are merely another indicator of just how wrong things have gone in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has innumerable natural and man-made advantages over Malawi, but we can be pretty certain that Mugabe is unlikely to ever have the opportunity to deliver the kind of good news wrap-up of a year’s performance that Mutharika has been able to do for Malawi.

The two neighbouring countries provide a stunning example of the importance of effective leadership in determining the fortunes of a country. In Malawi we have a poor country with relatively few competitive advantages maximising them to forge ahead. In Zimbabwe is a country blessed with abundant potential wealth not only floundering, but falling behind with each passing year. The main difference between the two? The quality of leadership.

While Mutharika justifiably crows about his government’s achievements in Malawi, all Zimbabweans can expect from Mugabe is more scape-goating, more hurling of insults at real and imagined enemies, more repression and more justifications for failure. The state of present day Zimbabwe, and its short-term prospects under Mugabe, is a tragedy of historical proportions.

Posted in Economy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Gideon Gono’s star starting to fade

Posted by CM on December 30, 2007

by Chido Makunike

The last few weeks have not been good for Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

Gono featuredly prominently at the ZANU-PF congress at which President Mugabe somehow arranged yet another ruling party endorsement as its sole candidate in the elections scheduled for March 2008. We saw images of Gono grinning broadly, seemingly basking in the glow of Mugabe’s approval. He got tongues wagging with a tough speech in which he accused un-named high ranking government officials of being behind many of the nefarious “black market” activities that led to phenomena like the current perplexing shortage of Zim dollar currency notes.

Gono has never made secret of his personal closeness to Mugabe, which reports have traced to his being the president’s banker, dating from the days when Gono was chief executive of the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe. Gono parlayed his revival of that once floundering bank back into solvency into a reputation as a “turn around expert.” It is that image he carefully cultivated over some years that eventually landed him the RBZ top job with much fanfare in 2003.

His closeness to Mugabe made him automatically an object of suspicion to many. But others hoped that he could use it to make Mugabe “see sense” about measures needed to right the economy’s many wrongs in a way the president light not have been prepared to do with previous economic advisors.

There was a circus around Gono’s taking on the job of central banker. The media was roped into hailing him as a conquering hero who had come to slay the dragon of high inflation, the country’s then first experience of local currency shortages and all manner of other economic ills.

If the media seemed to adore him, he clearly loved the media attention just as much. His “monetary review statements” were broadcast live, and his every word was treated as gospel. In the Gono-euphoria that erupted, cautions that the country’s deepening economic problems could not be separated from governance, political and diplomatic issues were swept aside. Gono promised to “turn around” the economy in short order, confidently making inflation-lowering and other targets which the country has come nowhere near to achieving, and vowing “failure is not an option.”

Four years after all the hype surrounding his appointment and all the high hopes in his tenure by many, the December 23 2007 main headline in the Zimbabwe Standard was a harsh summation of how far Gono has fallen in public esteem. It screamed, “Gono labelled ‘No. 1 saboteur.’

Citing the thousands of Zimbabweans who had to spend the end of year holiday season in long queues for cash from their bank accounts, the story quoted Elton Mangoma, an opposition party official, as saying, “Gono is clearly the biggest saboteur of Zimbabwe’s economy. He is simply playing politics with a serious national crisis that needs immediate attention from a central bank governor who takes the people’s suffering seriously.”

The MDC, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and economists, all said the cash crisis was ample evidence that the RBZ had failed in its mandate to provide liquidity, the story continued. The critics said it was “very cruel” of Gono to plunge the ordinary people into the crisis in a miscalculated move “to fix” people whose identity he knew.

Critics said blaming cash barons was a diversionary tactic designed to mask the incompetence of the central bank. “There is no money from the so-called barons because if the money was there, the parallel market would be booming,” said Dr Daniel Ndlela, head of an economic consultancy firm. “This fellow (Gono) is not only heartless, but he does not understand who he is punishing. The people in the queues are not barons.”

The Standard’s story continued:

Mangoma added: “The people are not failing to access their cash because of the cash barons but because of Gono’s policies which have eroded people’s confidence in the banking system in this country. No reasonable person would put their money into a bank when they know they will fail to access it the following day.”

Ndlela said Zimbabweans could be in for more suffering “as long as we have a poet” for a central banker. “He has totally failed. If he had a bit of professionalism and dignity he should have resigned a long time ago,” he said.

This is unprecedented harsh public criticism for Gono. Until recently, he had somehow been able to straddle the awkward twin roles of being an intimate insider of a floundering, unpopular government and yet also able to cast himself as a “man of the people” folk hero. That bubble seems to have burst in a way that some cynics may say was inevitable.

Defending himself in The Herald in an interview which was gently but still unusually critical in the tone of the questions asked by the state’s primary propaganda newspaper, Gono said “The cash shortages that we see are a mere symptom of much deeper and greater fundamental misalignments in our economy than the ability or inability of the central bank to provide adequate cash.” In this regard, it was unfortunate that all the blame had been heaped on RBZ, the newspaper quoted Gono as saying.

Went on Gono in the interview, “We are back to economic fundamentals which we must tackle head on… It’s about sanctions whose debilitating effects on the economy and on the ordinary lives of our people must be a matter for which we must all speak with one voice as Zimbabweans to see that these sanctions are lifted. It’s about the productivity of … every form of economic activity in the country. We must raise the bar of productivity to underpin our commercial transactions.”

“It’s also about economic and pricing distortions, which we must deal with decisively. It’s about economic patriotism. It’s about discipline. It’s about building a corrupt-free economy. It’s about international relations. So don’t take a simplistic view of the queues and simplistically place 100 percent responsibility on the central bank or the Governor, however easily tempting or fashionable it might be.”

“That’s my interpretation of the cash queue. In the absence of a disciplined approach to our economic affairs, to corruption, hard work and economic patriotism, the winter of discontent with cash queues will not go away. “

Everything Gono says here is true, of course. But it was all just as true four years ago when he somewhat over-confidently boasted “failure is not an option” amidst warnings that the country’s problems were deeper than could be addressed by monetary measures. For instance, the lifting of sanctions and issues of international relations are beyond the purview of Gono and the RBZ. Yet they are critical components to Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes, and to Gono’s own success as RBZ governor.

All these points had been repeatedly made by many long before Gono came onto the scene as central banker. Some who had made similar points to those Gono is now making were accused of being traitors to the country and forced to resign their positions for publicly stating unpalatable truths. The hope had been that Gono’s reputation as a “favoured son” who enjoyed the particular attention of Mugabe’s ear would give him more leverage than others before him had.

While Gono has clearly been the most powerful central banker yet, with unprecedented latitude to try all sorts of economic experiments, he has met the ultimate brick wall: that there will be no solution to the country’s hyper-inflation or its cash, fuel and other shortages without going back to production, diplomatic, political and other basics which the ruling authorities have shown no inclination to do over the years.

In a way Gono is a victim of his own initial hype and over-promising of what he could achieve in the prevailing political environment. In taking the RBZ job, he gambled that he could influence Mugabe and the politicians to take measures they had resisted before, or alternatively, that he could use his wide-ranging powers to bring about economic improvements even without reform of the rest of the system of governance. The increasing criticism from all sectors of the media and the public suggests many people believe that he has lost his gamble.

Without giving details, in the Herald interview he promises to solve the immediate cash problems in the next several days. But this would seem to contradict his point in the same interview about how the cash queues will not go away without the country addressing a comprehensive raft of other issues than just how much currency the RBZ releases into circulation. Certainly his credibility is at its lowest ebb, even if he still enjoys the fickle Mugabe’s support, which I am not sure anyone knows for certain.

So what next for Gono?

Hyperinflation and the Zim dollar’s depreciation continue unabated, so two major reasons for the current cash shortage will still be in place no matter what he does to assuage the public’s anger about the shortages. The low farming/industrial productivity and international diplomatic isolation issues will likely continue for all sorts of reasons that are way beyond Gono’s ability to do anything about.

With his repeated “failure is not an option” mantra, resignation is not an easy option. I wonder if it is even an option available to him at all. In return for his unprecedented power, prominence and latitude of action as RBZ governor, he may have had to make personal concessions which may not make it possible for him to walk away unless Mugabe now wishes him to go. He may be too deep into the system as the author of many unorthodox interventions to attempt to stop the economy’s slide in the last four years that being seen to abandon the Mugabe ship would not be looked at kindly at all!

Could Mugabe, on reading the public mood of rising disaffection with Gono, be ready to sack him, in a way giving Gono the easiest way out of a continually sinking ship?

This is not unthinkable for a crafty Mugabe who is a master at finding and nailing scapegoats for problems that are ultimately his responsibility. But it is probably unlikely.

Whatever his faults, Gono has indeed worked very hard at a series of unconventional interventions to try to tame Zimbabwe’s economic melt down. Gono has also very carefully always made a sometimes almost slavish loyalty to Mugabe clear.

Unless Mugabe is now ready to go “conventional” in regards to economic management and international relations, he needs someone like Gono who is tireless at trying unconventional measures, no matter how half-baked some of them may be. In an economic environment even worse than when Gono became RBZ governor, it is hard to imagine Mugabe finding anyone as bold and hard-working at trying new things as Gono has proven himself to be. A more conventional economist at the RBZ would recommend to Mugabe the same conventional political and economic measures that Mugabe has found so unpalatable over the years.

Gono will therefore likely continue at the helm of the RBZ and the economy beyond his current term, but with no more illusions on anyone’s part of a dramatic “economic turnaround” on the horizon. Out of frustration at having failed to achieve it, as well as having lost the public and media adulation he wants enjoyed, he may become an increasingly bitter and capricious economic tsar. In the manner of his boss Mugabe in the political sphere, Gono may continue to be “in power” to issue warnings, threats and decrees to various sectors of the economy, but make little difference to the country’s economic slide.

Gono as RBZ governor rose to dizzy heights in public affection on the alluring but dangerous, fleeting back of a masterfully conducted public relations campaign and charm offensive. The only way to have kept that unrealistic momentum was for him to have then produced the kind of economic results which were not possible under an environment in which his boss continued to make statements and decisions that neutralised Gono’s efforts.

Those decisions are often influenced more by short-term populism and patronage considerations than what is in the best interests of the country. And so farms and implements are given to the political elite than to those best able to use them, with the attendant results on productivity, and ultimately, on inflation and the value of the Zim dollar. It is a waste of time to deal with the economic symptoms without addressing the political root causes.

Ditto for the current cash crisis. It is a waste of time to scapegoat a “cash baroness” who is simply a messenger of well connected and protected political players who are the real black marketeers. Gono says he knows most of them, but appears not to want to rock the political boat by naming them. That may be understandable, but the point is that being politically hamstrung like this makes nonsense of his economic efforts, dooming them to failure. Apart from nailing even the highly placed politicians and others who are “fueling” the black market, there is also the fact that only measures that make such a black market un-necessary will eliminate the problem, even if those measures go against Mugabe’s own brand of ideological orthodoxy.

Gono continues to run from pillar to post, trying this and that cosmetic measure to deal with the symptoms of deeper problems he increasingly shows signs of accepting are beyond the ambit of the RBZ to address. The carefully scripted story of his dramatic professional and public-image rise make for gripping melodrama, but his current floundering is also sadly predictable and depressing given the unchangingly negative political environment in which he chose to try to make a lasting positive impact as RBZ governor.


Posted in People | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Agriculture | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The changing story on farming season readiness

Posted by CM on December 12, 2007

A few weeks after it began, the rain season looks promising this year. In the last few months there has also been a lot of noise from various officials to suggest that this year the government was taking preparation for the farming season much more seriously than in the last several embarrassing years. We have been boastfully promised “the mother of all farming seasons.”

Below is a Herald report from early in the rain season. I reproduce it here in full for the record (the link to it, http://www.herald.co.zw/inside.aspx?sectid=26073&cat=1, now leads to a blank Herald page) and so that during and after the farming season, we can examine the situation and track what went right or wrong.

Government has secured enough seed, fertilizer, farming implements and fuel in anticipation of a successful 2007/08 farming season, says the Minister of Agriculture, Cde Rugare Gumbo.

Speaking at a Press briefing in Harare yesterday on Zimbabwe’s agricultural preparedness for the forthcoming season, dubbed “The Mother of All Farming Seasons,” Cde Gumbo said everything was in place.

“But we really want to stress that emphasis is on yields and not hectarage. As the situation stands at present, most of our people are ready for the summer season. There is much enthusiasm,” the minister said.

Cde Gumbo said the country has targeted to put at least 2 million hectares under maize, 400 000ha under small grains (sorghum and millet), 600 000ha under tobacco, 120 000ha under soyabeans, 200 000ha under groundnuts, 400 000ha under cotton and 56 000ha under sugarcane.

“These are the targets we want to achieve. The fact that we have indicated these figures does not mean we will stop,” he said.

Cde Gumbo said the targets along with the anticipated good rains projected by weather forecasts should contribute to the success of the farming season. “We are in a way comforted by the weather forecast that we may have normal to above normal rainfall this season and we want to ensure that we have a bumper harvest,” Cde Gumbo said.

Acknowledging the existence of other challenges such as erratic electricity supplies, his ministry had engaged the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to mitigate the problems.

“In terms of tobacco everything is okay, the only challenge is irrigation and power outages. We have enough seed for soyabeans, cotton, and sugar cane,” he said.

There was a small deficit of fertilizer particularly compound D, but the central bank was making frantic efforts to ensure that farmers received adequate supplies.

Cde Gumbo told journalists that Operation Maguta/Inala, spearheaded by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, had already started supplying communal and A1 farmers with fertilizers and seed. “We are pleased with the performance of the operation in terms of providing inputs to rural areas,” he said.

He commended Government for phase two of the Farm Mechanisation Programme, which he said would go a long way in enhancing production among communal farmers who contribute at least 85 percent of the national maize output.

Under phase two, Government distributed more than 50 000 animal-drawn implements including harrows, ploughs, cultivators and discs. In addition, Government distributed more than 1 200 tractors and combine harvesters to farmers as it intensifies its efforts to enhance agricultural production.

Massive production of all agricultural products, Cde Gumbo added, was the best weapon against food shortages and inflation. “The ministry’s thrust for the 2007-2008 farming season is massive production of all products, be it beef, chicken, pork as this is the only way we can stop food shortages.”

“If we go into farming in a massive way we are sure inflation will go down, prices will also go down and retain our status as Southern Africa’s breadbasket,” Cde Gumbo said.

RBZ Governor Dr Gideon Gono described the forthcoming agricultural season as the solution to all Zimbabwe’s challenges. “This farming season is going to be the mother of all farming seasons. A mother symbolises stability, care and everything good about life. So we are looking forward to the coming season we have termed ‘The Mother of All Farming Seasons’,” Dr Gono said.

He said at least 50 000 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer was available while 1 440 tonnes was with the GMB. “I can report that of Compound D we have 30 000 tonnes of Amonium Nitrate and 1 440 tonnes is with the GMB while 396 000 tonnes is with our suppliers,” he said. He said 17 000 tonnes was expected to be delivered before November.

Dr Gono said 12 964 tonnes of LAN fertilizer was also with the GMB while another 2 000 tonnes was in transit from an unnamed supplier. “Twenty-five thousand tonnes of LAN fertilizer is expected to be delivered between October and January while 10 000 more will be delivered from February onwards,” he said.

Dr Gono said a further 50 000 tonnes of Compound C for tobacco was in stock at the GMB while 35 000 tonnes had already been released to farmers.

A further 7 000 tonnes was expected to be delivered in three weeks’ time.

Although the country had adequate land, adequate inputs and the technical know-how, he said the tools of the trade were equally important for the nation to achieve greater success.

Dr Gono said Government had launched the mechanisation programme to equip the farmers with the necessary implements. “On June 11 we unveiled the launch of the mechanisation programme with 925 state-of-the-art tractors being distributed. This is a programme that has never been done in the history of the country and we mostly paid cash for the tractors with money from our own resources,” Dr Gono said.

“. . . prophets of doom thought it was propaganda. Last week we saw 1 200 tractors and over 50 000 animal driven implements of all kinds being distributed,’’ he said.

He said even the so-called industrialised countries had never distributed such a significant number of implements in one year.

“The programme goes beyond 2007 and we want to see all farmers getting their set of all the farming implements,” he added.

Dr Gono also said timely availability of inputs to farmers was critical, adding that 50 000 tonnes of maize seed was already secured. He said the central bank was going to support the local industry with foreign currency to play its part in meeting the national requirements.

He said power outages were also preventing local industry from fully utilising installed capacity but Government had come up with measures to address the problem. He added that the mining industry has also been given the green light to import electricity directly to minimise interruptions to production.

On coal and fuel shortages, Dr Gono said Government was also doing its best to address the challenges. “We are making efforts and we are expected to launch a programme next week that guarantees only enough fuel supplies but not excess,” he said.

“You can see why we think the coming agricultural season is going to become a ‘Mother of All Farming Seasons’. Farmers should work hard to complement efforts by Government. Let’s put every inch of soil under crops or grazing. Let’s see Zimbabwe being all green and let’s see a hive of activity in the rearing of livestock as well,” he said.

On the pricing of agricultural produce, Dr Gono said the Government had now come up with an import parity-pricing framework. Under this framework farmers can now be paid half of their deliveries in foreign currency and the reminder in local currency.

Dr Gono said this move was also meant to encourage farmers to deliver their produce to the Grain Marketing Board and curb smuggling, side marketing and boost productivity on the farms. “This incentive has already been extended to wheat farmers. Those who have delivered their grain to the GMB will get 50 percent in foreign currency,” he said.

Dr Gono also urged the banks to expeditiously process farmer’s loans so that their farming activities did not suffer undue delays. He said farmers should be able to access loans within five working days, from the day of application at their nearest banks in their various locations throughout the country.

“Often farmers have applied (for loans) and wait for two months before they get a response. Time is critical in farming and it doesn’t wait for anyone, they (farmers) should get their loans timeously,” he said adding that the central bank has a complementary system that processes the applications in 48 hours.

The Press conference, organised by the Ministry of Information and Publicity, sought to inform the nation on the developments in the agricultural sector. “The Press conference was convened as result of Government’s quest to tell the nation and the world on the progress of Zimbabwe agricultural sector and success story on agricultural development told by us not from the imperialists’ view,” the Minister of Information and Publicity Cde Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said.

He said such Press briefings would be held on a weekly basis so that the nation was kept up to date on developments in the agricultural sector.

Sounds really good, doesn’t it? All those various departments of government seeming to work together, the unusual “transparency” and detail of the press conference; all encouragingly suggest very careful thought having been paid to this year’s farming season.

But less than half way into the season, the story begins to change. Here’s a report (http://www1.sundaymail.co.zw/inside.aspx?sectid=320&cat=1) from the December 8 edition of the Herald’s sister paper, The Sunday Mail :

Fertiliser in short supply

By Tafadzwa Chiremba

THE anticipated bumper harvest might be affected by the unavailability of fertiliser with seceral farmers expressing concern that the good rains being experienced might go to waste. Most shops that sell fertiliser have been empty, while suppliers are reportedly citing unavailability of raw materials as the major cause of the shortages.

Panic is particularly gripping tobacco farmers who use Compound C and Ammonium Nitrate as well as maize farmers who use Compound D and Ammonium Nitrate.

Major suppliers — the Zimbabwe Fertiliser Company (ZFC), Windmill, Zimphos and Sable Chemicals — have informed farmers of the shortages saying they are facing a number of challenges.

ZFC corporate communications manager Mrs Monica Mutuma last week cited the pricing regime as the major cause of the shortages. “The industry has been operating below capacity and this is a result of constraints that we are facing in the industry. However, price is but one of several challenges that we face,” she said.

Mrs Mutuma said although they had recently exported some fertiliser, it would take some time before revenue realised from this exercise had a significant impact on the company’s capacity to produce. “We have been out of the export market for some time and we will need time to make inroads.”

A survey last week, however, revealed that fertiliser was available on the black market at exorbitant prices.

At Mbare Musika, illegal dealers were mainly selling Windmill and ZFC products in bulk with a 50kg bag going for $25 million against the stipulated $10 million.

Mrs Mutuma said their company was distributing the fertiliser through formal channels.

“Our mandate is to produce and market fertilisers and agro-chemicals. For easy access to products for farmers, we have depots, stockists and agro-dealers located in different parts of the country. It is through these networks that we distribute our products. Any other activities outside of that are handled by law enforcement agencies,” said Mrs Mutuma.

An A1 farmer from Mazowe, Mr Isaac Ruturure, said he and a number of his colleagues had been failing to procure fertiliser for the past two months. “Some are resorting to the black market which is unbearable. Most of the manufacturers are short of supplies,” said Mr Ruturure.

Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union president Mr Edward Raradza last week conceded that fertiliser was now a pie in the sky for many and urged all farmers to remain resolute as the Government was making efforts to avert the shortages. “Most of the manufacturers are citing shortages of raw materials as the cause of the shortages. But the Government is importing some fertiliser from China.

“It is only the onset of the planting season and our farmers should not panic,” said Mr Raradza.

The Government is expecting an additional consignment from China this week, after about 800 000 tonnes of Compound D was recently imported from China and South Africa.

The story is no longer as optimistically positive as previously, is it? And the Sunday Mail did not see it fit to ask Gumbo, Gono and Ndhlovu for their comments on the evolving fertilizer shortage scenario. Hmm, strange…

We continue to track farming season readiness. From the Herald of today (http://www.herald.co.zw/inside.aspx?sectid=28193&cat=8) we have:

Fertilizer shortage won’t derail agric season: Gumbo

By Walter Muchinguri

AGRICULTURE Minister Mr Rugare Gumbo has allayed fears that the current fertilizer shortage will derail this year’s agricultural season.

Mr Gumbo said the Government was aware of the shortages and was working flat out to ensure that fertilizer is availed to all farmers. “Yes, we have had challenges but we are doing everything that is humanely (sic) possible to ensure that we source enough fertilizer for this season,” he said.

Government would continue importing fertilizer while ensuring that local fertilizer companies are capacitated to augment the imports.

The country is this week expecting a consignment of fertilizer from China. Zimbabwe recently took delivery of 800 000 tonnes of Compound D from China and South Africa.

The farming community had been gripped by fears of an uncertain farming season as shops ran out of fertilizer while the rains have begun to fall.

The shortage was affecting all farmers, with tobacco farmers requiring Compound C and Ammonium Nitrate while maize producers use Ammonium Nitrate and Compound D.

The country’s major fertilizer suppliers, the Zimbabwe Fertilizer Company, Windmill, Zimphos and Sable Chemicals have been facing serious challenges that have made it almost impossible for them to produce.

Central to the challenges has been the current pricing regime, which the fertilizer companies believe was transferring their income into the informal market where traders were making roaring business from selling fertilizer at black market prices.

This year’s farming season has been dubbed the mother of all agriculture seasons and the availability of fertilizer is key to attaining this goal.

It’s not hard to guess what the next sad installment is likely to be, is it? I’m sure that even as I write, all arms of the regime are practicing their excuses for why the “mother” of all farming seasons could very well turn out to be a dud. I hope that does not happen: an even average farming season would go a long way to preventing much continuing hunger, hardship and decline. But the gradual back-tracking that is already taking place is painfull obvious.

Just a few comments on the absurdities caused by confused, ad hoc, inconsistent economic policy making:

In the second article, the fertilizer company official obliquely complains about being forced to charge prices below the cost of production. We have many years now of evidence of how this creates shortages in the formal market for any product while “fuelling” the black market. So nothing about this aspect of the fertilizer shortage should surprise anybody in Zimbabwe.

And I find it so sadly fascinating that in this time of shortage caused partly by forced uneconomic prices at home, the company should feel compelled to try to recover its production costs and to earn forex for raw materials, etc by exporting! If this is not a sign of a messed up policy environment, I don’t know what is!

“Economic prices” that allowed the manufactures to recover their costs would mean expensive fertilizer, but that is better than absent fertilizer! Shortages would be reduced or eliminated, and much time would be saved by the companies being able to generate the foreign currency equivalent immediately at home, rather than needing to export first.

If there is half-decent rain right up to March or April, Zimbabweans’ natural farming hard work may yet save the season. But seven years after the land revolution, their government seems as confused about how to get farming back on track as ever.

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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

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