Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘food security’

Is Zimbabwe a ‘free’ society, or is it not?

Posted by CM on October 15, 2009

For those readers whose diet only consists of Western media such as CNN, BBC and the many others of that ilk, the answer to the question probably seems so obvious even posing it must seem strange to them. The likely clear-cut answer for them is ‘of course Zimbabwe is not a free country. That’s where the president has ruled for decades and steals elections to continue to do so, where opposition political officials are beaten up and presecuted, where white farmers with title deeds are chased of their farms with no legal recourse, etc, etc…’

Indeed, all these are very much part of the reality of present-day Zimbabwe. But it would be a mistake to believe that these sad examples give a clear answer to the free/unfree question. And of course who is to define what ‘free’ means anyway? It depends on the definer.

So, for example, fto the white Zimbabwean who has had his farm taken away and can do nothing about it, of course Zimbabwe is not free. But a black Zimbabwean who risks being unfairly targeted for his political affiliation today but who has property and prospects he didn’t before and who believes he suffered more and in different ways under the racially-based ‘unfreedom’ of Rhodesia, the answer may be different or more complicated.

This is a recurring theme of this blog: there are very few things about The Zimbabwe Crisis that are as clear-cut, simple and straightforward as is suggested by the dominant media.

Property rights are considered a key cornerstone of ‘the rule of law,’ a key definer of ‘freedom’ according to the dominant definitions of whether a country is considered free or not.  If you are a white farm-owner in Zimbabwe, you have plenty of reason to be worried about how much you can count on your ability to exert property rights. And for the foreseeable future, no one of any colour can be too sure that their tenure on any farmland in Zimbabwe is secure. So with regards to security of farmland, no one can feel too ‘free in Zimbabwe at the moment, even the recently resettled who must worry about the possibility of being displaced on some politician’s whim.

Yet in the urban areas and in regards to residential or non-farm commercial land, the title deed is as established and respected as proof of ownership as anywhere else in the world.

The state media is not only astonishingly dull, narrow and boring for a country of Zimbabwe’s ‘sophistication,’ it is so insecure that you will simply never read or hear any (mainly political) views that differ from the thinking of the dominant clique of ZANU-PF, the effective ruling party. In this regard Zimbabwe may not be very different from many other countries that nevertheless do not share its bad boy image. Ah, so clear proof that Zimbabwe is not free then?

Not so simple. Many private newspapers have been shut down over the years over silly pretexts, and the ruling authorities are so insecure about their popularity that private radio or TV stations that have become the routine norm in many other much poorer countries are not allowed. And as I found out during my recent month at home, the internet is scandalously hard to access because of the very poor connectivity, slow speeds and high costs that have resulted from the country’s isolation and lack of competition/capitalization of the sector.

Yet there is a small ultra-critical private media that exists. Critical newspapers from South Africa and beyond are freely on sale on the streets of Harare. Some argue that this is allowed because the authorities know that on the basis of cost and circulation, the penetration of these alternative media is very low and therefore of little threat to them, while allowing them to say, ‘See, we allow opposing views, we are not a dictatorship.’

And of course, in terms of the make up of its parliament, Zimbabwe can claim to be a democracy like relatively few others in Africa or beyond. Opposition parties have always been allowed, albeit thwarted in every way possible by means mostly foul, and now the previously all-dominant ZANU-PF must share fully half the elected parliamentary seats with the two MDC factions. Debate in parliament is robust, and heckling of the state president is not unknown, something for which swift death would ensue in many countries in the world.

So the free/unfree question cannot be answered in any simple and straightforward, obvious way.

Interestingly, some of the ways in which I most felt an oppressive atmosphere were often not in the typical or expected ones of fearing to express a critical political opinion or for one’s personal safety. It was instead in how every quasi-state authority seemed to disproportionately communicate in terms of threats, ‘directives’  and warnings to the public they ostensibly exist to serve.

The cash-strapped water, electricity, municipal, revenue and other authorities seemed to be in a competition to see which one could take out the most intimidating media advertisements to warn of the consequences of not paying up. There was not just an air of desperation about the ads, they seemed unusually menacing, disrespectful and contemptuous of the public in a way I could not remember having experienced so strongly in Zimbabwe before, nor anywhere else.

Police roadblocks seem excessively common in Zimbabwe, with some officers very showily armed. But they are not ‘political’ roadblocks so there is no fear of them on that basis. As in many countries, the police manning them seem more concerned about finding excuses to fine motorists for one thing or another, naturally preferably ‘off the record,’ than they are about anything else. And these common and frequent roadblocks may very well act as a deterrent to some crimes, or help to remove a certain percentage of unroadworthy vehicles from the country’s increasingly dangerous roads.

So it is not in a personal or political freedom sense that I found the many roadblocks disconcerting. But disconcerting I certainly did find them. I found it hard to dismiss that sense of a softly menacing presence that could easily turn on a citizen on the flimsiest excuse. My sense was far from, “Phew, I’m so glad I’m a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear from the police/army and I’m so happy and relieved they are out in full force on the roads to protect me.”

It was not obvious that the very heavy police and military presence was to protect citizens rather than to intimidate and control them.

So is Zimbabwe a free or an unfree society? The most accurate answer I can give is that it is both, and not at all necessarily in the ways that one might expect.

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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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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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