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Country profile - Zimbabwe


Once revered as southern Africa's breadbasket, Zimbabwe's agriculture sector has underperformed because of a combination of political crises, controversial land reforms, hyper-inflation and recurrent droughts. These challenges have meant that farmers, both commercial and smallscale, have had limited access to inputs, cheap finance, and supportive policies for their produce, coupled with a general fear of insecurity of tenure.


Between 1990 and 2003 the poverty rate rose from 25 to 63 per cent. But following a decade of contraction - and despite continuing political uncertainly - Zimbabwe's economy is beginning to recover, growing by 6 per cent in 2010. However, although the economy may be growing, Zimbabwe ranked last on the UN's Human Development Index in 2010. According to the data, life expectancy at birth dropped by 12 years between 1980 and 2000, and the country's gross national income decreased by 34 per cent. Zimbabwe also has the 5th highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world (14 per cent), and the highest recorded unemployment rate, which stood at 95 per cent in 2009. Many Zimbabweans continue to migrate to South Africa and Botswana in search of better economic opportunities.

Smallscale farmers are significant players in agricultural production (© FAO/Desmond Kwande)
Smallscale farmers are significant players in agricultural production
© FAO/Desmond Kwande

Traditionally, Zimbabwe's economy was split between large-scale commercial farms, which grew cash crops such as tobacco, and the smallscale producers who cultivated food crops, especially maize which is the national staple. In 1980, large-scale commercial farming took place on roughly 15 million hectares, owned by about 6,000 mainly white farmers. A succession of land reform policies and laws, land markets and international intervention after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980 failed to adequately solve the thorny land question. So in 2000 President Robert Mugabe introduced a land distribution system, which forced thousands of white commercial farmers off their land, and since 2000 8 million hectares has been transferred to over 160,000 households.

Smallscale farmers are significant players in agricultural production, growing maize, wheat, sorghum, millet, groundnuts, cotton and tobacco. The new farmers - beneficiaries of the land distribution programme - have had mixed results in making their mark on the country's agriculture. Many have been hamstrung by lack of equipment, limited farming knowledge, and adequate and timely inputs. Rising fuel prices have delayed the tilling programme for farmers depending on government tractor services because private hire has also been costly, given limited availability of draught animals. The fact that some of the new farmers do not have titles for their farms has meant they cannot use them as collateral for bank loans. However, a 62 percent increase in small grains production has been recorded in some parts of Zimbabwe from smallscale farmers who benefitted from the land redistribution programme.

Effects of land redistribution

While hailed as a timely measure, the land redistribution programme has triggered environmental challenges: deforestation, reports of poaching on some former game farms and continued soil infertility as a result of soil erosion and the failure by farmers to access fertilisers.

Zimbabwe's economy is beginning to recover (© FAO/Desmond Kwande)
Zimbabwe's economy is beginning to recover
© FAO/Desmond Kwande

Violence, intimidation and murder of some white commercial farmers left investors' reluctant to risk their finance for over a decade. But while wheat, tobacco and coffee crops suffered, aggregate production of small grains increased by 163 per cent compared to 1990s averages, and dry bean production has expanded by 282 per cent. These conclusions, published in a recent book called Land Reform: Myths and Realities, states that while the agriculture sector has certainly been transformed, and there are major problems in certain areas, the sector has not collapsed.

Land remains a key challenge in Zimbabwe. The proposed land audit, to verify land ownership, is overdue and needs to be properly undertaken in order to ensure that land is being used productively and that farmers are provided with title deeds so that they are able to use their land as collateral for funding: lack of credit to rehabilitate farms and purchase inputs and equipment is a serious constraint.

Potential for agricultural exports

Until 2000, agriculture was the second largest export earner, contributing 36 per cent of the nation's GDP. In the last ten years this has almost halved to 19.5 per cent.

Tobacco, cotton, sugar and coffee are the main export crops, Virginia tobacco being the country's top agricultural export. In 2000, 237 million kilograms of tobacco were produced, which dropped to 47 million kg in 2008, but by 2011 exports had recovered to about 140 million kg.

To reverse a decline in sugar cane production, the European Union is providing €45 million between 2008 and 2013 to rehabilitate abandoned cane fields and improve infrastructure. The aim is to increase production to 1 million tonnes from the 2009 level of 300,000 tonnes. Zimbabwe's coffee industry has also seen a decline from 10,000 tonnes in 2002 to 300 tonnes in 2010, primarily because land reform resulted in coffee trees on commercial farms being replaced by maize.

Zimbabwe is the only cotton producer that still hand picks 100 per cent of its cotton, which is of particularly high quality because it has very long fibres. Approximately 80 per cent of Zimbabwe's cotton is exported as raw ginned cotton and only five percent is exported as fabric. With very few agro-processing facilities, there is little value addition in the agriculture sector.

For many years, beef was an important export (© FAO/Antonello Proto)
For many years, beef was an important export
© FAO/Antonello Proto

For many years, beef was an important export for Zimbabwe which until 2001 had a 9,100 tonne beef quota to the European Union. However, this export quota lapsed following an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. As a result the EU imposed stringent measures to control the disease, which Zimbabwe could not afford. Since then, drought, destocking by commercial farmers uncertain about land tenure, a shortage of breeding stock, high input costs and the deregulation of slaughter houses have hindered the rebuilding of the national herd.

Zimbabwe has a well developed forestry industry. Eucalyptus and Acacia species cover a major proportion of indigenous woodlands, while state owned forest areas, particularly in Matabeleland province, provide Zimbabwean teak. Over 90 per cent of exported timber is raw sawn and little is converted into furniture.

Tackling challenges

Many environmental challenges also make farming in Zimbabwe increasingly difficult. Deforestation, land degradation and soil erosion have become particularly severe in the last ten years as demand for fuel wood, building materials and tobacco curing has risen. The Ministry of Environment has been promoting the use of wood from exotic woodlots and the use of coal for tobacco curing. Erratic power supplies have worsened the situation. Poor mining practices in some areas have also led to the leakage of toxic waste and heavy metals.

While the government has allocated US$122 million in the 2011 budget to agriculture, economic analyst Eric Bloch estimates that about US$2.5 billion is needed to turn the sector around, as long as the investment is accompanied by a change in the government's economic and political policies. Farmer organisations and international mediators are urging the government to create a sound political settlement to enable the country to access international credit and investment. The country is rich in natural resources and the future of Zimbabwe's agriculture sector hangs on the resolution of the land tenure issues and on political stability.

Statistical information
  • Country: Zimbabwe
  • Capital: Harare
  • Area: 390,757 sq km
  • Population: 12,084,304 (July 2011 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 4.31% (2011 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 50 (2011 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: African 98% (Shona 82%, Ndebele 14%, other 2%), mixed and Asian 1%, white less than 1%
  • Languages: English (official), Shona, Sindebele, and numerous minor tribal dialects
  • Inflation: 5.1% (2010 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$4.27 billion (2010 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$400 (2010 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 19.5%; industry: 24%; services: 56.5% (2006 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 8.24%; permanent crops: 0.33%; other: 91.43% (2005)
  • Major industries: mining (coal, gold, platinum, copper, nickel, tin, diamonds, clay, numerous metallic and non-metallic ores), steel; wood products, cement, chemicals, fertilizer, clothing and footwear, foodstuffs, beverages
  • Agricultural products: maize, cotton, tobacco, wheat, coffee, sugarcane, peanuts; sheep, goats, pigs
  • Natural resources: coal, chromium ore, asbestos, gold, nickel, copper, iron ore, vanadium, lithium, tin, platinum group metals
  • Export commodities: platinum, cotton, tobacco, gold, ferroalloys, textiles/clothing
  • Export partners: Democratic Republic of the Congo 14.82%, South Africa 13.39%, Botswana 13.23%, China 7.82%, Zambia 7.3%, Netherlands 5.39%, UK 4.93% (2009)

Written by: Busani Bafana

Date published: June 2011


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