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Zimbabwean agriculture on its knees

Zimbabwean farmers have struggled to cope with successive droughts (World Bank)
Zimbabwean farmers have struggled to cope with successive droughts
World Bank

For many years hailed as southern Africa's bread basket, Zimbabwe's agriculture has been on a steady decline, shrinking by 50 per cent in seven years, triggering a wave of food shortages and pushing up the prices of food stuffs.

Despite differing opinions on the wisdom of the land redistribution exercise, there is agreement among farmers and farmer organisations that the country's agriculture is on its knees and desperate for new investment. Successive droughts, poor investment in production, equipment and inputs, lack of know-how and shortage of labour have taken a toll on Zimbabwe's agricultural sector, which is failing to feed its hungry population or supply raw material to its agriculture-based industries.

Impact on smallholders and industry

The crisis affects both commercial and smallholder agriculture. According to Deon Theron, Vice-President of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), "Large scale commercial farm output, with a 50-70 per cent reduction in output for most important commodities over the last seven years, can be described as a complete disaster." Production of food grains, small grains, traditional export and oil seed crops have been hit hardest, following the 'fast track' redistribution of farms which began in 2000. In the beef sector, Zimbabwe has failed to meet its export quota to the EU for a number of years.

The political impasse following Zimbabwe's presidential elections has increased tensions further. The CFU has a record of over 100 farms having been 'visited' over recent weeks by independence-era war veterans with requests to farmers to immediately vacate their farms. Despite police managing to defuse most evictions, production has been severely disrupted.

Poor supply of inputs and poor weather have also impacted on smallholder farmers. According to Ben Gilpin of lobby group Justice for Agriculture (JAG), "The staple maize has, in particular, suffered from an acute shortage of fertiliser and seed. Farmers who have been able to access these inputs have frequently received these late in the season and this, together with early heavy rains followed by a dry spell, has contributed to potentially the most serious cereal shortages since land reform started."

This healthy crop - like many others - was destroyed in December by flash floods. (Busani Bafana)
This healthy crop - like many others - was destroyed in December by flash floods.
Busani Bafana

As it has declined, the agriculture sector has taken with it jobs which directly employed more than 200,000 people in the early 1980s and millions of others through agricultural-related activities. Industries that supported a once vibrant agricultural sector have either closed shop or have been forced to scale down operations.

Signs of hope

Noting that information and statistics on agricultural production were scanty and subject to polarised use by the proponents and opponents of land reform, Sam Moyo, executive director of Harare-based think tank, the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS) says there is no dispute over whether there has been a decline in agricultural production. AIAS estimates that land reform has reduced the extent (now around 40 per cent) and intensity of land use. However, new forms of financing agriculture, including credit and sub-contracting, new joint ventures and state credit and support schemes have emerged, although limited in area coverage.

Deon Theron of the CFU has also seen signs of hope. "Probably the most spectacular successes are those where the Commercial Farmers Union has assisted the properly resettled small scale farmers on uncontested land," he says. In one example the maize production of the small scale farmers was increased from half a tonne per hectare to seven tonnes per hectare in three years, using ex-commercial farmers as consultants.

What reforms are needed?

For the CFU, the future of agriculture in Zimbabwe is closely bound to the country's political fortunes: political stability, macroeconomic stability, maintenance of law and order, long term security of tenure and incentive pricing for commodities are all cited as necessary for reviving the sector.

For Sam Moyo of AIAS, the way forward for Zimbabwe's agricultural production is a strategy of accommodation in terms of greater inclusion, tenure security and production incentives. "A reversal of the land redistribution is neither politically feasible nor a pre-requisite to recovery," he says, noting that sustainable land utilisation required key land, agricultural and economic policy measures to increase agricultural productivity, investment and exports. "Land redistribution should be completed by allocating land to the excluded. This includes accommodating white farmers, on the basis of parity rather than privilege; namely, through the 'one person one farm' policy."

However, while solutions are urgently needed to restore food security and promote economic growth, neither will be possible until the political impasse of Zimbabwe's presidential election is resolved.

Written by: Busani Bafana

Date published: May 2008

 

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