Munyaradzi Mlambo Correspondent
Before the turn of the new millennium, the agricultural sector was the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, feeding local industries timeously with high quality inputs and also sustaining many livelihoods through jobs it created.
During that period, Zimbabwe was famously known as the breadbasket of southern Africa because it produced agricultural crops, not only for self-sufficiency, but to export some.
For a long time, the country maintained this good standing, leading in quality in the tobacco, leather and beef export market. In turn, this created revenue through export for the country. Exporting surplus and cash crops ensured constant availability of foreign currency in the domestic reserves, hence the economy was in good shape.
However, when the Government decided to give back land expropriated from rightful owners by white colonial settlers, agriculture in Zimbabwe was negatively affected. The noble redistribution exercise was inconsistently executed.
We should be cognisant of the fact that the native majority were entitled to have their land back, which they had been dispossessed of during the era of colonisation. That is why President Mnangagwa reiterated in his inauguration speech that the exercise is irreversible.
The agrarian land reform saw vast swathes of arable land occupied by a minority 4 500 white farmers being shared among over 14 5000 smallholder farmers, most of them with experience of commercial farming.
Some of these used to work in farms owned by whites and knew little about farming on a large scale. The land reform exercise itself was not properly planned as reflected by the absence of clear criteria in land allocations.
This created fertile ground for grabbing of multiple pieces of land by some individuals and up to now it’s all still murky as to who owns what amount of land. The mantra during the fast-tracked process was one man one farm, but there was no monitoring of whether this policy position was strictly adhered to.
This sent agricultural productivity plummeting as the new farmers struggled with lack of training, farming inputs, equipment and financial resources. Most of these farmers could only produce on a peasantry scale, often only enough to feed their families.
The productivity disruption in the agricultural sector shook the whole economic ecosystem, which intertwined with business processes. Coupled with economic sanctions that blocked international lines of credit and international isolation that followed, Zimbabwe has struggled to grow its agriculture sector.
The new dispensation thus needs to re-look at the land reform to address twin issues of multiple land ownership and land underutilisation. The process needs to be carefully and strategically handled to avoid creation of another volatile situation. Ownership of multiple pieces of land by individuals defeats the core purpose of land reform.
The Government has to continue its land audit so that it takes stock of what is happening on the ground. Most farms are still underutilised and something has to be done urgently realise the full potential of those in occupation of land.
Resuscitation of agriculture should be President Mnangagwa’s launch point towards full economic recovery. This should see the Government investigating fully alleged cases of corrupt provincial land officers, who were corruptly allocating one piece of land to two or three people for money.
It must further investigate claims of gross underutilisation of land, where some people who were allocated land on A2 farms from the year 2000 to date never did meaningful production on the land as they resorted to peasant farming.
Gross incompetence in land utilisation must no longer be tolerated. If the nation is to realise its full agriculture potential, land must be given to people with ability and capacity to use it productively.
However, not all smallholder farmers have put up a lacklustre performance in the fields after land reform. Tobacco leads agricultural growth in the country, thanks to the combined efforts of communal farmers, A1 and A2 resettlement farmers and small scale commercial farmers.
A comparison of tobacco production prior to land reform in 2000 and now shows that seasonal harvests of the golden leaf have been increasing every season despite the new farmers facing immense obstacles.
The strategic thing for Government to do is to place prime importance on the growing of other crops other than tobacco. Diversifying lessens the risks associated with over-reliance on one crop as a top foreign currency earner in an era of volatile global agricultural commodity markets.
This then challenges the Government to invest in skills training of farmers in areas of animal husbandry, piggery, and horticulture as part of reforming the agriculture sector. Another way to end land underutilisation is creation of synergy between land owners and agriculture experts.
Agriculture extension officers and agricultural economic consultants have a pivotal role to play in providing expertise that allows farmers to increase the quality and quantity of agricultural yields. The partnership between landless experts and landowners is a low-cost method to productive usage of land.
In the new era, land should be given to anyone who wants it on the basis of competency and proven capacity to put it to good use regardless of skin colour. President Mnangagwa has already demonstrated appetite to do things differently when he recently extended land leases to white commercial farmers from five years to 99 years.