Leroy Dzenga Features Writer
Agriculture in Zimbabwe remains a critical economic activity.
Seeing its lucrativeness, communal farmers who traditionally focused on growing crops for food are now taking the commercial route.
Among the challenges facing communal farmers adopting the farming-as-a-business approach is information gap.
This gap occurs when critical information needed to be functional in a field is hard to access.
Extension workers, (madhumeni) exist to help those in transition but their numbers do not match the demand.
Welthungerhilfe, a German food NGO in conjunction with the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Settlement have formulated a strategy which, if implemented properly, can help farmers to access vital information.
They are working towards setting up what will be known as Agriculture Centres of Excellence at agricultural colleges and other related institutions across the country.
Welthungerhilfe country director Regina Feindt said there was need to ensure there are centralised facilities which handle the key components necessary for agricultural development.
“In the history of Zimbabwe, when you talk of agriculture research, extension and education are considered to be the key prime movers. A at some point in time Zimbabwe`s agriculture was performing very well. But over time those three components are not performing optimally,” she said.
The CAEs will operate as hubs combining the extension, research and education functions to the benefit of surrounding farmers.
“The model that it needs to follow proposes what are called Agriculture Centres of Excellence. The hope is that we are able to bring these three pillars into one location and farmers can receive a service within that,” she said.
Although resources do not allow an aggressive rollout of the project at once, there has been a strategic sighting of the pioneering centres.
“We are going to set up two centres of agricultural excellence one in the north and the other one in the south. In the north a decision has been made to set it up at Chibero Agricultural College and Matopos Research Station will cover the southern parts of the country,” said Feindt.
The decision to house these centres in a college and research centre is to utilise already existing infrastructure.
“We did not want to reinvent the will. There are people who are already into extension work but they were not focusing on education and research. So we are just bringing the missing components to those colleges, research centres and work with them to improve agriculture,” Feindt said.
She added: “Farmers from areas surrounding Chibero Agricultural College and Matopos Research Station will benefit from their establishment. What we want to avoid, however, is to create ivory towers. Personnel at these centres will be reaching out to farmers instead of just sitting awaiting consultations.”
Learners and researchers attached to these institutions will also get an opportunity to improve their skills.
“We will also be giving students and extension workers an opportunity to learn in applying their knowledge in real life situation. For example, artificial insemination; some extension workers leave school and practice in the field for years without getting an opportunity to apply their work in real life situations,” Feindt said.
There is going to be efforts to recalibrate the findings derived from the research component and incorporate it into the local agricultural curriculum.
“Working with the Government of Zimbabwe, we are going to contribute to the agricultural curriculum in a bid to help produce better graduates in the agriculture sector,” said Feindt.
The project`s long term vision involves creating smaller centres across the country which can provide similar service to farmers in diverse regions.
“This project is altogether under the Zimbabwe Agriculture Growth programme which is funded by the European Union. It is a bigger programme with many components and this project is one of the components,” Feindt said.
“We will also establish smaller entities in the districts but they will not be equipped like the two main centres.”
Unlike old humanitarian projects which had too much reliance on external funding, the plan around these hubs or Centres of Agricultural Excellence is poised to be a self-sustaining initiative in the long run.
“We are also looking to private sector to fund and allow these centres to be sustainable.
The good thing is that we have four and half years of engaging with possible contributors,” said Feindt.
Speaking at the inception meeting for the formative research of the project (Zimbabwe Agricultural Growth Programme), Deputy Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement Vangelis Haritatos expressed optimism towards the idea.
“The development of appropriate technology through intensive research and their subsequent dissemination is key in increasing agricultural productivity and production.
“My ministry strongly supports initiatives like these, such initiatives are key for sustainable development and will go a long way in supporting the Government`s vision of becoming a middle income economy by 2030,” Min Haritatos said.
Centres of agricultural excellence will help with creating robust agricultural system that answers to the country`s needs.
“I have noted with great concern the weakening of linkages between research, extension and training and I am greatly pleased that this project has come to resuscitate and strengthen these linkages. These three pillars should be seen complementing each other`s efforts with the ultimate aim being to address problems faced by our farming communities,” said Min Haritatos.
Government is working with development organisations in a bid to improve productivity and farmer income.
The European Union is funding the project being implemented by Welthungerhilfe in conjunction with the Zimbabwean Government.
One hopes that these new initiatives together with already existing Government strategies like Presidential Input Scheme and Command Agriculture will positively impact on local agriculture.