via Imports still needed despite big harvest 7 August 2014
ZIMBABWE recorded its biggest cereals harvest in five years, bringing jubilation in government corridors where annual economic growth estimates have been revised upwards.
But experts say the good cereal harvest does not signify a recovery in the agriculture sector, ravaged since the turn of the millennium by a poorly planned land redistribution programme and successive poor rainy seasons.
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa told parliament on Monday Zimbabwe’s economy would grow 3.1%-6.4% this year, driven by recovery in agriculture.
Estimates differ, with the government putting the gross cereals harvest at 1,680,293 metric tonnes. It says that the country requires 1,427,119 tonnes a year, leaving an excess of 253,174 tonnes.
But the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) estimates the total maize harvest at just 1-million metric tonnes, slightly over half the 1.8-million metric tonnes the nation requires. The CFU is an organisation of large-scale mainly white commercial farmers.
He said there is a short-term oversupply of the staple cereal but the country will have to import cereals before the end of the year.
Government estimates have always been suspect because they are often used to justify the land-reform programme which saw the destruction of commercial farming in Zimbabwe when land was forcibly taken away from white farmers and given to black farmers, the majority of whom lacked the skills and the wherewithal to run them commercially.
In 2002 Agriculture Minister Joseph Made flew a helicopter round the country and said there would be a bumper harvest. Instead, the country experienced its worst grain deficit in history.
In 2006 he astonishingly blamed a monkey for the poor harvest, saying the primate had tampered with the supply of electricity to fertiliser manufacturer Sable Chemicals resulting in the undersupply of the essential ammonium nitrate fertilisers.
Turbulence on the farms which began in 2000 is still ongoing. President Robert Mugabe last month urged supporters to grab the few commercial farms still in the hands of white farmers.
The good harvest of cereals this year has been attributed to good rains in the arid southern regions of the country which are generally outside the 37% of the country considered suitable for commercial agriculture.
Growers in these regions are mainly small-scale and rural subsistence farmers but they were this year responsible for the 30% production surge, said the CFU.
The Agriculture Ministry says the success rate of rain-fed agriculture in these regions has been known to be about one good harvest in every four to five years. The success this year was therefore the exception rather than the norm.
One challenge stands in the way of a turnaround in the agricultural sector. Economists say there cannot be a sustainable agricultural sector without land title.
Nobel laureate and US economist Bruce Myerson, in Harare last week, said land titles to beneficiaries of the redistribution programme would encourage investment in agriculture.
“Now that the leadership has said the land redistribution is over, people should be given title to land to encourage investment. This is economically important,” Mr Myerson said.
New farm owners do not have title deeds and cannot borrow money to finance operations.
Taffs says the agricultural sector has regressed 15 years because of the lack of land title.
“To turn around the whole sector we have to look at the whole value chain,” he said.
“As it is now, land, which happens to be our greatest natural resource, is worthless. It should be put into private hands. Who cares who owns the land?”
He said before the land-reform programme the agriculture sector was crop diverse. Now it has been reduced to maize and tobacco.
The tobacco subsector is thriving only because of alternative funding in the form of contract farming. Other crops are declining.
The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union (ZCFU), made up of mainly black commercial farmers, corroborated this.
Its president, Wonder Chabikwa, said due to inadequate funding wheat growing had been compromised.
Taffs said the country will produce only 12,000 tonnes of wheat this year against a national requirement of 400,000 tonnes, meaning the deficit will have to be imported.
Other crops such as cotton have continued to decline because of low international prices.