via Zim’s food insecurity set to persist | The Financial Gazette – Zimbabwe News by Nelson Chenga 1 May 2014
ROUGHLY 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land area measuring 39,6 million hectares is made up of some of the world’s most fertile agricultural land. Its organic farm produce has in the past packed supermarket shelves of many a European capital, but since 2000 that scenario has drastically changed to a point where the country’s own food security situation is under serious threat. The collapse from being the region’s breadbasket to a basket case reads like a horror novel.
Fourteen years after the haphazard land reforms, that silver lining beneath the dark cloud is still to appear. It is quite ironic that Zimbabwe is struggling to feed itself despite its rich soils. To explain this irony, many point to the manner the land reforms were handled by a government that had lost popular support at the time. While attempting to reverse the country’s skewed agrarian structure which favoured the minority white farmers, government latched onto chaotic land reforms that had been triggered by the former liberation war fighters in 2000.
Government, however, failed to institute a smooth transition, leading to the present embarrassing situation whereby the country is now perpetually hungry in a land of plenty. Also, in the wake of the recent global land rush, agricultural experts have noted that countries such as Zimbabwe are pursuing land reforms to empower previously marginalised groups without necessarily emphasising on productivity.
In a paper titled Strategy in Transition: Agrarian Reform, Agricultural Productivity and Competitiveness, agricultural consultant, Douglas Ncube, notes that: “… the two (land reform and agrarian reform) should be synonymous, interrelated and symbiotic: Land reform primarily for agrarian reform. Land reform lays the foundation for agrarian reform. To enjoy the fruits of a revolutionised agricultural sector, there is need to embrace and endure transformation that is beyond seeing the re-allocation of resources or power. Therefore, regardless of the success we might claim to have tasted in the past, there is currently a need for strategic renewal in leadership thinking at the corporate and the national stage. The political force influencing economic governance decisions in the agricultural landscape has been clear, but what impact has this had on agricultural performance and the economy in general?”
A joint publication by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, titled Beyond the Enclave, concurs that: “It has emerged that access to land is not the same as making it productive: It takes much more than redistributing land to ensure that it is used productively.”
The book further emphasises that the so-called new farmers have struggled to be productive due to many reasons that include continued conflicts over land ownership, hurried surveys and demarcations, inadequate State support, lack of resources, labour shortage, pilferage of products, inadequate irrigation support, poor pricing, transport problems and climate change. It also notes that the government has completely withdrawn the little assistance it has been giving farmers, saliently spelling doom and gloom for the country’s food security situation.
The consequences of the government’s latest decision to withdraw funding are dire especially given the fact that farmers have so far struggled to make ends meet. In order to survive as well as be productive under the trying economic conditions, farmers are currently experimenting with various possible options. A typical example is the current stampede by the country’s farmers — communal, small-scale and commercial — to grow tobacco in probably the biggest land use shift ever witnessed since independence in 1980.
The shift, driven by the lucrative prices coming from tobacco auction floors, is not a regulated process but sporadic and spontaneous with no regard of its far-reaching effects on the production of other crops such as the critical staple, maize crop. The ruling ZANU-PF party’s election manifesto issued ahead of last year’s elections aptly captured this phenomenal dash for the golden leaf.
“Prior to the indigenisation of land, tobacco was exclusively grown by some 1 547 white settler-colonial farmers. But since the indigenisation of land, 25 610 communal farmers, 26 069 A1 new farmers, 3 372 new A2 farmers and 4 994 small scale commercial farmers have taken to tobacco growing in 2012, with a combined total of 60 045 between them,” reads part of the 108-page manifesto. During the 2013-2014 farming season, the number of tobacco farmers was reported to have shot to close to 90 000.
While the growth in the number of tobacco farmers means more cash to growers of the golden leaf, it also signifies a rising threat to the country’s food security situation. Sabastain Kambudzi, a communal farmer from the country’s drought-prone northeastern district of Mudzi, on the border with Mozambique, is among those who have joined the golden leaf Eldorado.
An avid cotton farmer for most of his 30 years as a communal farmer, he has been growing tobacco for the past two seasons mainly because of the attractive prices the crop is fetching. “Our village head jumped with joy at the auction floors last year when one of his bales weighed 117 kgs and fetched US$600 and that encouraged many farmers to try the crop because that kind of money is like finding gold for many of us because other crops don’t give us anything close to that,” said Kambudzi.
In his small Njechere village, the number of tobacco farmers has tripled from just 12 last season to 35 this season. And the number is set to further treble next season despite the low prices that have characterised this year’s tobacco selling season. Prices have averaged between US$0,10 per kg for the lowest grade tobacco to US$4 for the best grade. Weighing the costs and benefits of growing other crops such as cotton, maize, groundnuts or the small grains against the prices of tobacco, the golden leaf becomes irresistible, especially given the southern African nation’s over a decade-old unrelenting illiquid situation.
When the prevailing frenzy for tobacco farming is juxtaposed with the poor production of the country’s main food crop, maize, since 2000, prospects of Zimbabwe’s food insecurity abating any time soon become even dimmer. And considering that before and two decades into independence communal farmers contributed 60 percent towards the country’s strategic grain reserves, the sudden and major shift to tobacco farming will further diminish food security for individual households.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, however, hopes that the 2013/14 maize hectarage of 1,7 million will translate to a bumper harvest. The Commercial Farmers Union has estimated to represent a mere 30 percent increase in maize production from 799 000 tonnes in 2012/3 to the forecasted 900 000 tonnes. Also depending on this anticipated bumper maize crop is the country’s livestock sector which is in dire need of revival.
In essence, the bumper harvest or 30 percent maize increase, whichever way one prefers, is falls far too short of what the country requires to be self-sufficient. Conservatively, the country requires 1,8 million tonnes of maize per annum, according to decades old statistics, but the figure could actually be in excess of two million tonnes because of increased population over the years. Given the heated debate over maize as a food security crop at a time the crop is increasingly being threatened mainly by the globe’s changing climate, there are growing calls that Zimbabwe should now seriously promote other food crops that introduce sufficient nutrition.
In the past, the Presidential Inputs Support Scheme has been doling out mainly seed maize packs despite the fact that it has been noted that over the past decade maize tonnage per hectare has dwindled due to, among other reasons, recurrent droughts and lack of fertilisers.
“Hence continuing to grow drought sensitive crops like maize without thinking outside the box for drought tolerant varieties or completely different crops and consumer products beyond mealie-meal will be risky for our food and nutrition security,” agricultural consultant, Ncube, has concluded, adding: “Strategic leadership needs to lead the paradigm shift to creating better, more nutritious and more economic consumer products by leveraging the opportunities in the changing environment.”