The Future of Agriculture

When Zimbabwe gained its independence from Britain in 1980 we inherited an agricultural system which was not only capable of feeding the country but was also able to do so at prices that were significantly below those of all our neighboring States. The system generated half our exports, 25 per cent of GDP and a third of all employment.

The system was then made up of 6 000 large scale farmers - 1200 of them companies, some with multinational connections, some 800 000 peasant farmers and 23 000 small scale commercial farmers. The peasant farming sector generated about half the basic food needs of the country and 70 per cent of the cotton. The small-scale farmers had the highest average incomes per capita in the rural sector and the large-scale farmers had a well deserved reputation for conservation, productivity and quality.

At that time the country was the largest producer and exporter of tobacco, cotton, beef and white maize in Africa. We also exported sugar, coffee, timber, tea and a number of other products. Protected initially by the Lancaster House constitution, the farming industry boomed for the first decade after independence. Average growth per annum over this time was over 10 per cent per annum and it made a significant contribution to national growth and output. By 1985 the tobacco industry had recovered from the years of sanctions and was number three in the world behind the USA and Brazil.

The land redistribution programme also made steady progress during this time - some 3,6 million hectares of land was purchased under willing seller willing buyer arrangements and settled by a significant number of otherwise landless people. By 1995 commercial farmers occupied 12 million hectares of land, of which only 8 million was actually owned and occupied by white farmers. 1200 black large-scale commercial farmers had entered the industry successfully.

Today the whole system lies in ruins - some 600 large-scale commercial farmers remain, but their possession is tenuous and insecure. A number of foreign owned farming enterprises - some of them very large - continue to function. But by and large the whole system has collapsed. Food prices are now well above regional averages and the system can barely produce a third to half of what the country needs to feed itself.

The network of research stations, manufacturing and distribution companies that provided inputs and services to the industry have almost all gone. Fertilizer, seed and chemicals are difficult to find and even more expensive to buy. Fuel is a constant nightmare and the electricity grid in rural areas is in a very poor state.

A feature of this collapse that is often overlooked is that the peasant sector has shown a similar pattern of collapse to that of the large-scale commercial farming sector. This is despite the fact that it has not been affected by the same dislocation as the latter. The reasons for this are many - HIV/Aids, the migration of adults to the cities and neighboring States and the affect of the deterioration in input supply and other services. The dislocation of marketing systems and the rise of corruption in all dealings with farmers has exacerbated the situation. So Zimbabwe now faces a situation where not only it cannot feed its cities, the peasant sector is also now a net imported of food.

What is the outlook? I am afraid the outlook is very gloomy. I am told that when the State President was given the first estimate of winter cropping he was extremely angry, as plantings are so small. But it is not just that - much of the winter crop has been planted late - I saw one farmer trying to plant wheat last week, a full month too late. In addition, shortages of herbicides and fertilizers will reduce yields. I am also told that tobacco seed sales - the first indication of next years crop, are half what they were at this time last year.

Agriculture is not kind to those who abuse her cycles. Tobacco land preparation should be completed in April, seedbeds in May, other dry land cropping areas should be prepared no later than July. Early tobacco goes in shortly - irrigated and reaping can start as early as November. Wheat must be planted by the 20th of May. Maize must go in before the 15th of November.

Any disruption of these cycles means lower yields and production and reaping problems. To achieve them a complex and wide array of resources must be made available and on time - financing, fertilizer, chemicals, fuel, seed and equipment must be maintained in the off season so that it is available during the season. The managers who made all this possible are gone - driven out of the country by the land invasions, political and economic uncertainty or just concern about the future of families. It is not something you can put together again in a short period of time. Some might say it can never be put back together again.

One thing is absolutely sure, without a stable political and economic environment, without security of tenure and security of assets, no recovery is likely. On the contrary, under present conditions the situation can only get worse. The State continues to dispossess farmers - tobacco farmers are being forced off their properties with cured crops in their barns. Dairy farmers are still being harassed and the tiny pockets of remaining expertise and genetic stocks are being threatened or wiped out by illegal invasions on the part of politically connected thugs.

The Murambatsvina campaign may be partly designed to force people out of the towns and into the rural areas to "grow food" but this is unlikely to happen. Conditions in rural areas are desperate and it is much more likely that the economically active adults will simply seek greener pastures across the Limpopo or chose to sit it out in even more squalid camps and other informal settlements.

Even after the coming political transition, the reconstruction of the rural economy is going to take many years and will require very careful planning and implementation. It is unlikely that subsistence peasant style agriculture will ever be able to feed the nation or replace lost exports. More than likely Zimbabwe will have to painfully reconstruct its large-scale commercial farming industry piece by piece. That will require, contrary to present wisdom, security of tenure underwritten by a new constitution and a firm undertaking by new leaders that the madness of the recent past will never be allowed to happen again.

Another factor that must be borne in mind is that any future development in terms of global warming will make both South Africa and Zimbabwe drier and the weather unstable. This will make it even more important to re-establish a sophisticated and well-managed large scale farming industry than before. This could then be used to foster small-scale commercial agriculture and a transformation of the peasant sector so that Zimbabwe can regain its position as a leader on the continent in all things to do with farming.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 27th June 2005