A drought by any other name
At yesterday's monetary statement by Gideon Gono, he placed great emphasis
on the drought conditions that have prevailed over the country this past
year. He accepted that there was a deficit of 1,5 million tonnes in maize
(an 80 per cent deficit) and said that they must pull out all the stops now
to ensure that this was not mirrored in the winter crops. This is clear
confirmation that we only grew about 20 per cent of our food needs last
year. In fact the food industry is in a total shambles.
Gono also criticised government for using coercion and price controls to try
and curb inflation when this only exacerbated the problem by driving the
affected products into the informal sector. He was spot on in that respect -
but who is listening? The official price of bread remains at Z$825 a 700
gram loaf, the market price is about Z$7 000. Cooking oil prices are
supposed to be about Z$10 000 a litre - they are over Z$50 000 a litre and
rising in the open market. The local brands are nowhere to be seen, as
manufacturers are not prepared to break the price controls for fear of
retribution. So we have South African brands on our shelves instead of the
local products. It does reduce demand for local Soybean and cottonseed and
this masks the shortfall in local output.
But in all of this there is another anomaly. Gono stated that tobacco
growers had increased their crop from 55 000 tonnes in 2006 to just short of
80 000 tones this year. He said this was a 43 per cent rise in production.
This fascinated me and I made some enquiries in the industry.
It turns out that although the number of large scale commercial growers
(read white) had decreased to about 180 this past season, they have more
than doubled their output - from about 35 000 tonnes last year to over 70
000 tonnes this year. The reason being higher returns in 2006 (largely due
to Gono) and an 'exceptional season'. The farmers told me that at the start
of the season their dams were full and this together with near perfect
growing conditions and the ability to import their inputs direct, enabled
this small group of growers to produce near record quantities of tobacco per
Small-scale output continued to decline and the new growers were universally
disappointing. The tobacco trade said they were pleased with the crop -
quality was good and demand heavy so that they expected to have to pay
higher prices for what was available.
This story is interesting from several points of view - it shows what the
large scale growers can do when given half decent conditions, it confirms
their supremacy as growers and farmers and it calls into question the issue
of the 'drought' conditions.
I spoke to a crop assessment specialist who was out here for one of the
international aid agencies looking at demand and he said that from about
Chegutu south - conditions were dry and the further south you went the
greater the prospects were for a total crop failure. But north of Chegutu, a
normal to above average season had been experienced. Traditionally this
region was responsible for 80 per cent of our farm output and this makes
sense of the results for tobacco. It also points to much better crops in
Malawi and Zambia - both of whom are exporting food surpluses this year.
For Zimbabwe the lesson is clear, the resettlement programme has been a
dismal failure. No matter what resources they throw at the 'new' farmers,
they are simply not able to produce the goods in the final analysis - for
whatever the reason.
The aspect of supplementary irrigation in the tobacco story interested me.
In the days before the collapse of the farm sector, commercial farms had the
capacity to irrigate 267 000 hectares of farmland, more if it was just
supplementary irrigation. This meant that when the inevitable dry spell
occurred, farmers could pull out their equipment and put 50 mls of water on
their crops and thereby maintain output. It also meant that crops such as
tobacco and maize could be planted early with irrigation and then finished
off with the normal rains - supplemented if required.
We know that any maize crop planted after the 15th November will see a loss
of its potential by at least 100 kilograms an acre every week the plantings
are delayed. By the same token, early plantings will yield better on
average. Weed control and all other operations are easier when the crop is
started under irrigation.
All of this potential has been lost during the 'fast track' looting
programme that has just been completed. To bring it back will be very
costly. The remaining commercial farmers who are still on their farms and
are actively farming (about 600 in all) are in the unique position of having
their infrastructure more or less in one piece. They continue to demonstrate
the capacity, technical and managerial expertise that this country has lost
through the misguided land policies of this regime.
There was no mention of this in Gono's statement - that would be too much to
ask! What he did say was that they are importing large quantities of farm
equipment and were buying 100 000 ox drawn ploughs, harrows and planters for
the communal farmers. We have heard all that before - tillage programmes, it
is called. But without the facilities on the ground for management and
maintenance, this is just more money down the proverbial drain.
He did say that they had committed future tobacco crops to servicing these
new loans from China - and I assume therefore that he is banking on that
small band of established and experienced growers to continue to perform. As
an insurance policy the government has given a number of farms to Chinese
operators and I understand that they are even importing Chinese labour! The
prime target is to grow tobacco for China on those farms.
I have grown tobacco in this country - I did a season before going to
Agricultural College in the early 60's. Believe me, it's a tough game, one
that requires hard work, careful planning and timing and attention to
detail. If nothing else, the Chinese might learn a thing or two from our
remaining farmers in addition to reinforcing their own ideas on how to
manage their own economy. We could take a leaf out of China's book on that
front - judging from Gono's statement yesterday, we have learnt nothing at
all in 27 years of Independence.
Bulawayo, 27th April 2007