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 grower.

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.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 27th April 2007