The Food Crisis in Zimbabwe

The BBC carried a story today about the rise in global food prices. The IMF stated that on average prices for food had risen 36 per cent this year and among these was a 74 per cent increase in maize prices. In the past, perhaps since about 1950, Zimbabwe had enjoyed a situation where by and large agricultural prices were set at export parities and global food prices were themselves already quite low. As a consequence we became accustomed to relatively cheap food and this was clearly apparent when you crossed the border into any of our regional neighbours.

After independence in 1980, the policies that had created that situation were maintained and agriculture was the main contributor to national growth and development. In 2000 all that changed, commercial farmers and their 350 000 workers were made the target of a campaign that in the past ten years, has seen some 7 000 farms deliberately invaded and taken over by force. They were then occupied by so called A1 and A2 farmers, the former small scale and the latter large scale squatters.

Since then the majority of these farms have become largely defunct, their homesteads and farm building derelict and their arable lands have returned to bush or been the subject of subsistence style agriculture. Although the land audit promised in the GPA has not been carried out because of Zanu opposition, it is known that perhaps as many as half these properties have been abandoned after their assets had been looted.

As a consequence, agricultural output has collapsed to about 20 per cent of the levels that had prevailed in the era before the farm invasions. Zimbabwe, for the first time in half a century is now a net importer of all types of food and agricultural products. Cotton and tobacco being the sole exceptions. As a result food prices are dictated by import costs and are therefore higher than in our neighbouring countries. Remember that import parity prices means that you pay the world market price PLUS the cost of transporting the product to Zimbabwe - sometimes over thousands of kilometres. Export parity pricing means that you pay prices set at world market levels LESS the cost of transport to the overseas or regional clients.

The commercial farmers that own the farms that are invaded and occupied by this rag tag collection of people, had built some 10 000 dams on their properties and could, when required irrigate their crops when normal rainfall failed. To do this they had the pumps, pipelines and irrigation equipment to irrigate up to 267 000 hectares of land. People who do not know Zimbabwe think that farming is an easy game. They do not appreciate that in fact this is a tough country to farm in - just take one factor, our mean average variation in rainfall is about 40 per cent. In the main grain belt of America it is 5 per cent.

Anyone who has visited to States will know how you can drive through a hundred kilometres of flat, rich farm land and see crops planted from horizon to horizon. Not in Zimbabwe, our typical commercial farm was about 2 000 hectares of which, perhaps a quarter was arable - but in small irregular patches separated by small kopjies or hills and wetlands or vlei. Then our soils - we have millions of hectares of poor sandy soils that are very hard to farm. Our heavy soils are also difficult to cultivate and need heavy equipment. Finally the season is short - 90 to 120 days at most and the need to plant on time and to do things strictly to the calendar is legendary. If you miss these deadlines the land is a hard task master and will punish you with low yields and poor quality.

Just to compound these difficulties we suffer from severe storms. Hail is a constant threat and droughts are a regular occurrence - not always nation-wide but always difficult to deal with, in some years (1992/3) the dry conditions can be so severe that crops are decimated, dams dry up and livestock die in their thousands.

What is also not appreciated is that these farms were all large business ventures - some of them large even by world standards. We had individual companies that grew 150 000 tonnes of grain a year, the two sugar companies grew 500 000 tonnes sugar, individual tobacco growers grew on average 300 000 kilograms of tobacco, the largest tobacco growers in the world. As such they had to borrow significant sums of money each year to finance their crops and livestock activities. Many of the best farmers were engineers or accountants and relied on outside expertise for the rest.

To support these farmers was a network of training establishments and research stations - some of them world famous. These same farmers consistently grew crops that yielded well above regional and even international best practice standards. We held the world record for yield in maize production for example. We were the second largest exporter of flue cured tobacco in the world and the largest exporter of beef in Africa. We were self sufficient in tough crops like wheat and barley even though our climate was not suitable and they had to be fully irrigated.

I think Zanu PF thought that by simply taking over these farms at no cost to themselves, that they would be able to make easy money. Most of the farms they invaded had been paid for over 25 or 30 years by farmers who struggled every year to make the bond payments. Nearly all the farmers I knew put every cent they made back into their farms with the result that many were real show places. The fact that these highly successful enterprises simply collapsed under their new stewards came as a real surprise to many, but not to those who had sweated blood to create these business ventures out of the bush, living in mud huts for years while they built barns and cleared lands.

A very small percentage of any population has the capacity or the inclination to go farming - it is generally thought that this percentage is below 5 per cent of any population. In our surveys of the population since 2000 we have never had a reading of more than 5 per cent for all Zimbabweans who see farming as a way of life and a life choice. Sure we all want a piece of land - it is after all the only way the average person in Africa can ensure some security in the long term, but that does not mean that all are going to be able to farm, or even want to farm.

The other surprise for Zanu PF is that they have not been able to shake the sure grip of title rights as a legal basis for farm operations. They know they do not own the farms they occupy and that one day they will have to account for what they did to the rightful owners who still hold title. That is simply a legal fact and will not go away. However that is scant comfort for the average Zimbabwean who must today pay 30 to 50 per cent more for his food than he would have if the agricultural industry was working as it once did.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 15th April 2011