Ian Scoones

Nearly a year ago on September 10 2013, a confident Zanu (PF) announced a new cabinet and ambitious plans for the future under the ZimAsset programme. But sadly, one year on, no transition has materialised, writes IAN SCOONES.

The radical redistributive policies, most notably the land reform, have presented major challenges in economic terms.
The radical redistributive policies, most notably the land reform, have presented major challenges in economic terms.

A number of good commentaries were published about the “stolen” election of July 31, 2013.

Perhaps the most powerful though comes from McDonald Lewanika and Delta Milayo Ndou (formerly of the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition) in ‘We the People’, a beautifully illustrated edited book of personal testimonies and reflections from Zimbabweans after the elections. Most are urban, educated and opposition supporters, but the sense of melancholy and loss, reflecting on a moment that had so much hope, is tangible and powerful.

Nearly a year ago on September 10 2013, a confident Zanu (PF) announced a new cabinet and ambitious plans for the future under the ZimAsset programme. Attempts to rebuild relationships with the west started, while overtures to the Chinese continued. A new minister of lands, Douglas Mombeshora, stated boldly that no new land invasions would be allowed, and that land administration would be regularised, with those illegally occupying land or underutilising it evicted.

Invasions continue

It sounded as if a corner had been turned. But sadly such a transition has not occurred. In the last year, the economy has floundered, as the new investment has failed to arrive; relationships with Europe and the US remain tetchy; the Chinese are playing hardball; and land invasions have continued, despite attempts at audits and new permit systems.

Meanwhile, the opposition has imploded. The expected departure of MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai has not happened, and he retains wide public support. But the party has fractured, with Tendai Biti and colleagues declaring a ‘renewal team’, and presumably in time a new party, for a revived opposition. They are actively courting investors and foreign governments, while belatedly accepting that a focus on economic and social rights and redistribution issues – Zanu (PF)’s political territory for the 2013 elections - must be central to any revamped approach. The situation is very messy indeed.

The warring factions continue to slug it out within Zanu (PF) too, with different groupings being speculated on in the press almost daily. What is clear is that there is no easy resolution of the ‘succession’ issue, and Mugabe is playing the longer game (to the 2018 elections) to see how this will resolve itself.

Massive uncertainty

The consequence is that there is massive uncertainty on the political scene, and this translates itself into challenges for economic regeneration. In May at a SAPES Trust event, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa declared:

“Zimbabwe is open to Foreign Direct Investment from all nations of the world, whether these be in the North, South, East or West… Zimbabwe is ready to re-integrate into the global economy.

Zimbabwe is looking for new friendships, new opportunities while consolidating old ones. We are looking for mutually beneficial economic relationships not confrontation. We are too small a country to pursue a policy of confrontation.”

This signalled a softening of stance, and a willingness to engage. Equally the purge of corrupt parastatals and their officials led by Jonathan Moyo was clearly aimed at an international audience, with a very visible attempt to deal with corruption – although of course only in one area.

Statements on the flagship ‘indigenisation’ policy have been much more tempered since the elections, with senior party officials stating that expropriation and nationalization are not on the agenda, and that there has to be flexibility in the application of the policy.

Contradictions

In a typically perceptive piece for the Solidarity Peace Trust, Brian Raftopolous argues:

“The mixed policy messaging of the Mugabe regime can be attributed both to the challenges of seeking fuller international re-engagement while holding on to its empowerment programme, and the tensions within Zanu (PF) about how to proceed with such a re-engagement. The tropes of sovereignty, liberation history, regional solidarity and empowerment have been integral to ZANU PF’s political imaginary and ‘language of stateness’, in both the party’s ‘practical languages of governance’ and the ‘symbolic languages of authority’.”

However the exposure of the limits of the state’s capacity to effect its indigenisation programme has led to the dual strategy of seeking a rapprochement with the West, while promising to export the Zimbabwean model to the SADC region.

Such contradictions are the legacy of the past 14 or so years. The radical redistributive policies, most notably the land reform, have presented major challenges in economic terms.

The withdrawal of external support and international investment has hampered the rebounding of the economy, and the business-political patronage networks that were established to prop up the regime in this period are certainly not the basis for a prosperous, competitive economy.

Bright spots

There are bright spots though. The informal sector is booming, and providing jobs and livelihoods. While many argue this is not the real economy, it is certainly the main economy. In the restructured agricultural sector, the tobacco boom continues, with a massive 210 million tonnes of tobacco being traded this year.

While livelihoods are unquestionably improving, especially for those on the land, galvanising new, coherent and sustained economic growth is a big challenge, and the long wish-lists in the ZimAsset blueprint will not be realised without sustained investment.

Much of course relies on a rapprochement with the west, and with international capital and finance. Given the bad feeling, abuse and threats that have occurred over time, this will not be easy, especially with Britain. Miles Tendi offers a fascinating analysis of this challenge, based on interviews with some of the key players, on both the UK and the Zimbabwe sides, and how a sustained ‘demonisation’ invective from both has not helped matters.

A fundamental question remains, however: how to balance a commitment to redistribution and economic empowerment with engagement in a globalised economy, and in a context where national debt amounts to a staggering US$6 billion? Is there any way to resist the inevitable reincorporation into a neoliberal world order, and sustain the progressive gains of reform?

Despite the socialist solidarity rhetoric, the Chinese are interested in commercial business just as any other western nation or multinational company. And countries in the region are wary of heading down an alternative route, despite the electioneering rhetoric of Julius Malema further south. So Zanu (PF) is in a bind. As Brian Raftopolous argues, there are clear ‘limits to victory’. - This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


Growth and development does not just derive from agriculture, but the wider economic linkages that are generated. Successful agriculture generates employment opportunities, it results in multiplier effects in the service industries, and it boosts consumption as people buy more things.

Equally, in dryland agricultural settings few can rely on just agriculture for their livelihoods. They must seek piece work jobs in the dry season, sell their skills as builders, carpenters, tailors or hairdressers. And they can make use of local resources for making craft items or agricultural equipment and tools.

In other words, in order to assess the success of the wider economy and individual livelihoods, we need to look at the rural economy in the round, and look at things going on on-farm as well as off, and the flows of resources that come to the area from outside, as well as those that leave. Too often there are narrow assessments of economies and livelihoods that miss these wider dimensions. There are multiple livelihood opportunities in the communal and resettlement areas, as well as flows of labour, remittances and trade. How then do these patterns compare?

A1 farmers employ considerable numbers of labourers. 42% of A1 self-contained and 12% of A1 villagised farm households employ temporary labour, while 16% and 17% employ permanent labour. By contrast in the communal area sites only 2% of households employ permanent and temporary in the sites outside Chikobmedzi, where a few farmers employ significant numbers, although concentrated among the more successful farmers for piecework on larger farm areas.

On average though across the A1 sites, households employ 0.53 temporary workers and 0.2 permanent workers, while those employed in the communal areas are vanishingly few. The employment opportunities, although often temporary and low paid, are important for many, and attract hundreds of people to live and work in these areas. This is an important part of the wider economy, and many of these people come from the nearby communal areas, with labour being recruited through family, church and other networks.

Collective work is also important in the new resettlements. As farm sizes have declined in the communal areas the institution of the ‘work party’ (humwe) has declined. Some have put this down to the decline in tradition, but actually it more reflects the lack of need for recruiting labour for farming small plots. This changed in the resettlement areas with larger areas to plough, weed and harvest. Thus across the resettlement sites 37% of households held work parties in the 2010 season, and 36% in 2011, while only 18% and 14% held them in the communal areas.

Off-farm income has always been important as part of livelihood portfolios in rural Zimbabwe. Such income allows people to earn money in the dry season, or offset the consequences of low yields. As part of a diversified livelihood strategy such income sources reduce risk, and spread gains, often to women and children as income earners. We looked at the patterns of off-farm income earning across resettlement and communal area sites, and the pattern was remarkably similar.

In order of importance (in terms of percentage of households engaged) it was trading, building/carpentry, brickmaking/thatching, pottery/basket-making, fishing, wood carving, tailoring, transport businesses and grinding mill operation in both sites, with similar proportions of households involved. Farm-related income earning was also similar, with the rank order being sale of vegetables, poultry, cattle, goat/sheep and fish in both sites. The only contrast was that vegetable sales at 45% of all households was significantly higher in the communal areas, with only 28% of resettlement households selling vegetables regularly.

Perhaps the biggest difference in income sources was in the proportion of households receiving remittances from relatives resident outside the home. The highest level of remittances was in the Chikombedzi area, near the South African border, with 67% of households receiving some remittances in the communal areas and 52% in the A1 villagised resettlements. The biggest difference was in the Gutu area, where the only 7% of A1 villagised resettlement households received remittances, while 33% in the communal areas did so. A similar pattern was observed in the Chiredzi cluster sites, with 10% and 23% receiving remittance. The only area with a different pattern was Masvingo, where a higher percentage of resettlement households received remittances (28% vs 17%).

There are several issues to note here. First, outside Chikombedzi, the level of remittances is low compared to historical studies that showed around two-thirds or more of households receiving such support. Second, with the Masvingo exception, the A1 villagised households were more independent, and less reliant on relatives’ support. This is partly due to the age profile of such households, with fewer older children sending remittances, but also the sense that the new land reform beneficiaries did not need looking after, as they had the land.

Indeed, there is plentiful evidence of flows of remittances (in both cash and food) flowing from the resettlements to the communal areas. However the main source of remittances was household members working in Zimbabwe, sending money home. With the collapse of the economy, and the decline in employment opportunities, this flow of income has declined in the last decade, and there has been more reliance on income from outside the country, notably South Africa. But outside Chikombedzi area, this was not a significant source, and there were only a few others who received income from further afield, including the UK.

Both the new resettlement areas and the communal areas have diversified economies, where off-farm work is important. But the resettlement areas are more self-reliant, relying less on remittance flows, labour migration, and instead are generating employment on the farms, and also other business for entrepreneurs, service providers, traders and others.

These could not be regarded as either booming or resilient economies, and on the face of it there are considerable similarities between the sites, particularly around off-farm income earning activities. But the overall opportunities offered in the resettlement areas seem to be more substantial, reflecting the greater underlying potential from agriculture, and the presence of a core group of farmers who are accumulating, spending, employing and generating economic activity.

A more detailed look at these diversified economies and patterns of livelihoods, as has been attempted in this short blog series, therefore shows that the resettlements are not simply an extension of the communal lands, but are different on a variety of fronts, with important implications for the future.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.


Last week we saw that there are definitely ‘new people’ (with a different demographic, educational and gender profile) on the land, but how have they fared?

First we should ask: have people got more land than they had before? This is an easy one to answer: yes. In the A1 villagised sites land allocations are about double what is found in the nearby communal areas, with the exception of Chikombedzi where the communal area land holdings are marginal higher. The communal area land holdings range from 1.5ha in Gutu to 8.8ha in Chikobmedzi, while the resettlement land holdings range from 3.7ha in Gutu to 7.4ha in the Chikombedzi area.

But more crucially than the land holding, it’s important to ask if a greater land area is being cultivated. The answer is again, yes. Heading north to south, wetter to drier, the A1 villagised sites had the following hectareages cultivated in 2011-12 per household: 2.5ha (Gutu), 3.6ha (Masvingo), 4.3ha (Chiredzi) and 6.2ha (Mwenezi). The comparable hectareages in the communal areas were 1.0, 2.1, 3.2, and 7.4ha, with only the Mwenezi site showing a different pattern, reflecting their pattern of residence (see last week’s blog).

However crop output levels in 2010 and 2011 (the two seasons for which we have the comparator data) were not impressive anywhere, except for a few cases. Average maize production across all the resettlements was barely over a tonne, and in the communal areas it was 555kg in 2010 and 935kg in 2011. And these figures were affected dramatically by a couple of farmers producing a lot. Of course it was a drought year, and there was production from other crops – notably small grains (sorghum and millets) in the drier areas, but production was nothing to shout about (although fortunately things have improved in more recent years).

In terms of overall patterns of food security, we found that in 2010 and 2011, 35% and 24% of households across all resettlement households produced more than a tonne of maize, while in the communal areas the figures were only 16% and 10%. The communal area figures were in turn boosted by the relative success of the Ngundu farmers, where 36% and 20% of households produced more than a tonne of maize. Again, in these years the figures show that up to 90% of households require other sources of food during the year, beyond home produced maize. This is lower in the resettlement areas, but this still means two-thirds to three-quarters of households had food deficits. Compared to the situation in latter part of the 2000s, when there were a string of good harvests, the situation was worse, across all areas in these two seasons.

However, by comparison to the communal areas, the resettlement farmers were better off. In 2010, for example, across the A1 sites, one third of all farmers sold some maize. In the A1 self-contained sites, 28% of farmers sold over a tonne, and 45% something; even in this poor season. It is this group of farmers who produce surpluses and sell regularly that we highlighted in our book in class terms as ‘middle farmers’ who were ‘accumulating from below’. By contrast, in the communal areas, the maize sales levels were paltry, averaging 125kg and 277kg in 2010 and 2011. Across all sites only 14% sold any maize in 2010, and 6% in 2011 – and these figures were boosted by the group of Ngundu farmers who sell regularly (although many no longer as they have been displaced by the flooding of the Tokwe Mukorsi dam). In 2010 there were five individuals who sold more than a tonne (4% of communal area farmers in the sample), three of whom were from Ngundu, while in 2011, there was only one farmer from Ngundu (less than one percent of all communal area farmers)

The crop mixes in all sites are similar, and much the same across the A1/informal resettlement areas and communal areas, with the exception of specialisation in cotton in Uswaushava in the Chiredzi area. In addition to maize, sorghum, pearl and finger millet, cotton, groundnuts and sunflowers are grown. In lowveld areas it is the growing of sorghum that dominates food production, so in both cases maize outputs as an indicator of food security is of course insufficient.

Also, in addition to the main fields people also have gardens. Over the last couple of decades, outside the lowveld where land remains abundant, farming in the densely populated areas means there has been a shift to home fields and gardens away from the outfield production of the past. This allows some level of intensification (including the use of conservation agriculture techniques on these small patches), and a concentration of farming activity around homesteads in home fields, where fertility inputs and labour are concentrated. This is reflected in the comparative data we collected.

In the communal area sites 57% of households have a garden at the homestead, and 40% have a garden elsewhere. In the A1 resettlement sites, the figures are 25% and 40%. Gardens have become popular in the resettlements, but usually are located by the rivers away from the homes, focused on vegetables. By contrast, in the communal areas, the home field may have become the main source of production of core crops, while gardens by rivers are left for vegetable production.

In terms of indicators of intensification, nearly half communal area households have invested in soil conservation measures, while less than a quarter have in the resettlement areas. This reflects the level of extension effort in the past decade, as many communal area structures were built earlier. But according to our data, resettlement farmers have been planting trees (usually fruit trees) in their new homesteads at a greater rate than their communal area counterparts, reflecting a process of home establishment in the new farms.

Across all sites inorganic fertiliser application remains relatively low. In the 2010-11 season around two-thirds of households in both communal and resettlement sites applied fertiliser in the Gutu areas, but this declined to nearly zero in the very dry sites of Mwenezi. This is to be expected, and makes good agronomic sense. In other areas between 50% and 75% of households applied fertilisers, but often with very low application rates. Overall a greater percentage of households in the resettlement sites applied fertiliser, but the difference was not pronounced.

So overall, the settlers have larger areas, apply (marginally) more fertiliser, produce more output and sell more. They have a similar crop mix to their counterparts in the communal areas, but have overall better food security from own farm production. Their improved output though is generated by extensification rather than any major intensification, and conservation measures to protect the land are often lacking. Gardening is important in both sites, but in the communal lands it is often a response to land shortage, with a more intensified production in a home field, while in the both areas vegetable gardens are important away from the home.

In the communal lands there are only a vanishingly few individuals who are producing regular surpluses and selling these. By contrast in the resettlement areas, despite the poor seasons, there are relatively more. A core group of around 30% of households is producing and selling, with the same group having sufficient grain to feed a family for a full year. The relative proportions in each of these categories changes between the seasons, but it is this group of middle farmer ‘accumulators’ in the resettlement areas who we identified in our book from data from the 2000s that is central to the contrast.

This group continues to drive a wider set of economic relations – including employment, input supply, marketing, transport and so on – which the odd individual cannot. While this group was clearly finding the going tough in 2010 and 2011 because of poor rainfall and depressed crop yields, they were still there, associated with the same ‘success groups’ we identified in the mid 2000s. They are still not getting support – whether extension, credit, or wider infrastructural development – but they are still continuing to capitalise on the opportunities created by land reform.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


This week I am reproducing an interview that appeared on Danielle Nierenberg’s Food Tank blog (well worth signing up to if you are interested in food and agriculture issues). This has an interview with Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean and keen promoter of ‘holistic resource management’ and earlier ‘short duration grazing’.

He claims these approaches can combat desertification and tackle climate change, and radically improve productive potential too. The Savory Institute links a network of hubs across the world. One of the hubs operates from Zimbabwe, including a demonstration farm in Masvingo led by the indefatigable Osmond Mugweni.

Many regard the ideas underlying the approach as unproven, but the passion with which they are promoted is evidence of a commitment and zeal unmatched by most, especially in the field of range management. Just take a look at his prestigious TED talk or his TED e-book (subtitled ‘a radical plan to save the earth’) to get a flavour.

Savory has moved from a focus only on grazing techniques (which work in some circumstances but not others – it of course depends on rainfall patterns, terrain, herd management and grass species composition) to a wider focus on holistic management. This means investment, time and a broad view. While hardly new, it challenges some of the narrow, reductionist tenets of much research and development on the rangelands, and comes with long experience and much enthusiasm and commitment.

Here is the interview with Food Tank:

You began your career as a research biologist and Game Ranger in current-day Zambia with the British Colonial Service before becoming an environmentalist, farmer, and much more. What made you shift your work and focus to environmental issues like desertification?

I never did shift my work or focus. We simply did not have the buzz words – environmentalist, biodiversity loss, desertification, climate change – I was seeing massive scale environmental degradation threatening the future of wildlife. And then gradually expanding this vision to seeing it threatened all life and had been the same thing that had contributed to so many civilizations failing. And very early on I saw the direct evidence in the field that floods and droughts were the result of land degradation rather than any change in rainfall as many scientists were claiming. Over time, my understanding grew to realizing that land could not be managed independent of the culture of the people and their economy – that management needed to be holistic, embracing all science and other sources of knowledge. And that where livestock are involved they are best handled through a long established planning process rather than any prescriptive grazing system, rotation or other form, no matter how flexible. In this manner we could consistently and successfully address the full complexity of society, economy, environment, wildlife, cropping and livestock.

What is the Savory Grazing Method? How did you develop it?

This was one of the names applied to holistically planned grazing. From the outset I developed today’s planned grazing as described in the TED book. Being entirely new I gave it no name. People began calling my work the Savory System. Because it was virtually the opposite of any management system – being a planning process – I was obliged to put a name to the work. I chose short duration high intensity grazing, or short duration grazing (note no use of the word system). Academics added the word system dropping the planning process. This was because a prescribed system could be replicated where a planning process could not be replicated. When I found that others were claiming that the “short duration grazing system” was developed in Texas I had to disassociate entirely from short duration grazing. On advice, I changed to savory grazing method (not system) but was then told that government agencies couldn’t promote something tied to a person’s name. So I changed the name to holistic planned grazing which it has been since.

There has also been some criticism based on scientific research that shows increased grazing and land trampling by livestock leads in the long term to soil degradation, rather than soil enrichment, as your method claims. What have actually been the long-term effects of planned grazing? Is soil degradation a heavy risk of this method?

It is to be anticipated that increased grazing and trampling will lead to soil degradation. In all those studies grazing was equated with grazing of the “land.” Only plants can be grazed, not land. And this distinction is important because plants can be overgrazed while the land, or soil, is overresting. And if the grazing and trampling of the plants is not controlled by timing the movement of the animals to the needs of plants and soils (as holistic planned grazing does), some plants can be overgrazed and some overrested, while at the same time soils are degrading through overrest, overtrampling and compaction. Much of the research allegedly done on holistic planned grazing has eliminated the planning process, and thus the time factor. Holistic planned grazing was developed to ensure that no plants are overgrazed, few if any plants are overrested and the soil is only trampled at any one place for a few days followed by several months of recovery time. The long term effects of planning the grazing (and trampling) holistically have been beneficial, and this has also been documented in a number of papers, articles and case studies and photographically (see the list of references and resources here).

What was your vision in founding the Savory Institute? Has the Institute succeeded in working towards this vision?

The purpose of SI agreed upon by the six of us who co-founded the institute was to “expand the holistic framework into international consciousness to sustain life on earth.” We have since created a vision of what we hope to achieve by 2025: To influence the management and restoration of 1 billion hectares of degraded grasslands worldwide, and to remove barriers that stand in the way of large scale success, mainly flawed policies and lack of market incentives.

Given the Institute’s short life we are making meaningful progress toward that vision, especially given that new paradigm-shifting insights normally take a long time to be accepted, let alone embraced. That management needs to be holistic was strongly resisted by many within the scientific community 30 years ago, as was the need to use properly managed livestock to restore degraded grasslands. Today, however, many scientists accept and even promote these ideas - in their individual capacity. But the institutions they represent do not, and will likely withhold recognition until there is a shift in public opinion, which is now building.

You have also been involved in politics, serving as a Member of the Rhodesian Parliament in the 1970s. What impact do environmental trends like desertification have on the political and economic realms?

The impact is profound and fundamental, although not seen as such in mainstream political or economic thinking. Agriculture is not simply crop production. It is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters. Without agriculture it is simply not possible to have an orchestra, a church, university, army, political party or government. It is the very foundation of civilization, which by definition is city-based and dependent on farmers/livestock producers to feed them. And ultimately the only wealth that can sustain any community, economy or nation, is derived from the photosynthetic process – green plants growing on regenerating soil. Global political stability and good governance is likely to prove elusive as long as agriculture continues to produce more than 10 tons of eroding soil per human alive every year, as it does globally and in the US today.

The Savory Institute is implementing small-scale, local Savory Hubs in various communities around the world that offer consulting and training services, as well financial, network, and material resources to the regions’ farmers. Why is it important to focus on this local level? What unique contribution can small, community farmers make in the effort for food security on a global scale?

Almost all the knowledge required to produce more food than eroding soil is available today - we just need to use that knowledge within a holistic paradigm – managing agriculture holistically, forming the policies that undergird it holistically. Being a new scientific insight, leadership in this quest cannot come from politicians or from any institution, but only from ordinary people. Accordingly, SI is pursuing a strategic vision for empowering others to manage holistically by working with local entrepreneurs and community groups to create Savory Institute-affiliated learning hubs. There is no way we could do this from one centralized organization if we want to reach the whole world. The hubs would be locally led and locally managed. Those running the hubs will always understand the local context better than SI will. Local entrepreneurs will be far more successful than SI could ever be in finding ways for their hub and its programs to become self-sustaining.

Each hub is in charge of training, consulting and implementation support for farmers in its region. It also includes a land base that demonstrates the results that can be achieved through holistic planned grazing and provides a place where farmers, ranchers, pastoralists, scientists, and government and non-government organizations, can collaborate in learning about and documenting the results of managing holistically. Evidence and data can then be leveraged to inform policies and establish market incentives.

Ten hubs have been established in 2013 and are in the process of being accredited by Savory Institute, and we have close to 40 candidates for 2014. We hope to have 100 hubs operating by 2025. Hubs can beget hubs, as the hub already formed in Zimbabwe (the Africa Centre for Holistic Management) has shown over the past two years, having trained people from throughout Africa resulting in hubs forming in South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere. Through these hubs trained facilitators are training community facilitators who in turn can train hundreds of people – all of whom can assist their neighbors and spread the knowledge and practices.

Our target of influencing the management and restoration of 1 billion hectares of land by 2025 will involve billions of people, from producers and consumers, to corporations and policy makers, to researchers and film producers – none of whom is too small to contribute to the increasingly rich global network of learning hubs. We have to remember that it was a relatively small group of organic farmers who kept organic agriculture alive and growing over many years against institutional resistance and opposition.

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Next week, I will continue with the livestock theme, but turn to a different debate, asking of livestock - even under the Savory system - are actually destroying the planet through contributing to climate change.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


One of the repeated complaints of farmers on the new resettlements is the lack of access to finance. This is holding back commercialisation, particularly for A2 farmers with bigger plots but also for those on A1 farms eager to expand, intensify or diversify. All of this needs money, and it is in short supply.

In our studies of farmers’ fortunes in Masvingo, and more recently in the tobacco growing areas of Mazowe, as part of the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development project, we identify three standard pathways of agricultural commercialisation, each associated with different sources of finance. All are limiting, and available only to a few, or relate only to particular commodities.

The first route is through regular accumulation, investment and saving. This is tough, given all the other demands on funds, and requires real tenacity. Each year profits have to be sunk back into the farm, and new equipment purchased. This is a route we see in the vegetable farmers of Masvingo who by making use of water resources, investing initially in a small pump, have expanded their production and marketing significantly, and after a few years are able to upgrade, with new irrigation equipment, the purchase of pick-up trucks and so on. The regularity and reliability of income from horticulture (if the water is available and the pests can be kept at bay) helps drive this pathway to commercialisation. Some farmers have been very successful, now with turnovers of tens of thousands of dollars, employing large numbers of people and with transport businesses on the side. And all from an initial outlay of a few hundred dollars.

The second route is investment from external income sources. Getting going in farming is often the hardest part, like many businesses. Basic up-front investment is necessary. For A2 farmers with quite large plots – up to 100 or 200 ha – making productive use of this land really requires substantial capital investment. Most such farms were formerly ranches in our study areas in Masvingo, and had limited infrastructure. Those farmers that inherited dams and irrigation equipment were lucky, but most did not. A2 farmers tended to have jobs in town, or at least good connections. These were crucial in getting going. But in the economic crisis period, standard government jobs were not enough to live on let alone provide additional income for investing in farming. Those who were able to get going usually had NGO jobs paying on foreign exchange, or had connections overseas. This diaspora and employment money was recycled and invested in farms. Such farmers, unlike their neighbours, were able to rebuild or rehabilitate irrigation schemes, build dairies and farm sheds, as well as purchasing transport – the ubiquitous 1 tonne truck – to facilitate marketing.

The third route we have identified is of course via contract farming. This is important for crops such as tobacco, but also cotton, and through a different arrangement, sugar. This means the farmer does not have to pay for inputs up front, and the contracting company will supply seed, fertiliser, pesticides and other inputs and also take care of the marketing. Increasingly cash-strapped farmers are hooking up with contractors for other crops, including maize. I have been amazed how many readers of this blog get in touch, and ask to be put in touch with a contractor for selling their crop. There is clearly a massive demand for this intermediary function, where those with cash and capital can invest in farming without taking on the burden of actually owning or holding land or producing. Former white farmers are heavily involved, as well as the new black business elite, alongside the standard cotton and tobacco companies, and of course the estates. The terms of the contract may be one-sided, with the risk pushed towards the producer, as discussed in earlier blogs, but contract farming does release cash, in the absence of any other source.

It is this absence of any other source of finance that is striking across our case studies. Rural financial institutions simply are unable to respond. Some say this is due to the lack of collateral due to the land tenure system, but this is red herring in my view, given the possibility of loaning with all sorts of other security beyond freehold tenure. Surely the new farmers who are desperate for finance would open up commercial possibilities for banks and other finance providers. But the financial sector is very conservative in Zimbabwe, being used to a very different structure of agriculture and form of finance. They do not know their new client base and have few incentives to offer new financial products.

Rural finance in Zimbabwe thus has a massive missing middle ground – between the miniscule forms of finance offered by savings clubs and rotating loans schemes promoted by church groups and NGOs and the large lumpy finance offered through the conventional routes. While there have been some state-backed attempts at improving the situation, they have often foundered due to complex bureaucracy, absurd conditions and lack of outreach. The type of finance offered by banks is largely irrelevant to most new farmers (see Tables 4 and 7 in this Finmark report from 2012)

While I have little knowledge the type of business models that would work, my bet is that a company, perhaps initially supported by a development organisation, that could offer a US$1000 loan on flexible terms would have massive uptake and success. This is the sort of amount that is needed, sufficient to buy a decent pump and irrigation kit, sufficient for a down-payment on a second-hand pick up, sufficient to get going on a commercial chicken project, sufficient to buy a beast or two, or some basic farm equipment. This would make all the difference (and there are now some examples supported by USAID and others). It is standard in Asia for example, so why not in Zimbabwe?

While the three pathways to commercialisation noted above are great if your crop is contracted, if you have close ties to someone with a well-paid job, or if you farm a commodity that gives quick, reliable returns, and you can manage to save. But this is not everyone, or every type of agriculture. Today commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe is being held back, and rural finance is probably the biggest blockage.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland