Peasants transform agriculture in the wake of new ‘farmer’ failure

The failure of Zanu (PF) to turn new ‘farmers’ into instant commercial landowners has opened a space for donors to develop the traditional farmlands which President Robert Mugabe has said are useless.

A Zimbabwean farmer who was ordered by the government to grow cash crops instead of the food crops he had farmed for years.
A Zimbabwean farmer who was ordered by the government to grow cash crops instead of the food crops he had farmed for years.

President Robert Mugabe’s smash and grab policies have rendered commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe almost sterile. Thanks to donors, however, some peasants have been armed with tools of the trade to produce for their families and on-sale to the market.

This contrasts sharply with the programme administered by the government-run Grain Marketing Board, which Zanu (PF) party hacks have hijacked.

In 1980, the government set out to empower small rural farmers. Amid daily doses of socialist lectures by officials who had little knowledge of what that meant, the peasants performed wonderfully and were recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations with an award for enhancing regional food security.

In 1979, small farmers’ representative Gary Magadzire had argued tenuously in London during the Lancaster House Conference that it would be impossible to relocate all farmers to more fertile soils. Instead, a project was started to support small farmers within their traditional lands. The results were phenomenal.

Money stolen

When, in 1999, donors demanded accounts of funds they had donated over a decade for the purchase of commercial farms for resettlement of poor blacks, they were shocked to find that most of the money had been stolen by government officials.

Farms that had been bought with resettlement funds had become the private property of the well-connected. Mugabe by 2000 sensed that there would be no more money coming from Western countries for land reform and encouraged his supporters to seize the farms. This marked the beginning of the severe degradation of commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe.

A world-class production system fell to ruin. With it went a sophisticated farming input supply system that was supporting small village farmers.

The Poverty Reduction Programme introduced with British funds has come to the rescue of some of these small farmers, helping them to secure inputs on time and without cash.

Zimbabwe’s commercial agriculture sector is yet to recover from a decade of destruction caused by Zanu (PF)’s misguided policies. A unique programme for small farmers, the PRP, promises to revive farming and prove that with adequate resources, farmers anywhere, including those in arid regions can be productive and guarantee food security for their families and the nation. This flies in the face of Mugabe’s wild claims that only farmers on the best soils can be productive. In fact, it is the well-resourced farmers on poor soils who are making an impact, while commercial farms with the best soils have been turned into wild bush by invaders who complain about lack of government support. Donors have steered away from forcibly seized land, rendering Mugabe’s project to grab land a total waste.

Unique system

Up to 70 000 communal farmers are benefitting from a unique electronic voucher system introduced by the PRP in Zimbabwe at the beginning of October to ease the supply of farming inputs. Armed with swipe cards produced in conjunction with local banks, the poor peasants are able to buy enough materials to produce a surplus.

The system is expected to speed up transactions and reduce costs for farmers and traders.

According to one of the project’s consultants, Terry Quinlan, 45 000 to 50 000 of the farmers would get grants of $160 per household in the current agricultural season. Another 20 – 25 000 would get loans to buy livestock.

Quinlan said the beneficiaries would get electronic vouchers in the form of swipe cards that they would present to traders in their wards. The system is designed to ensure that the farmers do not travel more than five kilometres to get to the nearest supplier of inputs.

“To minimize fraud, the cards will have unique serial numbers showing the NGO, district and beneficiary codes. The cards are not transferable,” Quinlan said, speaking during a recent meeting with the project’s suppliers.

Another official, Erica Keogh of GRM, a consultant co-ordinating the programme on behalf of the UK’s Crown Agents, said a major outcome envisaged for the project was “improved food security for rural farmers”.

“The programme aims to get to farmers high-quality inputs for agriculture. Providing the voucher means we have to see an increase in the area planted,” Keogh said.

She said the programme was being run with implementing partners CAFOD, Catholic Relief Services and Christian Aid. In 2010, some $4.5 million was spent on funding the farmers.

Quinlan said apart from seed and fertiliser, the vouchers can also be used for purchasing livestock and veterinary products as well as protective clothing.

GMB redundant

Another unique aspect of the project is that farmers will no longer have to go to the Grain Marketing Board to access inputs, a system that has proved to be flawed and fraught with corruption. Instead, non-governmental organisations take the lead in administering the programme at a local level, while commercial suppliers do the actual sourcing and distribution up to village level. Commercial agro-dealers are now part of the PRP’s supply network.

“We want them to do what the private sector does best, that is to compete with each other. NGOs carry out beneficiary targeting, including capturing ID numbers,” Quinlan said.

He said the NGOs attended retailer training and ensured that they were properly registered with wholesalers attached to the programme. The NGOs also have to ensure that the retailers have enough security and have put up a system to redeem their funds from the donor.

“Wholesalers must register retailers. Last year, there was no registration and this resulted in chaos. They also have to ensure that there is adequate storage space and that security arrangements are in place. They also have to come to an agreement about stocks and about the return of excess stock,” Quinlan said.

In 2010, the project benefitted some 244 000 farmers. This year the number was reduced, but the grant amount increased to ensure that each farmer plants about half a hectare of maize.

Typical problems dogging the system include Zesa power cuts, bad rural roads and network problems in some areas. However, the programme has given a much-needed lifeline to poor peasants who are regularly shunned by banks and can not beat the Zanu (PF) patronage system which has ensured that only the well-connected and party supporters get farming inputs. Experts believe that if the project is replicated across the country, it could have a significant impact on food security and possibly return Zimbabwe to its former status as a regional bread basket.

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