What is the future for medium-sized commercial farms in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe’s land reform created two ‘models’ for resettlement farms – one relatively small-scale, the A1 schemes, and one medium to large-scale, the A2 farms. A1 farms now cover (very) approximately 4.2 m ha including around 150,000 farms and A2 farms 2.7 m ha across 20,000 farm units (although A2 areas now include a range of other larger-scale commercial farms in addition).

The idea was that the small-scale farms would provide a productive base for large numbers of land-hungry people, including those who had invaded the white-owned farms in 2000, while the A2 farms would accommodate demand from the middle classes and elites. The A2 farms were to be the new drivers of commercial agriculture, occupied by qualified, business-savvy farmers, able to invest in new production.

As every observer of Zimbabwean agriculture since land reform knows, the planners’ vision has not come to pass. The A1 farms have done better than many have expected, as documented on this blog many times. Contrary to some commentaries, they have generated livelihoods, employment and production, in often very difficult circumstances. There is a huge range of farm types within the A1 model, ranging from self-contained farms, more similar to A2 holdings, to small-scale village-style set-ups. Numbers of farms under this category has expanded significantly, with some estimating that there are now around 175,000 farm units. As we have documented in Masvingo, Matabeleland South and Mashonaland, not all A1 farmers are the same – a good proportion have done well, but not everyone, and processes of agrarian differentiation continue.

By contrast the A2 farms have been disappointing. In part this has resulted from the failure to invest during the economic crisis of the 2000s, when finance and support were severely lacking. In part a number of A2 farms, particularly those with good infrastructure, whether housing or irrigation systems, were ‘grabbed’ by politically-connected elites. The neat bureaucratic system of application and assessment of candidates against strict criteria of business viability and agricultural expertise was by-passed due to political expediency in such cases.

As discussed on this blog many times before, such ‘cronies’ are not the majority by any means, even in the A2 farms, but they do exist, and perhaps especially so in the high potential areas, near Harare, where commercial agriculture is potentially profitable. Of course some A2 farmers have made a go of it, and invested through private sources – whether from diaspora remittances, NGO jobs or other less straightforward means. These include ‘cronies’ – able to divert state resources – and others. But many have struggled. The failure to create and deliver an effective lease system, and the lack of finance, either from state or private sources has hampered ambitions to invest, rehabilitate infrastructure and increase production. Many A2 farms remain in a sorry state, neglected and failing to produce, while a some are prospering; either through own investment or increasing through various forms of joint venture.

Our studies have been looking at these farms both in Masvingo and Mashonaland Central provinces. We have carried out a number of detailed case studies looking at farm production, labour and the challenges associated. These show a mixed picture of failure and success. But beyond the audit a decade ago, more comprehensive data on patterns of ownership and production are lacking. We are beginning to piece together a broader picture, as finding a route to supporting A2 farm production is essential. We are asking, for example, what are the levels of production and land utilisation in these farms, how is labour organised, and what are the challenges being faced? The aim, in time, will be to come to suggestions as to what might be done to support new forms of commercial agriculture, and what types of financing, technical support, land tenure regimes and other policy arrangements, including joint ventures, make sense.

One way of informing this enquiry has been to look to past experiences, and notably that of the so-called ‘African Purchase Areas’, now known as ‘small-scale commercial farming areas’. These add up to 1.4m ha in total, across approximately 8000 farms scattered across the country. They were established from the 1930s, with more set up in the 1950s to counter nationalist moves among the African population. Colonial policymakers were aimed at creating a ‘yeoman’ class of farmer, accommodating an educated, urban-based middle class in the reform of land use. As with the land reform of 2000, there were explicit political motivations to enlist and incorporate, but also a productionist/modernisation agenda to generate new forms of commercial agriculture based – in the case of Purchase Areas – on offering Africans freehold title to land.

The policy narrative was clearly focused on a ‘civilising’ mission – these were acceptable, English-speaking ‘natives’, educated through the mission school systems, and valued clerks, messengers, native police, teachers and others working for the colonial state. Politically, the colonial regime could not afford for such groups to rebel and join the ranks of the nationalists (although of course many did), and needed to be co-opted, by being given special favours not available to the ‘reserve native’. Others given land were those Africans who did not have land in the ‘reserves’, but were not acceptable in ‘white’ areas, and included South African Basotho migrants, African churches and others.

The allocations of land varied from area to area, but they were in the order of 100 ha, not dissimilar to those offered to most A2 farmers in the 2000s. A2 plots ranged from 20ha in the irrigated sugar estates to several hundred hectares in the dryland ranching country of Matabeleland, but the overall average – typical of the medium-potential largely dryland farming areas where the Purchase Areas were located – was about 70 ha. In our recent research we have been asking, what has happened to the former Purchase Areas several generations on? Do these experiences give hints as to what might happen to the A2 farms in 50 or 60 years? What lessons can be drawn – positive and negative – that planners and policymakers need to take on board now, as the A2 model is assessed and potentially rethought?

In the next few weeks, I will look at some of these questions based on some preliminary research carried out in Mushagashe and Dewure SSCFAs in Masvingo Province. Since the classic work by Angela Cheater carried out in Msengezi Purchase Area, documented in ‘Idioms of Accumulation: rural development and class formation among freeholders in Zimbabwe (Mambo Press, 1984), plus many subsequent articles, and the important historical studies by Allison Shutt focusing on Marirangwe, there has been remarkably little research done on these areas, with the notable exception of Joseph Mujere’s fascinating study of the evangelist Basotho migrants from South Africa to Dewure Purchase Area. In the mid-1990s Vincent Ashworth carried out a study on small-scale farming areas for the World Bank, but I cannot locate it (if anyone has a copy, please, please let me know!), and there is a scattering of data among various Commissions and reports, but little else. But as an experiment in creating a class of medium-scale farmer in Zimbabwe, the Purchase Area story is fascinating, which is why we have returned to it in our Masvingo studies during the last year.

In our current studies we are working with a random sample of 26 farms in Mushagashe SSCFA, near Masvingo. Established in from the early 1930s, the area was transferred to blacks able to purchase the land. The area now has 250 farms, and rather like the A2 farms, these have varying levels of production and investment. As the forthcoming blogs show, many of the challenges relate to cross-generational transfers, inheritance and how subsequent generations make use of family-owned land.

These issues are only beginning to be faced in the A2 farms, but glimpses of the future may be shown by a look to the past. Next week I will offer a very brief historical background to the ‘Native Purchase Areas’, before exploring some detailed case studies, and then concluding the series with a reflection on the future of A2 farms in Zimbabwe, and medium-scale commercial farming more broadly.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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