Turning Agriculture around in Zimbabwe

We have just come through a really tough wet season. Rainfall has generally been inadequate but many areas are severely drought affected and have only received a small proportion of normal precipitation.

Right now there is a large cyclone developing off the Mozambique coast which threatens to move south and inland up the Limpopo valley. If it does, we will get rain like the Tete Province of Mozambique has just experienced.

There a large low-pressure system sat over the lower Zambezi for several days and dumped up to 500 mls of rain on the area. As a result, the Cahora Bassa sluice gates are fully open and millions of tonnes of water are flooding the lower Zambezi basin. One extreme to another, just 50 kilometres away we have crops dying from drought. In fact, this season, if you are a satellite picture watcher, you would have seen time and time again that the rain circled Zimbabwe, almost as if we were jinxed.

South Africa has also had a lousy season and will have to import maize. That has far-reaching implications for the whole region as it raises market prices for all grains to import parity levels. Zambia seems to have had a very wet season as the intertropical convergence zone sat over our neighbour week after week, even today.

But if you have been involved with agriculture, as I have for over 60 years, there is nothing really exceptional about these conditions – I have seen worse, much worse. The big change is our ability as a nation to cope with these conditions.

When my forefathers came to this land in the late 19th Century, they came for gold and diamonds and when they found neither in any quantity, they turned their attention to farming. Conditions were tough and demanding but the soils were rich and the country was part of the British Empire with all the privileges and access to markets that this entailed. Our surplus beef went to Newmarket in London, we planted the largest Citrus Estates in the world and the British Government used the fruit concentrate to feed generations of British children and their mothers.

Then the Second World War and in its aftermath, the British settled their ex-servicemen in this country, giving them a land grant and many came from demobilised airmen fresh from battles over Europe. In many ways, they were the cream of British society – well educated and with access to money and know how. They settled down and made this country their home. In the process, we became the third largest producer of flue-cured tobacco in the world and the golden crop funded an agricultural system that was in many ways one of the most advanced in the world.

We regularly broke records for yields, bred new African crop and animal varieties and became a small, but potent agricultural powerhouse. In many fields we led the world – our ICA system and the Natural Resources Board were regarded as the leading conservation agency in Africa and even in the world of agriculture. We built a small but thriving industry that was self-contained and self-supporting. Our network of research stations produced technologies and varieties that kept us at the cutting edge.

Drought was a constant problem and to combat its effects we developed 10 000 farm dams and could irrigate 300 000 hectares of crops when needed. We built large dams on the major rivers and established irrigated Estates that produced sugar and citrus in large quantities. Our farm system supported 800 000 small scale farmers and 23 000 farmers on 200 or more hectares of land held freehold while the core was about 6 000 large scale commercial farms – some producing over a 100 000 tonnes of grain a year. These were medium to large farm companies employing 350 000 workers and generating half of our exports and nearly all our food. Our industries were largely dependent on the farmers, either as suppliers or as clients.

When Independence came, the whole farming community – no matter what side they had been on, breathed a sigh of relief, locked up their weapons and turned back to their farms. They were encouraged to return to normal by a Government that said the past was behind us and we would all be treated as citizens. More than any other community here, the farmers took this promise to heart and, tied to their farms by ownership and a deep commitment to the land they tilled, they put their hands to the Independence plough. No other sector made a bigger contribution to the early success of this country after decades of war and sanctions than agriculture – growing on average by 15 per cent per annum up to 1997.

Then things went to hell, infuriated by the support the commercial farming community as a whole had given the new political opposition, the MDC, the Government under the leadership of Robert Mugabe decided to dismantle the entire system. This decision was similar in many ways to the Soviet pogrom against the independent farmers in that country that refused collectivisation. The mistake was to think that if we changed the community that owned the land to a new community who would occupy the land, little would change. Ownership is not optional in agriculture – it’s the core value that energises and makes productive farming possible in tough forming countries like Zimbabwe.

In the next 5 years over 4 000 large scale, farms and 8 million hectares of productive farmland were taken over by force. Their owners and workers displaced. The State achieved its key objective which was to replace the independent farmers with people who would support the Party in elections and secure its hold on power. But the price paid was enormous – production collapsed and both the small scale and peasant sectors, as well as the large scale sector, saw a decline in output of over 70 per cent.

Banks and industry collapsed and overall economic output declined. The destruction of tenure over vast areas of land sent a negative signal to the world that risk capital could not be invested safely in Zimbabwe. Half to three-quarters of the population had to be fed by international agencies. Incomes fell to historically low levels, the State could no longer finance itself and all the social services needed. By 2008, Zimbabwe was a failed State.

There is no way we can go back on all that has been done to agriculture since 1997, but what we can do is give our new generation of farmers a chance to establish themselves and rebuild our farm system as a productive, competitive and self-sustaining system. It starts with tenure. We have to give all who use the land to make a living, secure marketable tenure over the land they use. It does not really matter if its freehold or a long lease, but both must be bankable and transferable in an open market for land so that the land again has value. Professor Rukuni told us how to do this 25 years ago, I see no reason to reinvent the wheel.

Believe me, once you have done this, the farmers themselves will transform the industry and make Zimbabwe once again the small but productive farming country it once was. It is also the only to equip our farmers to cope with seasons like this one. No amount of subsidy or State support can do this – it has to be the feet of farmers who own the land they work.

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