The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe

The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe has been phenomenal. Every space seems to be cultivated, with a huge array of crops.

Today you see tractors, irrigation pumps, trucks carrying produce to markets, with significant investments in commercialised agriculture happening alongside traditional backyard farming and opportunistic cropping in open spaces around towns and cities. What explains this growth, and how is it affecting the wider food system?

Over the last couple of months the Zimbabwe research team has set out to explore these questions in diverse urban settings – from Masvingo town to Chatsworth, Chiredzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa and Mvurwi. As this short blog series will explain the patterns are different, but the trend is the same. Agriculture in towns is growing and becoming an increasingly important source of food for consumers. This in turn is putting a squeeze on rural producers in our study sites who must compete with higher transport costs and lack of access to markets.

Urban and especially peri-urban agriculture of course has a long pedigree in Zimbabwe. In the colonial era, Africans in town were allowed to grow food crops in their backyards. However, the townships and high-density suburbs were only expected to be temporary residences for Africans who were expected to return home to their ‘reserves’. In the colonial era urban food production was heavily controlled and restricted to compounds where vegetables could be grown. Attempts to expand to other areas was illegal, and banned crops were slashed and destroyed by municipal authorities. This restrictive approach continued after Independence with urban agriculture being seen in terms of the supply of ‘relish’ rather than a key source of food production and so urban food and nutrition security.

Today urban residents are much more permanent; although in recent decades many are unemployed or reliant on temporary piece work as economic conditions in the country have deteriorated. While uncontrolled urban agriculture remains illegal according to planning laws, over the last decades – out of necessity – there has been much more accommodation of the practice. With the retrenchments of the structural adjustment era from 1991, the level of urban food insecurity grew making urban agriculture essential for survival. The need for urban agriculture has grown over the last 30 years, with economic chaos bringing real hardships to urban residents across Zimbabwe. COVID-19 accelerated this as movement restrictions and the closing of businesses made stable employment even less likely. Some decided to return to the rural areas seeking out land for farming. As some other African countries, the growth of urban areas has been slow in Zimbabwe and connections to rural areas is essential. Some suggest that urban populations have declined as migration switches from rural to urban to the other way round.

COVID-19 arrived in the midst of an on-going economic crisis in Zimbabwe and many sought refuge in the rural areas. However those in town needed access to food production especially when they couldn’t travel to the rural areas during lockdowns.

Economic conditions have made matters worse. The failure of the local currency has meant that parallel currency systems exist and inflation is rising. The costs of household food provisioning rises daily and with the challenges of finding gainful employment, this means that growing food for urban families is essential.

With a poor harvest this year, urban food insecurity is graded as ‘stressed’, with a number of donor programmes focusing on vouchers and cash transfers to support people. But cash these days can lose value quickly; much better to have some food directly on the table from your own urban plot or garden.

Three types of urban agriculture

Our studies across our sites have shown that urban agriculture takes on a variety of forms but is virtually universal, with its contribution today being highly significant, perhaps far more so than in other urban settings in the southern African region due to the particularly harsh economic conditions in Zimbabwe. Three main types of agriculture are seen:

Backyard farming – This is the most common form of urban agriculture, and nearly every compound has a few beds for vegetables of different sorts, but also maize, sweet potatoes and other staples. Those renting rooms may also have a garden bed as part of their rental package. While space is extremely limited – plots in the high-density suburbs are regulated and as the name suggests there’s not much room. The result is that every square inch is exploited. And not only with crops: broilers, rabbits, turkeys and more are common in backyards. Some have invested in boreholes to supplement municipal water supplies, while others have intensified with various forms of irrigation.

Open space farming – While notionally still illegal, such farming has expanded massively in recent years. In areas designated for future building, in now disused industrial areas, along roadsides, by streams and rivers, every available area it seems is cultivated. Allocations of land in such areas are not formally controlled, and indeed such farmers can be evicted at any time. Environmental regulations (such as around stream bank cultivation) can be enforced, and municipal police can come to destroy crops. However, in recent years there has been a decline in regulatory capacity and enforcement, and sometimes bribes are paid to allow farming to continue. In some sites, land barons who control housing developments may be involved. Such urban land is highly contested, and land access is extremely politicised, with land being handed out for housing schemes as part of political patronage, particularly in the larger towns and cities.

Negotiating with authorities of different sorts, whether municipal, environmental or political chefs, barons and brokers, makes such open space farming highly insecure. Nevertheless, the demand for land and food in urban areas is so high that people will try their luck. A process of what people describe as ‘self-allocation’ occurs and people carve out an unused portion at the beginning of a season. Disputes over boundaries and claims are common, and negotiation with farming neighbours is always on-going. Many people have multiple, scattered plots, fitted in amongst other farmers where spaces open up. These plots may be 0.1 ha or less, but together can add up to a decent holding where production can be significant. Those with money and political clout may be able to command larger areas in one location, with cultivation expanding to allow mechanisation, with tractors and other equipment brought in. These larger farmers may have formal deals with supermarkets and other contractors, while others with smaller plots sell in local markets when they have surplus. As others have noted, unequal access to land for urban agriculture is generating new forms of injustice.

Formal plots – In some towns, including Masvingo, titled plots were offered for purchase by town authorities during the colonial era. These small plots, usually around 6 ha, are on the town periphery and were occupied by both whites and blacks. Today they are much sought after and, given their proximity to markets, provide real opportunities for intensified commercial agriculture. While some have merged into the suburbs that continue to expand through diaspora and other investments, others have invested in irrigation equipment, stall feeding systems for animals and increasingly sophisticated systems of intensive crop and animal production. Some engage in contract farming for particular crops (like chillies for example), others have deals to supply supermarkets in town. As the economy becomes more and more localised – again a trend accelerated by COVID-19 – such producers have an advantage compared to their rural neighbours.

Next week, we will explore how this growth in urban agriculture is having an effect on the wider food production system, and especially how the pandemic has restructured food systems both in towns and in the wider rural areas. The final blog in the series will offer some case studies of urban agriculture from different towns in our study areas and across the types outlined above.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Thanks to Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi for their contributions and to Felix Murimbarimba for both researching and coordinating.

Post published in: Agriculture

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