The challenge of reviving Zimbabwe’s commercial agriculture

Dec 8, 2010

by Chido Makunike

Successfully resolving the many issues around Zimbabwe’s agriculture will be a key component of the country’s recovery under whichever governing arrangement that emerges from the current electoral stalemate between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Zimbabwe is a good case study of various angles of many of the issues that are being hotly debated about how to jump-start Africa’s agriculture. Its successful commercial agriculture was run by large scale white farmers and corporations along a Western-based agri-business model with many ‘green revolution’ elements. A small number of black farmers also pursued this farming model, but the majority of black farmers are small scale. It would not be strictly correct to say the latter practice ‘traditional’ farming as the dominant commercial farming model was considered so successful that many of its elements have also been adopted by small scale farmers. The idea of using hybrid seed and fertilizer, for example, became more widely entrenched than is the case in most African countries today. Hyperinflation in recent years has however made inputs hard to get and extremely expensive to purchase.

It is unlikely that the commercial farming model that existed before 2000 will ever exist again in that same form. The 4000 plus white farmers are now down to a few hundred, some of the remaining few having been driven off their farms recently. Since many of the farmers would not want to return to their farms after the trauma they have undergone, they have started new lives elsewhere. It would also be very difficult for even a post-Mugabe government to attempt to reverse the land seizures by going back to the pre-2000 arrangement. The idea of land redistribution remains popular, even if the way Mugabe did it has ended disastrously so far.

After the political dust settles, the challenge will be how to put in place a new model of commercial agriculture. The old model not only made Zimbabwe self-sufficient in food and a net exporter, but it also underpinned many other aspects of the economy. We thus have a situation where the old functioning model is no longer politically tenable in its original form, but there is no model in its place to meet the economic needs of employment creation, provision of raw materials for manufacturing, generation of hard currency and so forth. Although indigenous Zimbabwean farmers were expected to continue the whitw farmers' model, that was naïve in the extreme for countless reasons. It has not happened.

The country’s all-encompassing economic crisis has left no sector un-affected. Small scale farming however continues to be an important source of household food security. It makes a significant contribution to supplying the local food market hence being an important part of ‘commercial farming.’ Small scale farming cannot be considered a substitute for the agribusiness-based, export-oriented large scale sector. The two may have a few shared elements, but they are fundamentally different approaches to farming.

The difficulties in putting in place another commercial farming model will be considerable. There is the issue of skill and experience, which the white farmers built up over decades. Is doing something similar for an identified corps of black farmers a matter of giving them similar kinds of financial and technical support? Or is the farming model of large scale commercial farms also a function of a Western cultural orientation to the land, to finance, to business and labour issues which are fundamentally different from an African cultural orientation?

Is that system of farming culture-neutral and easily learnt by anybody, or is did it evolve as part and parcel of white Zimbabweans’ own version of the Western cultural tradition? Is what is required simply to train, mentor and support the black commercial farmers to farm in the same way the white farmers did, to modify that basic model for new realities, or to find quite different ways to achieve the same results? Can that agri-business model be modified substantially and still work, or does it have to be applied “whole” according to very narrow business, technical and agronomic parameters for it to produce good results?

What impact will the independence-era political environment have on a farming model that was conceived in and designed for a very different political setting? For instance, if cheap, easily expendable labour is a critical factor for the profitability of the large-scale farming model, will this not clash with the idea of land reform as a means of addressing social justice? Yet if the workers are required to receive “good” wages and many other benefits, the model may not be possible at all in a competitive world of trying to increase efficiency to the maximum while cutting costs to the bare minimum.

The socially and politically sensitive labour issue could be dispensed with by largely mechanizing production, as is the growing agri-business trend all over the world. But with Africa’s many un-employed, commercial agriculture’s importance is partly a creator of jobs. In the African context, therefore, would it be considered “progress” to have commercial agriculture which is “technological and efficient” in the sense of being highly mechanized and needing very little human labour?

What about psycho-social aspects? Assuming all else was equal, will a native labour force work harder or less hard for a new native commercial farmer than for the old mzungu farmer? These are issues that are difficult or impossible to incorporate into a business plan, but it would be foolish for a government or farmer that understands southern Africa’s tortured recent history not to examine their possible influence on policy and day to day farming matters.

Worldwide, escalating farming production costs and falling profit margins are crowding out individual farmers in favour of corporations that can mobilize resources to do farming on a huge scale. Farm consolidation is the trend, and large scale is increasingly being replaced by mega scale. In Zimbabwe, large scale farms were divided into smaller units so that many more people could call themselves farmers. According to one point of view, this is serving an important social justice and political function. But others would say this is being naïve and sentimental.

According to the reigning commercial agri-business model, these smaller units cannot be commercially viable. Yet the social and political idea of land reform is taken to mean giving many more people access to land. How is it going to be possible to reconcile what seems like an inherent conflict between harsh global business imperatives and local social and political imperatives? Is it outdated to expect viable, efficient and profitable commercial farming that is based on many small and medium scale farmers? Should we just accept that profitable commercial farming that meets national economic needs will just have to be the preserve of a relatively few, highly efficient mega farmers?

It has been taken for granted that such questions are not relevant. So it has been assumed that reviving Zimbabwe’s ‘breadbasket’ status is primarily a matter of equipping the new black farmers with tractors and other “technological” implements, as well as inputs like fertilizer and agrochemicals, providing them with concessionary finance, extension services and so on. But it is a mistake to not consider whether the model itself is suitable for the people who are going to apply it, and whether they are suitable for the model. Once these basic questions are addressed, the answers would influence whether what is required are modifications to the previously existing model, or a fundamentally different model.

All these and many other issues will have to be carefully considered in putting in place another dynamic commercial farming model in Zimbabwe. To widely different extents, many of these same issues will also have to be considered by many other African countries.

The issues of agricultural productivity can not be simply reduced to ‘technological’ versus ‘non-technological’ farming, to give one example. To talk of either having just ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ farming being “the answer” in an evolving setting where everything is a mix of social, political, cultural, political and economic influences is not realistic.

Technology that works in a particular way in one environment may work very differently in another and it is important to make the necessary adjustments. What we call traditional agriculture may have worked wonderfully in a different time of fewer people, much more available land and before the introduction of the Western capitalist economy, but both for better and for worse, the environment is completely different now and appropriate modifications must be devised.

It is neither enough nor appropriate to reduce agricultural issues to the constituent elements of technology, inputs, finance, legal aspects and so forth. We cannot examine them in isolation of each other and other non-agricultural things going on around them. It is time to completely step out of the box and look anew at all the disjointed pieces of the puzzle and try to figure out how to put them together to achieve the required aims.

*Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

**This article was originally published  in the 09-16 April 2008 edition of The African Executive.


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