THE new dispensation put agriculture on centre stage in its effort to revive the country’s ailing economy after the radical land reform of 2000 left many outstanding challenges.
One of the biggest challenges, however, was that the agricultural sector, under the new land ownership patterns, has a much more diffuse base.
Today, there are many small-to-medium farms, rather than the few white-owned large commercial farms of the past.
Getting agriculture moving in Zimbabwe is not a small, simple task.
What are the top priorities for agriculture, and what can be learnt from the challenges faced since the land reform?
Studies undertaken over almost two decades of tracking what became of formerly white-owned farms following the land reform process across Zimbabwe provided some surprising results and useful indicators.
Researchers examined both smallholder production in the A1 farming areas and the A2 medium-scale commercial farms allocations as well as out-grower arrangements in the Lowveld Sugar Estates.
Here, research was mainly carried out in the dry south-east Masvingo area, in Mvurwi, in the north of Harare and in the Matobo area in Matabeleland.
Despite the sad lack of support, the smallholder farmers did reasonably well, with most producing surplus and reinvesting in their farms.
Around two thirds have produced more food than just for subsistence over most of the years that research was conducted.
In Mvurwi, especially, where tobacco dominated, a smallholder-led tobacco boom brought significant investment, both on and off the farms.
On the other hand, studies showed that the larger landholdings struggled due to lack of financial capital.
Many were not able to get off the ground, while others had significant under-utilised areas of land, with infrastructure in disrepair.
The exceptions were farmers operating under contract arrangements with large estates that did relatively well because they were supported while finance was guaranteed.
This saw the emergence of new contract farming and joint venture arrangements in some areas, although much more needed to be done; which according to the research, 10 priorities need to be undertaken for agricultural development in Zimbabwe, once a comprehensive land audit is undertaken and the establishment of a more efficient land administration system is put in place.
Now that land tenure security is assured through the issuance of 99-year leases for larger land reform farms and permits for smaller farms, it should be complemented by clear regulations to avoid land concentration and to facilitate women’s access to land.
This can be achieved through a multi-form tenure system based on trusted, secure property relations.
Bankable leases should help to get private bank finance flowing, which is essential; as will the acceptance of a range of forms of collateral by finance institutions.
Here, state assurances and the building of trust will be a key issue.
Partnerships and joint ventures will be significant for some larger farms and certain crops, where external finance and expertise are essential.
However, regulations should be put in place to ensure such partnerships are mutually beneficial and involve the transfer of skills that are vital.
Currently, Government loans for agriculture are offered through the Command Agriculture Programme; focusing mainly on larger farms with irrigation infrastructure, which has shown some success in the past season.
Such programmes, however, should not be abused for political ends; and it is essential that beneficiaries of loans repay them fully.
Irrigation is essential to boost production in dry land areas, especially given the current increased variability in rainfall patterns due to climate change, although this should not involve expensive, large-scale schemes only.
Instead they should be focused on supporting farmer-led irrigation, using small pumps and pipes bought locally, with external intervention being focused mainly on improving water use efficiency and management.
“The issue of irrigation is non-negotiable. We have 10 000 dams in Zimbabwe and we have to utilise them… and ensure the country’s food security, we need to support every farmer who stays near a water body,” this, according to the Deputy Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement Vangelis Peter Haritatos was part of the grand plan, which also included increasing maize output, involves putting more land under irrigation and mechanising production.
Appropriate mechanisation is a further priority in Zimbabwe, which, as previously, should not be focused only on the large-scale options.
Small-scale mechanisation, such as two-wheeled tractors and motorbike-drawn trailers, for example, may be more appropriate and affordable than large tractors and combine harvesters.
For larger equipment, co-operative arrangements or private hire schemes could work, supported by affordable online infrastructure and training.
Access to markets is another vital issue for Zimbabwean farmers.
Too often, smallholders get poor value for their products.
Linking diverse producers to markets is essential, while ensuring local content purchasing by supermarkets, reduced red tape and support for investment in transport infrastructure is essential, especially for the rural farmer who contributes over 80 percent of food production.
Value addition is another key area Zimbabwe must work on; especially developing value-added activities around the agricultural sector.
More and better local processing, packaging and selling to niche markets would ensure employment along the value chain.
A wholesale rethink of agricultural extension and support services is required.
Smart support systems through better extension services and market support through IT applications is increasingly feasible, given the growing connectivity and the wide ownership of smartphones.
This means farmers, especially rural-based farmers, can be offered more attuned and useful advice.
For Zimbabwe’s economic development, agricultural development must to be seen as part of local economic development.
Agriculture must be integrated into the wider economic planning and investment frameworks, including at district level, with new farms of varying sizes linked to small towns near land reform areas, where new employment and service provision opportunities open up.
Together, these suggestions could make a difference, both to the Zimbabwean economy and to farmers’ livelihoods across the country.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer anda specialist Post-Colonial Scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com