Agriculture: Time to act is now!

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AS indicated in the previous episode of this series, we shall further interrogate the factors behind the low levels of productivity by the majority of black resettled farmers.
This is the only way we can identify possible solutions.
Zimbabwe ‘boasts’ high levels of education.
One would expect this high level of education to reflect in the agricultural sector through enhanced productivity.
Indeed, we have many people who are agricultural graduates with certificates, diplomas as well as under and postgraduate degrees.
Closer scrutiny of the quality of these academic paper qualifications shows that they are rich in theoretical knowledge and thin on practical know-how.
Can these people raise agricultural productivity?
As a teacher, I am familiar with our education system. Students go to university to read for a bachelor’s degree.
The emphasis is on ‘reading and committing to memory.’ Knowledge is presented as book chapters where certain procedures may be detailed as sequences of specific procedures.
The student’s learning experience consists of committing to memory these procedures.
The examination requires the learner to recall and write down the various procedures and processes in correct order and are recognised as the star pupils or learners.
Problem-solving skills must also be tested but, for the most part, theory rules the roost where the textbook is the bible.
If we now take the graduate from such a programme into the field, he may fail to recognise the items that s/he so ably describes in writing or speech.
The graduate may fail to perform any of the procedures that they describe well theoretically.
The second hurdle is that many procedures may require the operation of mechanical equipment.
The equipment may be available but there will be no one able to operate it.
There might be someone who can operate the equipment but it might malfunction and there is nobody who knows how to repair it.
The issue of equipment operation and maintenance is a major constraint for farm operations.
It hits hardest our new farmers who have limited experience and technical expertise.
Technical incompetence is the main reason Africa has become an equipment graveyard.
Let us take the case of a new farmer, ‘Kurima’ who gets resettled on a 130ha A2 farm.
He is a professional who holds a good job in town.
His only farming experience is communal farming where he herded cattle and helped in the weeding of his father’s fields in between school terms.
Like most Zimbabweans, he is excited about acquiring a piece of land and cherishes being called a farmer.
Because the new farmer cannot leave his job, he asks a relative, a brother, nephew or an uncle to come over and ‘manage’ the farm.
The overwhelming majority of our black ‘new’ farmers are in this category.
The new ‘farm manager’s only qualification is his relationship to the new farmer.
He might have some experience with communal or old resettlement (matenganyika) agriculture but nothing like the skills and knowledge for the scaled up operations expected on a 130ha farm.
The first challenge is equipment.
Tillage requires a tractor, plough/disc harrow, planter, cultivator and a boom sprayer for applying chemicals like herbicides.
Kurima and his ‘manager’ may not be fully appraised of the challenges to establish a crop but the learning curve is steep and painful.
Of course they could hire tillage equipment but service providers are not readily available.
Those who have hired and even paid are familiar with the agony of waiting until January for tillage services.
It is not just tillage, it is the challenge to plant an area larger than one hectare.
Without equipment, hand planting is the only option.
But that is slow.
The soil will have dried out before you plant even a hectare.
Poor germination means low plant populations which guarantee low yields even with high yielding ‘Nzou’ or ‘Shumba’ maize varieties.
Then Kurima has to wait for another wet spell.
With climate change ushering the age of erratic rainfall, who knows when the next rains will fall.
But the lucky neighbour who got tillage and planting equipment puts down all his crop in a day or two with that one rainfall event.
I have observed that, with hand-planting where hoes are used to dig a hole, place seed and a basal fertiliser, two problems arise which reduce germination.
First the hole must be deep enough so the fertiliser placed at the bottom is covered by a layer of soil on top of which is placed the maize seed.
This in turn is covered with two-or-three centimetres of soil which is then firmly pressed down using one’s foot.
This ensures contact between seed and moist soil.
The seed can then imbibe water so it germinates.
If the seed and fertiliser are not separated, the salt effect of the fertiliser will prevent the seed from imbibing moisture, reducing the chances of germination.
If the soil is not firmly pressed down to ensure close contact with seed, it will remain loose allowing the moisture to evaporate.
Then the seed will not germinate.
In dry years, rainfall events of 20-30mm are adequate for germination, but it will be poor on the back of poor planting procedure as described above.
The problem of poor germination does not occur with use of a planter, even an animal –drawn one; this is because seed is placed and covered adequately.
While the above procedure can be described simply as digging holes, placing first the fertiliser and then seed and covering up, only a person who has practical know-how will be able follow and even supervise the more detailed procedures of hand-planting.
We all need to create the Mupfure College model!
Cry education with production!
The agriculture teacher, instructor, lecturer or professor who is marking, checks to see if the student has reproduced the information as it is presented in the procedure manual, textbook or lecture notes.
And so, when the ‘educated’ agriculture graduates land in the field the wide gap between practice and theory shows up glaringly.
So, while we clamour for an increase in numbers of trained personnel, we have to go back to the drawing board in terms of the approaches used in training agriculturalists.
There is no alternative to practical hands-on experience.
Even with all the science that graduates learn, if they do not touch base with field reality, if they do not ‘dirty’ their hands, the science will not impact productivity.
After all, science is knowledge about the real world; it cannot be anything but practical.
So there are two main challenges for improving Zimbabwean agricultural productivity – generating the knowledge (research) and imparting it to the learners so they can practise it.
Now students with good memories score highly, get the ‘qualifications’, land the jobs but fail to increase productivity on the land. Two things fail – human performance and mechanical equipment.
Humans fail because they are poorly or wrongly programmed through the faulty education system.
Mechanical equipment failure has two dimensions – lack of such equipment or human incapacity to operate and maintain same performance.
On the issue of lack of equipment, several mechanisation drives have been conducted and currently Command Agriculture has schemes to address this critical area.
Farmers can access equipment for which they pay using proceeds from their farming operations.
Some of the challenges have to do with matching the equipment size to the scale of operations.
The majority of A2 farms require small-to-medium scale mechanisation units for tillage, planting and harvesting.
These are virtually unavailable.
The current thrust is to bring in large scale combines and other tillage units that are too large for the majority of farms. This approach or thrust is informed by the previous large scale farm scenario and yet A2 farms are, in fact, sub-units of the previously white-owned large land holdings.
Agricultural policy needs to be aligned to the practical realities on the ground.
Small-scale farmers need mechanisation to increase productivity.
To avoid the equipment graveyard scenario, there is need for a vigorous local drive to develop appropriate technologies through local institutions of science and technology using reverse engineering and research.
Otherwise, a wholly-imported mechanisation arsenal, exciting as it may seem, will gobble up large sums of foreign exchange as we grapple to keep the imported machines running with imported spare parts and limited local technical expertise.
Our strength, in the long run, must lie in our capacity to sustain our technological base using mostly local human and material resources.
In short, we must industrialise by developing synergies between local and imported technologies.
The equipment graveyard label will be hard for Zimbabwe and other African countries to shake off if we do not indigenise science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Put simply, Zimbabwe must spare no efforts to learn to make its own wheels, to grow its own wings, even as we seek to leapfrog into the 21st Century on borrowed wings.
Appropriately scaled industrialisation of agricultural value chains will enhance farm productivity and generate the much-needed raw materials to spur industrial capacity utilisation and the manufacturing sector.
The leadership of institutions of higher learning must take up the challenge; the effort requires ‘real’ men and women.
The time to act is now!

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