Education key to building agricultural productivity

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THE 2015/16 cropping season has proved a real challenge for farmers because of the very limited and erratic rains.
Our state of preparedness as farmers and as the agricultural industry in Zimbabwe for a drought situation has been severely tested and in most cases found to be woefully inadequate. I do not want to sound alarmist but I will recount my own experiences as I struggled to plant soyabean and maize crops. Several farmers I have met went through similar experiences. The common denominator is human factor challenges.
The first human factor challenge is often the slow progress in the processing of the application to obtain agricultural finance.
Bank officials like to take their time to do due process with the applications. They have little or no appreciation of the need for timely operations to ‘catch’ the season.
They will accuse farmers of filing applications late and while that may be true, by and large, bank officers need to differentiate agricultural (cropping) loans from others because of the seasonality of cropping.
Late disbursement equals late planting which equals reduced yields with negative implications for loan repayment.
We now descend on to the farm where I will want to share some common human factor challenges that reduce the potential success of agricultural enterprises.
The skills and experience of the farm managers, supervisors and other workers are critical for success. A farm manager must agree to the production plan and targets with his principal (the company or the farmer). He needs to be knowledgeable about the crops, their varieties and the general agronomic management issues. Most new farmers will have limited capacity to guide their managers or supervisors as they also have limited knowledge and skills.
Imagine a farm manager who applies ammonium nitrate top dressing to a crop that is wilting without waiting for the crop to recover. His argument: there has been a 10 millimetre rain shower; you apply top dressing after it has rained. The hot sun returns the following morning and the crop finally collapses.
There is urgent need for short term courses to sharpen the skills and knowledge of farmers and farm managers to ensure optimum operations for maximum possible yields. These courses must be conducted by AGRITEX, university agriculture faculties, private sector agro-companies in collaboration with farmers’ unions. Certificates of attendance must be issued. Venues for such courses must be strategically located throughout the farming areas.
Formal courses must also be launched to train farmers and farm workers in various aspects of crop and livestock management. Agricultural productivity will significantly improve on the back of such training programmes. These initiatives must be supported by clear government policy and resources availed for them.
There is a serious lack of appropriate but essential skills in the agricultural sector. Many of the skills have been lost through migration of technical personnel into the English-speaking diaspora. That is why there should be a deliberate effort to mobilise the remaining expertise to run weekend courses for the young and up-coming farmers and technical personnel.
Some examples of the consequences of engaging poorly skilled labour come to mind. We seek to engage a tractor driver with skills to plough, disc, plant and spray crops. This fellow claims to have worked for white farmers for many years who he claims taught him farm mechanics, driving, basic electricity wiring, repair and maintenance of irrigation equipment etc. We are unable to verify because former employers are no longer traceable.
So we engage him and give him a month’s probation. The rains come and within 10 hectares of planting , he has completely destroyed our soyabean planting drill machine. He cannot maintain it. We hire one from the neighbouring farm. They want cash up front. We take the farm wages to pay because we have to plant! So the workers have to wait longer for their pay.
The level of the river rises as flood waters course down the Manyame. Our handyman goes and disconnects all the wires from the motor, not from the main breaker. When the river subsides he tries to reconnect the wires. He is not sure which goes where. He tries to run the pump. The motor fails to go into delta mode. He keeps trying and the motor goes up in smoke. But you said you knew how to maintain such equipment! He looks down.
Meanwhile it is not raining and we really must plant! The season is fast running away. So we urgently send the motor for rewinding. It costs one thousand five hundred dollars and this is now January. Where do you find the money?
The motor is repaired and returned but the engineer finds that the pump unit is faulty; he brings a spare one from his workshop and charges seven hundred dollars for it. He mounts the pump but after running a while the motor gets too hot.
The engineer cannot figure where the problem is coming from. A second opinion from a more experienced person shows that this pump is too big for our motor; it requires a 100 horsepower unit. Then we ask but why did the first engineer not see the mis-match?
All the above scenarios are being played out on the farms presenting a major drawback to agricultural productivity. In all cases the human factor deficiencies are the main drawback.
Just a few weeks back we interviewed a young graduate from one of the provincial level technical colleges. We asked which crops he knew how to grow. Of course maize and tobacco and soyabeans. How do you plant soyabeans? I asked. Quick answer: Mix one kilogramme sugar with every 10 kg seed! We stopped the interview there and then. This candidate was way off the mark!
So what practical skills and knowledge are we imparting to our school and college graduates? Therein lies another human factor challenge for Zimbabwe’s agriculture. We think we know but we don’t. We think they know but their knowledge is limited!
To improve agricultural productivity, Zimbabwe needs to invest in developing the human factor dimension of its production systems through appropriate practical skills training, mentoring and tutelage. We need less theory and more practice in universities, colleges and schools agricultural programmes.
The struggle to increase agricultural production continues! We need more trained soldiers on the agricultural field!

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