Goromonzi — Johnson Mhaka, 50, an agro-dealer based in Goromonzi, about 40km southeast of the capital Harare, is enjoying robust 2012-13 sales thanks to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) innovative electronic voucher system, which is helping communal farmers access agricultural inputs.
Mhaka, who used to stock mostly groceries at his rural store, has become an authorized dealer in maize seed, fertilizers, agro-chemicals and farming tools such as wheelbarrows, ploughs and hoes.
"In the past two years, when farmers from this area started using vouchers to buy farming inputs, I have been recording relatively high sales and have made it a point to adequately stock my shop at the beginning of the farming season," Mhaka told IRIN.
"Even though I have always sold agricultural inputs, particularly maize seed and fertilizer, before registering as an agro-dealer with the FAO, the stocks were small because not many farmers came to buy," he said.
The farmers were deterred by the inputs' high prices, as Mhaka bought his wares from Harare and then added his own mark-up.
But the initiative makes inputs and tools more accessible to cash-strapped small-scale farmers. In the "market-based input assistance initiative", farmers are each given US$128 in e-vouchers, with beneficiaries additionally contributing $32.
The system is designed to improve food security among vulnerable households through crop and livestock production, said the FAO in a statement. It also aims "to resuscitate the fragile rural agricultural input supply chain through re-engagement of markets, provision of subsidized inputs... [and] farmers' timely access to inputs".
"Through the voucher system, many more farmers are coming to buy from here," Mhaka said. His client-base has increased from about 90 people - buying mainly 50kg bags of fertilizer and maize seed - to more than 300 this year.
The initiative receives financial and technical support from the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the European Union and Zimbabwe's agriculture ministry, which also provides extension and training services.
Expansion of programme
After gaining independence in 1980, price controls on maize increased white farmers' focus on cash crops like tobacco, paprika, flowers and cotton, leaving cereal production largely the preserve of communal farmers, who, at the time, had easy access to agricultural inputs.
But the country's fast-track land reform programme in 2000, which saw commercial white-owned farmland redistributed to landless black Zimbabweans, resulted in the collapse of large-scale agricultural industries, which had been sustained by commercial farmers.
FAO's scheme aims to reorient small-scale farmers towards market-based farming, thereby improving food security.
For the 2012-13 farming season, the programme is attempting a 10-fold scale-up, targeting 40,000 food-insecure and low-income households in 20 districts in Manicaland, Mashonaland East and West, Matabeleland North and South, and Midlands provinces. Farmers receive a variety of seeds, fertilizers, lime, agrochemicals and implements as well as spare parts for farming equipment.
Ministry of Agriculture permanent secretary Ngoni Masoka said, "The use of the vouchers will ensure that rural agro-dealers are revitalized and will lead to an improved organization of the markets, which will benefit farmers as they access inputs close to their areas."
The agro-dealers are vetted by FAO to verify their capacity to provide inputs and tools and to determine if they are government certified. Spot-checks ensure adequate stocks are available. The e-vouchers also have security features, including the farmers' national ID number and gender, and beneficiaries receive secret codes to use when they buy.
Mairos Chitanda, 41, a communal farmer with a two-hectare plot in Goromonzi, hopes to see better results after using the e-voucher system for the first time to buy a plough, two bags of maize seed and a bag of fertilizer from Mhaka's shop.
"I am hoping that we will be blessed with good rains, as I have made enough preparations for planting this year. I already have three more bags of fertilizer that I bought with money I raised from the sale of an ox, and am sure the seed is enough," Chitanda told IRIN. "If the FAO programme continues next year, I hope to buy a new scotch-cart with money from the voucher and from part of my own savings."
Chitanda was excluded from a $20 million input scheme launched by President Robert Mugabe this year because he was not a card-carrying member of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.
But according to FAO, the e-voucher scheme has its own constraints, including the lack of collateral security among agro-dealers, resulting in reluctance by suppliers to supply in bulk, and a tendency among dealers to hike prices of inputs and tools.
Mhaka said beneficiaries also sometimes fail to get their inputs because they have poorly handled and damaged their e-voucher cards - or because they have lost their identity information.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.