12 August 2018

Zimbabwe: Agriculture Remains Key Sector in the Economy

opinion

Before the Bantu migration from East and Central Africa, the denizens of this part of the world were nomadic hunter-gatherers. According to Wikipedia, "the San or Saan peoples are members of various Khoesan-speaking indigenous hunter-gatherer groups representing the first nation of southern Africa, whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa". The San, or Bushmen, were gradually pushed out of present-day Zimbabwe by the Bantu people.

Remnants of the San can still be found in the drier parts of southern Africa where they eke out a living in the harsh deserts of the south. The Bantu people who supplanted the San were livestock herders and were also engaged in crop production. They were mainly subsistence farmers, growing sufficient food for their needs and upkeep.

The idyllic life of the Bantu people shattered

For centuries the Bantu people enjoyed a life of abundance which was punctuated now and again by hardships associated with crop failure on account of locust infestation or drought or intrusion of warlike interlopers. The idyll of this predictable and rustic life was rudely shattered by the arrival of the settler colonialists, who grabbed the best land and relegated the indigenous people to marginal and peripheral lands characterised by poor soils and low rainfall patterns.

The colonials also started mining and industrial enterprises which required manpower. Thus began the inception of the working classes and wage earners or proletariat. The farming operations of the settlers required workers. This process and other endeavours in the service industries formed the basis of the diversification of the Zimbabwean economy and gave impetus to the urbanisation process.

Agriculture remains a key sector in the economy

Agriculture has remained the mainstay of our economy since pre-colonial times. In fact, before colonialism, agriculture was the main economic activity. As Zimbabwe modernised and industrialised, agriculture became a key component of this modernisation and industrialisation process.

Agriculture provides food for the population, raw materials for industry, employment for the people and is a source of foreign currency on account of exports. Prior to the fast-track land redistribution exercise of 2001, agriculture accounted for 41% of exports and it constituted about 18% of the country's GDP. A third of the population was engaged in agricultural activities in the 1990s.

This was to change when Robert Mugabe, the then president, saw his political fortunes waning after he lost the referendum on the adoption of a new constitution. In a desperate attempt to ward off impending political oblivion, Mugabe initiated the land redistribution exercise. Because it was a knee jerk response to what he perceived to be his loss of political support, the exercise was unplanned, ill-thought out and carried out in a haphazard manner. The result was chaos on the farms. Marauding gangs were unleashed upon unsuspecting black (non-Zanu) and white farmers alike. Valuable farming equipment and infrastructure was vandalised or looted. Some farmers lost not only land and property but also life and limb in the process.

The well-connected got the best farms

Farmland was distributed to many, including the well-connected to kith and kin, acolytes and hangers-on like confetti showered at a wedding, of the political establishment. The power elite got the lion's share of the farms and more often than not they got multiple farms in flagrant violation of their own laws. No regard was paid to whether the new beneficiaries had the knowledge or the wherewithal to undertake farming operations. It was a free for all. While this gambit did pay dividends for Mugabe in that he was able to purchase another 17 more years' tenure at state house, the cost to the country was lackluster and extensive.

It is common cause that there is a strong case for land redistribution. But the manner, motive and way Mugabe carried out this exercise left a lot to be desired. There was no need for lawlessness, mayhem, chaos or bloodletting. It could have been done with some measure of decorum, empathy and dignity. The new leadership, who has the benefit of hindsight, has I hope, learnt lessons from what happened here.

As a consequence of the chaotic nature of the land redistribution exercise, production plummeted, hundreds of thousands of farmhands lost their jobs, and food shortages became the order of the day. As the agricultural sector collapsed, economic havoc was unleashed upon the land. Zimbabweans emigrated in droves as they sought succor and sustenance in foreign lands. Hordes of hungry citizens swarmed border towns of our neighbours in desperate search for food and other necessities of life. The breadbasket had become a basket case.

Zambia and other African countries took in the farmers Mugabe was chasing away. Shamelessly, Zimbabwe went on to buy maize from these very same farmers chased away, in the process expending scarce foreign currency and paying higher prices than would have been paid had the farmers remained in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe needs to move on and reclaim its place as a breadbasket of Southern Africa. The major reason why Zimbabwe does not have a currency of its own today is because there is no production in the country. For the country to have its own currency it needs to produce both for domestic consumption and for export.

Agriculture remains the low hanging fruit in terms of resuscitating production in the country. Zimbabwe's land is in abundance, so is the water, knowhow, human resources and so on. Farmland is a finite resource, which should be allocated carefully so that we can reap optimal benefits from its usage. Ordinarily market forces take care of resource allocation but given our circumstances where title deeds are no longer respected a deliberate policy to allocate land optimally should be followed. The land policy should be well thought out and enunciated so that there is transparency and predictability.

To my mind command agriculture is a short-term knee jerk administrative mechanism which needs to be replaced by a comprehensive, well thought out agricultural policy which takes into account matters such as, the land tenure system, training / extension services, financing, marketing etc.

In most places around Zimbabwe today, you will see that most of the farmland is lying fallow and this has been going on for years. "Amasimu kawalinywanga" "Minda yarara" "The fields are lying fallow" for too long. This situation cannot be allowed to continue like this indefinitely. We need to utilise this land for the benefit of the country. Some of the characters who were allocated farms were mere speculators who took up the land, not because of love for agriculture, but just because it was being given for free.

Use it or loose it

I think there is merit in adopting a landholding policy which says "use it or lose it". Also charging a modest land rental could be helpful in weeding out time-wasters who will voluntarily give up the land because of cost considerations. But I guess it is a forlorn hope to expect bureaucrats and policymakers to do anything about the under-utilisation of the land because they are conflicted. They are the ones guilty of under-utilising the land. It's like expecting criminals to apprehend themselves. It is inconceivable. The electorate has to take up this challenge to force the powers that be to listen and do the honourable thing.

In recent years I have noticed that more and more farm land in the communal lands is not being utilised. What could be the logical explanation? Could this be due to unmonitored rural urban migration? We hear some vocal groups talking about land shortages but at the same time we see land lying fallow in communal lands. Some people who have land in the communal lands which they are not utilising clamour the most about land hunger. Their shrill and strident voices reverberate across the land. Sly and self- serving politicians pay attention and cry out in unison that the people have spoken. These people are also at the forefront in invading former commercial farmlands and yet they own unused land in the communal lands.

Some might argue that communal land is marginal land and therefore undesirable. There is no useless land, ladies and gentlemen. All land is valuable if you have the know-how and imagination. Our fathers used to till that land fruitfully and managed to send us to school with proceeds from that land. I think there is need to interrogate these contradictions so that a cogent and comprehensive agricultural policy can be fashioned for the benefit of all.

Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and regional enterprise development consultant. 

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