Zimbabwe: Farmers short of resources amid political struggles (IPS)

| June 24, 2013

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Melusi Mhlanga has spent nearly $200 US on inputs each season for the past five years. But his maize yields have not matched his investment. Mr. Mhlanga says, “With good rains I [was] able to get more than twenty bags from my two hectare field, but now I barely manage ten.” To minimize his losses, he has started breeding livestock and running a retail business.

In Zimbabwe, local technical institutions provide agricultural extension, education and advisory services. These services are crucial in helping farmers boost productivity and improve food security. Mr. Mhlanga and other farmers who find strategies to overcome their difficulties could act as role models. Extension officers could point to their achievements as good examples if extension services were better funded.

But funds for agriculture in Zimbabwe are being diverted by the state for political reasons. Agriculture used to be the mainstay of the Zimbabwean economy. But it has been overtaken by mining.

Land reform has meant that more people have access to land. But extension services have little money or resources. And farmers find it difficult to access funding for inputs and equipment without government investment.

Ian Scoones is with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK. He has done extensive research on the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe. Dr. Scoones says, “Agriculture and land has become a political football between the main national parties, and with the donors.”

He explains: “Neither ZANU PF [Zimbabwe’s ruling party] nor the MDC [the leading opposition party] have a coherent agricultural and rural development policy. Neither has thought through the implications of land reform.”

According to Dr. Scoones, Zimbabwe used to invest massively in agriculture. Before independence, investment focused on building white-owned commercial farming. Post-independence, the focus has shifted to supporting small-scale farmers.

He explains: “Much of this spending was inappropriate, corrupt and therefore poorly-focused. Since 2009, with the stabilization of the economy, there has been some limited investment, but not enough.”

Granaries are half-empty across drought-stricken southern Zimbabwe. The country is importing maize to make up for a shortfall of at least two million tonnes. This year’s harvest has again been poor for small-scale farmers, who produce about 50 per cent of the national maize crop. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that up to 1.6 million Zimbabweans will need food aid this year.

Tendai Biti is Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister. Unveiling the country’s 2013 budget, Mr. Biti projected that agriculture will now start to grow, following disastrous performances since 2008.

Zimbabwe is due to hold a general election in July 2013. Peter Gambara is an agricultural economist and farmer. He says, “The only times that the government has put a lot of resources into agriculture is during election years.”

He continues: “This year, Minister Biti tried to put more resources into agriculture … he has been criticized by fellow Ministers and the President for failing to allocate adequate resources to such an important sector.”

Back at his homestead, Mr. Mhlanga continues to diversify. He now operates two shops and a grinding mill. These are new sources of income for Mr. Mhlanga and his family. He also grows sorghum and millet for home use.

Mr. Mhlanga says, “Good rains are important for farmers but so is know-how, which has been a challenge for me … I decided to focus more on cattle breeding and running a business than on growing crops.”