Zimbabwe: Low prices mean tough choices for farmers

| July 21, 2014

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Stanley Jena is frustrated. The farmer is stuck without a buyer for his maize. If he accepts the price offered by the Grain Marketing Board, or GMB, his losses will be heavy. But other buyers are offering even less.

Mr. Jena is a small-scale farmer from Jambezi, in Matabeleland North, about 400 kilometres north of Bulawayo. Unreliable rains led the farmer to grow drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and finger millet.

But the 2013 rains were good and the weather favourable for maize. He says, “Most of us planted maize. This year we gathered bumper harvests.”

Mr. Jena harvested 20 tonnes of maize, and planned to sell his surplus. His family was very excited about their potential profits. The GMB was the obvious market. But things did not go as hoped.

He says: “They are offering low prices. I think it is because there is a lot of maize this year. But [the GMB] forgot that it was expensive to produce maize since fertilizer prices were high.”

The GMB is offering farmers $390 US per tonne this year, down from $420 US the previous season when Zimbabwe was faced with an acute shortage of maize.

Farmers often travel long distances to sell their produce to the GMB, and must cover the cost of transporting their harvest to the nearest depot.

Bongiwe Xaba is a small-scale farmer from Jambezi. She says: “The depot is 80 kilometres away. It would have been ideal to hire a truck to take my two tonnes but, because of the cost factor, I opted to use my ox cart.”

Ms. Xaba says she cannot see herself managing to pay back the money she borrowed from her sister to buy inputs.

In April 2014, Mr. Jena sold five tonnes of maize to the GMB, but his payment was much delayed. He says, “It is a big inconvenience because I wanted to pay school fees for my daughters and also fend for the family. I ended up selling five of my goats.”

Stevenson Dhlamini is a Zimbabwean agricultural economist. He says the GMB’s failure to pay on time means that private buyers are taking advantage of farmers. Many offer ready cash, but at lower prices. Desperate farmers are often forced to take a loss.

There is no minimum price for maize in Zimbabwe. There are no price controls, and market forces dictate the selling price. Even if Mr. Jena sold his remaining maize to the GMB, he would lose up to 40 per cent of his investment.

He says: “I will treat some of my maize and wait for the opportune time even if it takes two years to sell to a desperate market when hunger strikes. I will mix some of it with concentrate to make feed for my cattle.”

Mr. Jena has 10 cattle, and can cut feed costs by using his maize for pen feeding. Last season he grew nothing but maize. But he has other plans this season. He says, “I have been attending sack potato planting classes. There is [a great] demand for potatoes in my area and therefore … I will manage to earn a living.”