Restoring agriculture to its former glory

By Renson Gasela

WHEN Sadc decided to give Zimbabwe the responsibility for food security in the region, there was a lot of debate on what exactly, in practical terms, it entailed.



ONT face=”Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>There were basically two schools of thought. The first was that Zimbabwe should use its expertise in food production and grain storage to lead the region and use its infrastructure to store and hold food stocks for the region.

In other words, that we should be the granary of the region. This would have been extremely beneficial to Zimbabwe, what with the accompanying investments. The other countries clearly opposed this.


The second school of thought, which eventually prevailed, was that Zimbabwe would be responsible for co-ordinating food security. The reason why we got this responsibility was that we had capable farmers with skills to produce food and that we were in fact, producing surpluses which were benefiting the region.


All this changed within an unbelievably short space of one year. In a short space of time we have moved from a high pedestal of breadbasket to an embarrassing basket case. Every time you hear news other than those from our infamous state media, Zimbabwe is referred to and lumped together with failed states. There is no respite in sight. This raises the questions: what needs to be done now to reverse this sorry state and whether the present regime is capable of re-directing agriculture to its former glory?


In attempting to answer these questions, a quick look at the current food stocks and preparations for next season is germane.


The country is kept in blissful ignorance of the food supply situation. We know for certain that there is virtually no maize in stock. We are living from hand to mouth – on imports. Any event, such as a one week strike by the railways in South Africa, would result in many people starving.


The hungry villagers need food and energy to work in the fields. They don’t have the food right now. In spite of monotonous denials by the government, people in Zimbabwe are starving.


We are only three weeks away from the start of the new cropping season. There are a number of givens now that can only be marginally improved for the incoming season, otherwise the die is cast.


Factors that determine how much food can be produced are the availability and cost of seed, fertilisers, chemicals, tillage and of course, good rains.

There are only 30 000 tonnes of seed available. This is 40% of what would be required to produce sufficient food for next year. This seed has only just been released to the market because government wanted seed houses to sell at a loss. Naturally, the prices are unaffordable to many a farmer, but such is the state of the economy.


Because seed is not selling fast, an impression is created of sufficient supply when in fact, this is only 40% of national requirement.


Fertilisers and chemicals are not available at all because manufacturers have been operating well below capacity. I understand that some foreign currency was only made available to them last week. This is naturally too late. The little fertiliser available is far too expensive for the ordinary farmer who in fact is the producer.


On tillage, only about a third of the District Development Fund (DDF) tractor fleet is functional, out of a total of 780. This situation is further worsened by the cost of hire and the unavailability and cost of fuel.


The cost of putting one hectare under maize this coming season is well over $9 million. Very few communal and resettlement farmers can afford these costs.


In a hyperinflationary environment which Zimbabwe has degenerated to, farmers will need a profitable pre-planting price. It must be remembered that planting maize in November means that such farmers would be paid in June 2006. So, a pre-planting price entices the farmer sufficiently to believe that such a price would still be profitable by that time.


To do a 10-hectare plant, a farmer needs 110 bags of fertilisers costing $55 million. Is he prepared to bury $55 million without knowing what price will be paid for his maize in June 2006? Without this, many farmers will grow maize for their own consumption.


The net effect of all this is that even if the country received good rains this season, at best no more than 700 000 tonnes of maize would be produced, giving a shortfall of well over a million tonnes.


Since the year 2006 has already been decided by the failure to plan by this regime, I can only advise what needs to be done now to start addressing the food shortage from 2007 onwards.


Firstly, government and seed houses need to select and train potential seed growers. These would need a lot of training and support over a number of years. The intention is to be self-sufficient in seed production.


Secondly, the average to high maize-producing areas are well-known. It is in these areas that good farmers would need to be identified and given adequate support. While doing this, the rest of the country is not neglected, but concentration should be on targeted farmers who would deliver. After all, communal and old resettlement farmers used to produce 70% of the maize. They were able to do this because they had inputs at affordable prices.


Thirdly, government must ensure that fertiliser and chemical companies are provided with adequate foreign currency from January to the end of the year for them to be in full production throughout.


The fourth point is that the Ministry of Agriculture must announce agricultural plans for 2007 by March 2006. These must include:


* A pre-planting producer price to encourage farmers to plant now. This must be announced now for 2006;

* Availability of all inputs for tobacco crop for 2007 in January 2006;

* Availing loans to farmers by March to enable them to start buying fertilisers and chemicals and;

* Ensuring the annual inputs programme for 2007 must commence as farmers deliver their produce of 2006 to the market so that the trucks delivering maize return with fertilisers.


If there are no plans by these dates, the country will continue to see a repeat of the current food shortages. Obviously, the government is comfortable with these permanent food shortages as it uses them for campaign purposes since there are elections of one sort or another every year.


We have a government that thrives on chaos, that is devoid of any feelings for its citizens and that has a boundless propensity to hurt its own citizens and blame somebody else.


* Renson Gasela is a farmer and former MDC legislator.

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