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Show exposes malaise in agriculture

By Chido Makunike

FOR the second year in a row, I have been involved in the media promotion of the Harare Agriculture Show. It has been very exciting to be centrally involved in helping to put on the premier

mirror of Zimbabwe’s agricultural and general economic state.

The Zimbabwe Agricultural Society (ZAS) that operates the Exhibition Park and puts on the show makes every attempt to cover all its costs and make a profit, but this gets more difficult every year with the escalating costs of maintaining machinery, infrastructure and keeping up with wages. But this has to be balanced with ensuring that the rents for stands and the entrance fees charged are affordable – no easy task in this era of hyperinflation.

The ZAS consists of paying voluntary members with an interest in agricultural issues. In between shows the full time staff is involved in the general upkeep of the Exhibition Park. Many contractors and temporary staff are taken on just before the show. In recent years, efforts have been made to ensure the show is not the only source of income. There are increasing numbers of buildings rented out all year to make revenue generation an ongoing activity. Plans to incorporate many other all-year business activities are on the cards.

The problem of escalating costs outstripping income-generating ability is as evident at the showgrounds as it is everywhere else in Zimbabwe. Buildings look worn and tired for lack of comprehensive maintenance; new roads that would have been tarred in a more stable and prosperous time are left unpaved and so forth. Things are spruced up a lot in the weeks before the show but the increasingly tattered look of Zimbabwe is, sadly, inevitably evident at the showgrounds.

The number of show-goers was up a little over last year. This was a pleasant surprise considering the ongoing fuel problem, hyperinflation and the deterioration of most Zimbabweans’ economic well-being. All the available individual stands were taken up, allaying fears that because of the fuel situation many who booked stands might be unable to take them up. In fact considering that there is virtually no fuel station in which you can simply drive up to re-fuel, it is amazing how little this problem seemed to have interfered with most exhibitors’ preparations and with the general public wishing to attend. The fuel “black” market has become so widespread and entrenched that it is really the main source of fuel now!

There are several halls in which many small-scale enterprises typically lease a few square metres of space each. Last year the occupancy of these halls was good but this year there were large, embarrassing gaps in most of them. Many of these traders hire trucks or bring their goods by public transport.

The vastly increased costs of transportation caused by the fuel shortage and the massive decline of the currency since last year made getting to the show very difficult for many of these small-scale businesspeople, just as many farmers are having difficulty getting produce to market.

The recent nationwide dislocations and dispossessions of many of this group of people also affected their ability to exhibit. As an example, the number and type of exhibitions in the Home Industries Hall were the poorest I have seen. It was painful to walk in there.

Whether or not there would be cattle this year caused a mini-stir because there were so few last year, and of terrible quality. There were close to a hundred this year of reasonably good quality, the beef cattle looking much better than the dairy ones. Overall, the number that were premier show quality were few, but any cattle at all after last year’s poor showing were welcomed by everybody, especially considering the expense and effort it took exhibitors to bring them. Exhibitors of cattle were each given an impromptu cash token by the ZAS to thank and encourage them.

As in 2004, small-scale farmers dominated in the agricultural produce sections. There were a lot fewer of these farmers this year. The cotton and maize sections that they exhibited in strong force last year were shadows of their former selves, both in quantity and quality. Ditto for the horticultural crops sections. It was disheartening and frightening to so starkly see the graphic representation of Zimbabwe’s agricultural malaise.

Large-scale farmers, new or old, black or white, were hardly in evidence at all. The turnout of Harare schools was very last minute but good, with 20 schools taking space in one of the halls in the two days before the show began. Again, unlike last year there were few exhibits that stood out for their quality, even though what was judged to be the best of what was on offer were awarded prizes. Exposing and encouraging young people to farming is hopefully laying the foundation for a corps of successful commercial farmers in the future, even if the present looks so bleak.

How agriculture and therefore the country are in deep trouble were very obvious at the show. In addition to the numbers of show-goers that thronged the event and the excellent occupation of stands, this is paradoxically another depressing but necessary aspect of the success of this year’s show: to hopefully show objectively to everyone who cares to and see how much soul-searching and work we must do to get our country out of the doldrums and working again.

Before the show I appealed to the media to delve into substantive issues to do with aspects of the state of Zimbabwe, rather than to make the show’s main focus the entertainment available, the official pronouncements made and so forth. The response from right across the media ideological spectrum was massive and positive.

By and large the ideological straitjackets from which various media outlets in Zimbabwe view anything to do with agriculture were largely put aside, at least for the brief period of the show.

This is not to say they were not in evidence, but by and large all the media seemed to accept that with as much trouble as it is abundantly evident the country is in, the issue is no longer are you pro or anti “land reform” as it has been done in Zimbabwe.

It is now about putting our heads together to figure out how to try to stem the effects of what a spectacular failure it has been so far. The effects of the methods employed on the well-being of the country have been awful and no longer possible to hide. It is very encouraging that very few of the media are any longer trying to hide or cover up those failures we must try to collectively halt and reverse.

That task has been made even harder because of all the many support systems in our country that are malfunctioning. For instance, while poor rain over a number of years certainly contributes to poor farming, in Zimbabwe we really no longer have any excuse to be surprised by periods of drought. Are we satisfied that we are doing enough to prepare for them? The very real possibility of poor rain in any year should seriously influence our policies, practices and decisions all the time now so we are not caught so ill-prepared every time.

And let us address all the factors that we are responsible for in the decline of agriculture instead of constantly looking for scapegoats for the mess we are in. Even when we really believe that sanctions, racism, foreign farming subsidies contribute to some of our problems, the fact is that getting around them is still up to us.

Thinking calmly about solutions is a lot more useful than enraged gnashing of teeth, weeping and wailing or the emotionally cathartic but ultimately useless hurling of insults at those we disagree with.

*Makunike is the ZAS spokesperson.

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