Which way to go for Zim agriculture?

A FUNDAMENTAL transformation in our mindset is called for. We need to recognise that agriculture as practised in the 21st Century is a professional enterprise that has to be entrusted to appropriately qualified specialists in the same way that the practise of law, medicine and engineering is recognised. With this in mind we have to accept that there is more to it than the need to “correct historical imbalances”.

On a related note, we need to recognise that this is NOT a profession reserved for those “who have failed elsewhere”, nor should we be made to think that the profession is for the less intellectually gifted. We need to acknowledge that NOT everyone who resides in the rural/communal areas is necessarily a farmer: some in that community are n’angas/doctors; some are hunters; while others are tradesmen of various disciplines!

For the uninitiated, it is vital to highlight some of the sterling work achieved in science under the banner of agriculture such as the study of genetics and related extensive breeding of animals and various crop varieties. In contemporary science this has led to the phenomenal achievements through genetic engineering. In Zimbabwe, the results of this scientific work is there for all to see in the many varieties of maize, wheat, soya beans, cotton, sunflowers and the many breeds of beef and dairy cattle. The extensive range of various types of fertilisers and agro-chemicals that have been developed for use on different crops and soils is further testimony of the sophistication of the industry.

In 2000 it was estimated that the agricultural sector contributed 40% of the export earnings; 18% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); 26% of those employed in the formal sector were engaged in commercial agriculture; 60% of industry was agro-based; and, the agricultural sector consumed 20% of the total output of industry. It is of paramount importance that we highlight the interdependence illustrated above as this explains the predicament we now face due to the disruption of the agricultural sector which has had a devastating impact on the rest of the economy. Given this background, and the painful experience of the past 10 years it is now imperative that we restore the viability of commercial agriculture as a prerequisite to the resuscitation of the economy of Zimbabwe as a whole.

To restore the viability of the agricultural sector we need to go back to basics. There is a wealth of knowledge that has been generated over the years on the agro-ecological potential of various parts of the country. Over the past few years, I have watched with great sadness as the “new farmers” break their backs trying to grow a crop of maize on lands more suited for cattle ranching in the Midlands, Masvingo and Matebeleland; thriving crops of apples and coffee have been removed to make way for maize crops on the acidic soils in Manicaland.

Add to that the constraints in availability of appropriate draft power leading to the use of cattle or donkeys on the red soils in the Mashonaland provinces, then you have a recipe for serious underutilisation of the prime agricultural areas of Region I and II. In addition, misleading advice has been dispensed liberally over the print and electronic media encouraging farmers to continue planting crops beyond the scientifically recommended dates in order to meet a predetermined target hectarage. A case in point is the wheat crop with a recommended planting date of early May for the lowveld and mid-May for the highveld. Delayed establishment of the crop is automatically accompanied by yield reductions irrespective of the amount of additional fertiliser that is applied.

Thanks to the efforts of the many professionals who have been involved in the industry in the past, there are many existing plans and designs that have been drawn-up that can be picked-up and used to attract investment into the country. Examples include the following irrigation and dam projects: Tokwe-Mukorsi in Masvingo, Marovanyati in Manicaland, Mhondoro “B”and Biri in Mashonaland West and Silverstroom in Mashonaland Central. In additional there is vast tracks of rich black soils in Matibi 2 and contiguous to Chisumbanje (estimated at about 40 000ha) that could be developed into irrigated lands for the production of cotton and or, sugar cane. All that is required is for us to resolve our political problems, take three to six months to revise the financial and economic analysis of these projects, then we have a very attractive portfolio of potential projects that many serious international investors would find difficult to ignore.

The implementation of these projects would make a direct contribution to the myriad of problems that we are currently facing including: employment creation; food production; availability of raw materials for our manufacturing sector; and the generation of foreign currency.

If we take a hard look at what we want to achieve with the rich resource base this country is endowed with and put in place the right policy framework we should recover the past glory associated with this industry. Clearly we need to depart from the mentality of “entitlement to a piece of land for everyone”. We need to recognise land as a comparative advantage that we need to develop and exploit for the national good. A thorough review of the land tenure framework applicable to the large tracks of communally owned lands is called for to facilitate the process of unlocking value in this sector as well as providing an incentive for long term investment. In addition, we will need to provide adequate support towards research, training, extension and infrastructure development and maintenance in order to make effective use of the available resource.

In the absence of a serious change of attitudes towards this industry, it does not matter how many turnaround strategies we compile and how much money we throw to the “new farmers” through the various incentive packages, very little if anything, will be achieved until there is recognition of the professional nature of the practice of farming.

* Roy Maposa is Associate Director: Agriculture & Rural Development

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