Wheat farming hits all-time low

ZIMBABWE consumes more than a million loaves of bread daily and needs at least 25 000 tonnes of wheat monthly, but will harvest a mere estimated 31 000 tonnes which can only meet five weeks of national requirements, according to local millers.

Taurai Mangudhla

The millers said the country needs US$200 million worth of flour a year to meet the national bread demands.

While bread is Zimbabwe’s biggest source of carbohydrates, there is insufficient investment going towards winter wheat as reflected by production figures.

According to national statistics, about a decade ago, local producers used to harvest up to 260 000 tonnes from about 65 000 hectares, with the balance of 40 000 tonnes being imported. In 2012, the hectarage under wheat production shrunk to only 4 000 ha, which yielded 16 000 tonnes.

Farmers are hamstrung by debilitating power outages and high costs of production to the extent of either abandoning growing of the crop or are constantly worried about the viability of wheat farming under current circumstances.

Local millers said government should come up with a wheat policy that would ensure there is a secure source of affordable funding and reasonable loan terms.

Grain Millers’ Association of Zimbabwe chairperson Tafadzwa Musarara said government should focus on revamping irrigation and dams while limiting flour imports, which have flooded the market.

“Wheat farmers have been facing problems of power supply and funding has been expensive,” Musarara said. “They also have high monthly electricity and water bills. Considering that Zimbabwe consumes one million loaves a day, government has to come up with a clear wheat policy.”

Commercial Farmers Union president Charles Taffs said viable solutions are required to address fundamentals in respect of land tenure and a general lack of policy consistency in order to attract much-needed foreign direct investment in irrigation.

“It’s very simple really; in 2014 what we have got to do is to make sure we boost investor confidence so that we get investment in irrigation for the winter crop because we rely 100% on irrigation for the winter crop,” Taffs said.

“We also have to address issues to do with power cuts and cost of power and the whole value chain in general.”

Taffs said the country should give farmers security of tenure to access funding from banks and come up with lasting solutions to huge production costs and close the current power deficit to save wheat production from total collapse.

“Zimbabwe has the highest cost of production in the region and we are talking of the electricity and water costs. In countries like Zambia, they don’t pay for water but we pay for water here and all that adds to your costs,” Taffs said during a discussion at a business conference in Harare.

Although government provided more than US$250 million towards funding agriculture for the 2013/14 farming season, challenges in wheat production are likely to spill into the 2014 winter season.

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Wonder Chabikwa said wheat farming was too expensive and no longer viable hence the need for government support. Farmers need to fork out US$2 915 to produce one hectare of wheat against a purchase price of US$466 per tonne.

“The cost of output is too high taking into consideration that one hectare produces six tonnes. It’s difficult to break even because six tonnes are not achievable as only 3-4 tonnes can be harvested so it’s not a viable crop,” said Chabikwa.

Last year, wheat fetched US$466 per tonne, far below the cost of production. Chabikwa said most willing farmers did not have money to fund wheat production as they would still be bogged down selling summer crops.

Agriculture minister Joseph Made (pictured) has said a farmer incurs bills amounting to US$14 000 if for instance s/he grows wheat on 20ha at an electricity cost of US$700 per hectare. After settling these bills, most farmers would end up deep in the red.

Made said government was mobilising resources well ahead of the 2014 winter wheat crop production to boost production of the cereal. He said one of his priority areas was to focus on providing enablers to revive production in the agricultural sector.

“We must address the consistency of input supply, irrigation and electricity supply,” he said, adding proper utilisation of land was critical to boosting productivity.

“Remember the challenges of agriculture have mainly to do with finance. Our major issue is to address the issues that relate to food crops so that we address the issues of food security and we want to provide raw materials.”

Made said Zesa has already agreed to prioritise farming as part of a broader strategy aimed at reviving agriculture.

However, Zesa has previously promised to prioritise power supply to agricultural production but failed to do so owing to its acute power supply deficit and frequent breakdowns at its power stations.

Apart from lack of adequate supplies and utilities, Zimbabwe is faced with a pricing challenge that has crippled mostly cotton and grain production.

Made said the general long-term plan is to address production yields and productivity to deal with pricing constraints.
“Prices are determined by yield per unit area; if your yield per hectare for maize for instance is one tonne and you are competing against someone with a yield of 10 tonnes then you know where you stand,” he said.

The Agriculture ministry also announced they had secured a US$98 million loan facility from Brazil to fund mechanisation projects and rehabilitation of irrigation schemes.

Agriculture is a key pillar of Zimbabwe’s economic growth to the extent government officially revised downwards the 2013 economic targets from the initial 5% to 3,4% largely as a result of the slump in commodity prices on the international market coupled with rising production costs.

Following the revision, agriculture is now expected to grow by 5,4%, down from the initial 6,4% estimate due to a poor 2012/13 rain season and softening agricultural commodity prices.