PRESENTING the mid-term fiscal policy statement last week, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa announced a cocktail of measures to support the 2014/15 agricultural season likely to be negatively impacted upon by dry spells and a shorter second half rainfall period in the southern parts of the country.
In total the government is mobilising about US$252,3 million under the Presidential Input Scheme to support agriculture this season.
The bulk of the funds, US$184,8 million, will be channeled towards maize and small grains production where government aims to capacitate 1,6 million communal, old resettlement, former small-scale purchase areas and A1 households “to be self-sufficient in food through provision of agriculture inputs”.
“The inputs package targeted at grain producers, both maize and small grains, valued at around US$115,5 per household and will comprise the following: 10 kilogrammes of seed; 50kg of double compound D; and 50kg of ammonium nitrate,” said Chinamasa.
The government is also aiming to support cotton, livestock production, A2 ( commercial farmers) and other farmers as well as input suppliers, to ensure that the agricultural season is a success.
While government support for agriculture especially for communal and small-scale farmers is commendable, given that it is one way of ensuring food security at household level while also contributing to national food security, there is concern that the government is also creating a dependence syndrome among farmers.
Since the 1980s, the government has always supported small-scale farmers, most of whom were into maize farming resulting in the country producing excess grain, which was exported to countries with a grain deficit.
The result was that the country became to be known as the bread basket of Africa, due to its ability to export into the region.
Zimbabwe Farmers Union chief economist Prince Kuipa, however, said back then, farmers formed group lending schemes where they would access loans at reasonable interest rates and pay back after harvest.
However, since the land reform programme, which began in 2000, Zimbabwe has pumped millions of dollars to support small-scale farmers and new commercial farmers with inputs and equipment — most of which have been free of charge.
Despite the massive support, the country has often had to contend with a grain deficit, resulting in Treasury having to pump out more money to import grain from countries such as Zambia, South Africa and Malawi.
In the early 2000s, the argument in support of the provision of free inputs was that the new farmers, especially those who had been allocated A2 farms, needed all the support they could get to produce enough food to sustain the nation.
This was more so considering that agriculture contributes between 15-18% to the Gross Domestic Product as well as 40% of national export earnings and 60% of raw materials to the agro-industry.
Farmers benefitted from the agricultural mechanisation programme which was run by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, where they benefited from tractors, combined harvesters, disc harrows and ploughs among other equipment — besides free yearly inputs.
Fourteen years down the line, however, one would feel farmers are now supposed to be on their feet and should be able to feed the nation without freebies.
Despite calls by economists and agricultural experts that the government needs to ensure farmers get security of tenure to enable them to use their land as collateral with which they can borrow from banks, the government has been slow to move.
The result has been that farmers have continued to rely on the government for funding as they cannot easily access funds from banks, which in any case are too expensive for most to meet.
Last year, government provided about US$160 million support for the communal, old resettlement, A1 and small-scale farmers.
The money, just like the US$252,3 million government aims to provide this year, could have been channeled to Agribank though, where it would have been accessible to small-scale farmers who then pay back with little interest.
Kuipa said such a revolving fund, would ensure that farmers fully commit to their work knowing they have to repay the loans.
“Inputs should not be free. Why should they be? If you say you are a farmer and have been allocated an A1 farm, you should pay back whatever you borrow. It’s a mistake to give someone free inputs,” said Kuipa.
“The government can provide funds, through a financial institution which borrows to farmers at very low interest rates. That is the culture we should be promoting.”
Kuipa said there were some “very vulnerable” members of society who should however benefit from the government input scheme. He said traditional leaders such as village heads and chiefs could be used to identify such persons, but the scheme should be limited to vulnerable persons outside partisan politics.
Economist Godfrey Kanyenze said targeted support especially for small-holder farmers was key to Zimbabwe’s agricultural boom in the 1980s while the same type of support has been critical in Malawi’s agricultural growth.
He said the support should only be given to deserving persons — the vulnerable in society.
“Targeted assistance to communal, old resettlement and other small-scale farmers spurned agricultural growth in the 1980s. The real challenge though is that the assistance should be targeted to deserving people. It must be a national programme, so that people know they have an obligation to produce. It should not be partisan and should be pro-poor,” said Kanyenze.
In addition, the government should address widespread complaints from farmers’ unions over delays in payment for produce delivered to the state-run Grain Marketing Board (GMB).
This means the government should ensure the GMB is capacitated and run professionally so it can be able to collect grain and pay timeously, to enable farmers to prepare for the next agricultural season.
The government should also focus on ensuring that seed houses and other producers of inputs such as fertiliser companies are capacitated so that they avail adequate inputs and on time.
Kuipa said there was an improvement this year in terms of payments by GMB, but said there was need for consistency.
In the long-term, government should also be working on improving and expanding the irrigation infrastructure, especially in arid regions which experience frequent droughts.
However, both Kuipa and Kanyenze said these were long-term capital projects. Irrigation development is, however, key in the long-term.