The Brett Chulu Column
LAST week’s instalment hit at old, tired, staid and fusty economic revival ideas. This week, an alternative idea is supplied.
Today’s instalment unpacks a simple but profound agricultural innovation, developed by a white Zimbabwean — it is called the Pfumvudza maize and soya plot — with a serious macro-economic development potential.
It is a disruptive innovation. A disruptive innovation, as first developed by Harvard management thinker Clayton Christensen, is any new business model or model of production that allows the majority of people who previously did not have access to a product or service to access it by making it affordable and uncomplicated to use.
More recently, Christensen has tried to steer away from the term disruptive innovation due to its abuse by people who call any radical idea or any idea that challenges the status quo a disruptive innovation. Depending on the context, Christensen now prefers to call disruptive innovations empowering or market-creating innovations.
Until now, disruptive innovations were associated with turning non-consumption to consumption through a technology that removes complexity and excessive cost. Disruptive innovation had not yet been applied to turning the majority of non-producers to producers until now. The Pfumvudza plot — while it certainly will revolutionarise agriculture production in Zimbabwe and elsewhere — sharpens the disruptive innovation model further as it marks the first time disruptive innovation is applied to production instead of consumption.
The developer of the Pfumvudza plot, following a series of careful observations, discovered that a rural family with an average of six members consumes a bucket of maize per week, roughly about 19 kilogrammes a week.
He further granulated this rate of consumption to 52 medium-sized maize cobs per week. It gave him an idea that he could develop a maize plot where one line has 28 planting stations, with each planting station having two plants. This means each line would be 16 metres. Since each line represents one week of a household’s staple food requirements, a total of 52 such lines would be required. This necessitates a plot that is 39 metres long and 16 metres wide, giving 624 square metres. This plot is one-sixteenth of a hectare.
From that small plot, 800kg to one tonne of maize can be produced according to the trial runs conducted. The level of productivity implied here is staggering, it is between 12,8 tonnes and 16 tonnes a hectare. The current average maize productivity rate in Zimbabwe is 0,9 tonnes per hectare.
The Pfumvudza disruptive innovation will catapult our rural farmers into the global premier league of maize productivity, dwarfing even South Africa’s top rate of five tonnes per hectare.
The cost of non-labour inputs, according to the Pfumvudza innovation developer, is US$50 if hybrid seeds are to be used. With simple organic fertilisers, the non-labour input cost can drop to zero dollars, according to the Pfumvudza innovator.
The Pfumvudza plot is so compact as to warrant very low labour costs as the family can provide the necessary labour. More importantly, should there be erratic rain, the plot is so small that it can be irrigated using simple water buckets.
The second element of the Pfumvudza innovation is that a second similarly sized plot be put under soya bean for two reasons. First, since the maize plot is purely for domestic food consumption, the soya bean plot is for generating income for the family. Second, soya bean will be used to rotate with maize every year — this allows the maize plant to benefit from the nitrogen-fixing activities of soya beans — all this lowers cost of production as natural fertilisers will dominate production.
According to the 2017 Inter-censal Demographic Survey (ICDS) produced by Zimstat, there are three million households in Zimbabwe, with about 1,8 million of these households being rural. If each rural household, at the minimum, produces on one Pfumvudza plot, Zimbabwe will be assured of 1,44-1,80 million tonnes of maize from rural farmers, producing an excess of 475 000-600 000 tonnes per year, based on the fact that according to the ICDS, a household is an average of four members.
Our current maize requirements are two million tonnes a year. If the rural farmers are persuaded to do two Pfumvudza maize plots, 2,88-3,60 million tonnes of maize will be produced, giving us an excess of 3,4-4,2 million tonnes of maize from rural farmers only. What is incredible is that all this will be achieved without the rural farmer getting any assistance from anyone, be it government, non-governmental organisations or the private sector. This is a whole new level of economic development; rural farmers supplying capital from their own internal resources.
This is the kind of fresh thinking needed to move this country forward instead of the traditional models where we over-rely on foreign direct investment, loans from the Bretton
Woods institutions and the local banking sector. The rural farmer is a powerful investor in his or her own right— disruptive innovation has just opened our eyes to this hitherto unseen and untapped source of capital to power national economic development.
There is more: turning every rural farmer into a soya bean producer will be a massive development, never before experienced in this country. Rural farmers could produce 360 000-720 000 tonnes of soya beans annually from their own capital. Zimbabwe’s annual soya bean requirement is only 220 000 tonnes.
Our rural farmers, on a mere 39 metres x 16 metres of well-managed Pfumvudza soya bean plot, can produce a combined 120 000 tonnes in excess of our annual soya bean requirement with zero financial assistance from both the public and private sectors.
This is the sheer power of disruptive innovation. Our traditional economic development models have been taken as the be-and-end-of-all that there is to economic development thinking.
I am amazed each time I interact with our rural and emergent farmers; with an average of 30 cattle per emergent farmer, they lament that they have no money to drill boreholes, install electricity in their plots (with Zesa cables cables running in their yards) and fence their grazing land.
How can someone with 30 cattle say they have no money? The answer is that our economic development models have conditioned many to think of money and capital in terms of formal banks and development finance institutions. With 1,8 million rural households, with each household having an average of seven cattle, we easily have about 12,6 million cattle owned by rural households.
Taking the low end of market values for cattle, we have at least US$4 billion of an ocean of capital locked up in rural households. Disruptive innovation says that US$4 billion can be used by rural households to power simple investments such as the Pfumvudza maize and soya bean plots with simple water technologies such as wells and boreholes being put up by the rural farmers themselves to power irrigation.
This is agrarian reform, home-grown, at its best. We cannot even begin to imagine the sort of supporting industries and infrastructure that will be pulled in by such a disruptive innovation. Treat the rural household as a respected domestic investor who does not need to be pitied upon and given aid and hand-me-downs; that condescending attitude needs to be dispensed with.
What will stop such a potentially powerful micro-economic innovation with equally powerful macro-economic development implications from seeing the light of is what Ghanaian thinker Samuel Korateng-Pipim calls the “three Cs” that retrogressive African leaders (at all levels) do: if they cannot control it, cannot get credit for it, they will crush it.
Chulu is a management consultant and a classic grounded theory researcher who has published research in an academic peer-reviewed international journal. — firstname.lastname@example.org