Pfumvudza debate raging

IN the past three weeks I have learned of an ongoing debate on the efficacy of the national-scale Pfumvudza programme.

The Brett Chulu Column

The major concern is lack of mechanisation. Some critics believe non-mechanised agriculture is antiquated, unsustainable and will be unable to carry the economy forward in a meaningful way.

Looking at the 2021 Pre-Budget Strategy Paper, Treasury frames the climate-smart agriculture initiative under which Pfumvudza falls as a social safety net programme. This most likely explains why the growth targets for 2021 for agriculture adopted by Treasury are way below the ones adopted by the Agriculture ministry.

For maize, Treasury projects 1,4 million tonnes for 2021, an increase of 54,3% from the 907 000 tonnes produced in 2020. This means Treasury is anticipating a deficit of 700 000 tonnes of maize next year. This will necessitate imports of maize of 58 300 tonnes a month.

For soya bean, Treasury projects 80 000 tonnes in 2021, up from 47 000 tonnes in 2020. We will still be far from our national annual soya bean requirement, which is now in excess of 220 000 tonnes. We will be under par by 140 000 tonnes.

The Pfumvudza initiative targets 1,8 million tonnes of cereals (mainly maize) and 360 000 tonnes of oil-seeds (mainly soya bean). This means A1 and A2 farmers falling under Command Agriculture are not seen as the key drivers of maize and soya bean production, with their output only helping to push production of maize into surplus.

Pfumvudza,on its own, is seen by the Agriculture ministry as pushing soya bean output above the annual requirement. Clearly, Treasury sees a very huge production risk buffeting the Pfumvudza debut approach, seemingly downgrading it to a social safety net initiative. It seems Treasury does not accord Pfumvudza an agribusiness status.

Let us address the concern by Pfumvudza critics. Pfumvudza, if seen as a terminal agricultural technique, will lead to the conclusion arrived at by Pfumvudza critics. If Pfumvudza is alternatively framed as a disruptive innovation within the locus of developmental economics, a more nuanced understanding of Pfumvudza’s potential emerges.

Pfumvudza, as a disruptive innovation means initially it draws in millions of new producers by simplifying production and lowering production cost. Initially, a disruptive innovation can produce crummy products. The back-breaking criticism cited by Pfumvudza critics is expected under a disruptive innovation.

A disruptive innovation, almost always improves its performance. Sub-compact cars developed by Japanese car manufacturers were a disruptive innovation. Toyota did not start with a Lexus (a high-end relatively sophisticated car); they started with sub-compacts that were despised by high-end markets but were hugely popular with millions of ordinary people who now could afford a car. This is the path Pfumvudza is expected to chart — it is not new territory from a conceptual and practical point of view — it is a well-trodden path of development and improvement.

Last week I managed to experience the next phase of Pfumvudza during my visit to a farm in the central parts of Zimbabwe. The farmer indicated he had maize under Pfumvudza. On inspection, the production system was not exactly like entry-level Pfumvudza — it was an upgraded version.

For starters, the size of the two maize fields was much bigger than the standard one-sixteenth of a hectare Pfumvudza plot. Secondly, there was no mulch at all. Instead, the maize crop was under precision irrigation (drip irrigation). What was similar to classic Pfumvudza was the spacing and nutrition regime.

What is interesting is that each maize plant had three to four healthy cobs — meaning productivity would be 50% and above classic baseline Pfumvudza rates. The farmer ploughed his fields with a tractor, not the hoe that has been exploited by some Pfumvudza critics as a symbol of derision and retrogression.

A friend of mine has developed a maize growing technique that does away completely with ammonium nitrate fertiliser. His current maize crop is showing three to four healthy cobs.
These are two independent farmers here in Zimbabwe guided by the desire to improve their productivity, experimenting and getting things right.

These two stories indicate that dedicated Research and Development in agriculture has the potential to upgrade Pfumvudza via mechanisation, precision irrigation and cost-reduction.

There is a corollary criticism, not directly voiced by critics of Pfumvudza – they seemingly think that small or micro-farms are the epitome of poor productivity. This thinking is nowhere close to the truth. Productivity per unit area is a function of science, technology and good management. Israel and The Netherlands attest to this assertion. Here is an example, Israelis have developed a tomato variety (non-GMO) adapted to hot and hardy conditions that yields at rates 50% above other top hybrids.

This means on less land, all things being equal, and a farmer with access to these superior hybrids will get an output much higher than other top hybrids. This is the trajectory of thought the country needs to frame the matter of agricultural production in the country. Instead of deriding farming on small pieces of land, we should be ferreting out strategies to bring science and technology to bear upon small-holder farming.

In Israel, a common unit of land is a dunam. A dunam is 1 000 square metres or one-tenth of a hectare. It is not uncommon for world-class productivity to be done on two or three dunam.

There is another side of Pfumvudza that is outside Pfumvudza critics’ intellectual radar — Pfumvudza as a developmental economics disruptive innovation can lead to the development of geo-economic clusters as envisaged by Michael Porter, the celebrated Harvard business thinker. In summary, putting on analytic lenses different from Pfumvudza critics leads to a different worldview and possibilities.

We now turn to Treasury’s seeming scepticism of Pfumvudza to turn out the classic benchmark output numbers. In my estimation, Treasury could be looking at structural deficits militating against achieving Pfumvudza benchmark numbers based on mainstream agriculture approaches.

The risk of entry level Pfumvudza failing to churn out productivity numbers in the 2020-21 cropping season could be learning-curve lag effects, lack of mechanisation, risks associated with rain-fed farming dependence such as disease outbreaks especially with a La Nina effect expected, poor post-harvest handling, monitoring challenges, among others. It explains why there seems to be more emphasis on A2 and A1 farmers in terms of modernisation and mechanisation.

Treasury is suggesting that a debate on genetically modified organisms needs to be broached. It is very possible to improve productivity without GMO technology.
Treasury’s below-Pfumvudza oil-seed and cereals production targets suggest that there is an expectation that our entry level and inaugural Pfumvudza cycle may not perform as per the classic output benchmarks.

Chulu is a management consultant and a classic grounded theory researcher who has published research in an academic peer-reviewed international journal. — brettchuluconsultant@gmail.com