IN a developing world setup, agriculture is a critical tool government can use to enhance socio-economic development. The sector provides formal employment for the majority of the population and is a key determinant of rural livelihood and poverty levels.
The severe decline in economic activity in Zimbabwe can be traced back to early 2000s, the time the chaotic Land Reform Programme was implemented. A vast majority of commercial farms were invaded and the shock brought a lasting impact on the supply of agro-inputs to the food processing industry.
The country which was once the breadbasket of Africa with a vibrant manufacturing industry became the net food importer as domestic production tumbled.
Apart from a disorderly land re-distribution from colonial masters to indigenous farmers, perennial rainfall patterns and subsequent droughts attributable to climate change have perturbed the sector. Unlike in the 2020/21 season, when an El Viejo was realised, the country experienced consecutive El Nino-induced drought in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons.
El Viejo is the opposite of El Nino in which the Pacific Ocean upwelling (rising of cold water from the depths to replace warm water) increases, bringing nutrient-rich water to the surface.
Droughts are detrimental to economic advancement as critical funds which would have been used to finance other development programmes are channeled towards food imports. For perspective, in 2020, farmers countrywide managed to harvest under 910 000 metric tonnes (mt) of staple maize against a national annual requirement of about 2,2 million mt for both human and livestock consumption. This 2020 output was 25% below the five-year national average and a low yield of 0,7 tonnes per hectare was achieved.
Despite a local industry in dire need of forex to smoothen the importation of critical inputs, statistics show that a mouthwatering US$344 million was spent on maize and maize meal importation. It is reported that 60% of the population, rural and urban alike needed food support. Poverty prevalence and levels of malnutrition among kids ballooned.
Rampant inflation emanating from acute shortages is another evil attached to poor agriculture outturn. A glance at an all-items consumer basket tracked by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStats) shows that the food basket was the key driver of headline inflation between 2019 and 2020. At 30,34 out of 100, the food basket carries more weight than any other category.
Nevertheless, this year, Zimbabwe is on course to attain its biggest grain harvest since 1984. The was driven not only by better rainfall received across great parts of the country but by rigorous implementation of conservation agricultural practices (Pfumvudza/Intwasa), early distribution of farm inputs, and strengthening of extension services.
Estimates from the Ministry of Agriculture indicate that at least 1,5 million hectares were put into maize production and about 2,7 million mt tonnes are expected to be harvested. For the first time in nearly five years, the country will exceed its 500 000 mt strategic grain reserve.
The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) is expecting to procure about two million mt of grains from farmers to the tune of at least ZW$60 billion comprising of 1,8 million mt of maize and the balance being traditional grains like sorghum. The parastatal is buying maize and traditional grains at ZW$32 000 and ZW$38 000 per tonne respectively.
For the past two decades, Zimbabwe is rated as a perennial wheat importer as domestic production was weighed down by electricity challenges, poor irrigation infrastructure, and lack of financial support to farmers among other factors.
However, this year strides have been made towards self-sufficiency as 65 000 hectares have been put into winter wheat farming. The nation requires circa 400 000 mt tonnes of wheat annually.
Since the beginning of the year, the growth of food prices has significantly moderated largely due to the impact of ongoing harvesting. Latest ZimStats statistics show July food inflation at 2,5% down from 3,5% recorded a month earlier.
A survey carried in June by Famine Early Warning System Network (Fewsnet) found a significant increase in maize supply in the market. Prices are expected to plummet further as moisture content improves translating into more market supply. Low inflation is a key production enabler as it increases consumer spending.
Also, the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Zimvac) Rural Livelihoods Assessment Report for 2021 shows a substantial improvement in nutrition across the country as 99% of people have gone without experiencing food insufficiency. The report also posited that the prevalence of food insecurity across the country had gone down from 56% in 2020 to 27% this year.
However, authorities should not be carried away by this year’s bumper harvest and forgo necessary long-term policies. El Nino weather conditions are more frequent (two years on average). Hence, there is a need for extensive development of climate-friendly farming techniques and practices like robust irrigation infrastructure.
It is estimated that irrigation can increase the yield of most crops by between 100% and 400%. Despite this, the use of irrigation is very low in Zimbabwe with only about 100 000 hectares under a functioning irrigation system. With the average national dam level now over 90% — one of their highest in more than 50 years and enough to support agriculture for nearly two years — increased investment in vibrant infrastructure, extension services, hybrid seeds, and value chains will stabilise the sector which has been highly susceptible to climate change. Also, frequent land audits, downsizing are essential to curb underutilisation through multiple farm ownership. Furthermore, the monopoly granted to GMB by the state must be abolished, paving way for the operation of market forces in the discovery of true market prices. It is highly likely that when fully implemented, the proposed agriculture commodity exchange will increase the participation of discouraged farmers. The time is now for authorities to cultivate a mentality in which farmers view farming as a business, reducing over-reliance on unsustainable subsidies which are breeding public corruption and bleeding the fiscus yearly.
Given decades of economic neglect, I am mindful of the fact that there is more that needs to be done to bring the agriculture sector in particular and the economy in general, to a sustained growth trajectory. In my view, the projected 2021 bumper harvest provides a good footing for robust take-off.
Sibanda is an economist at Equity Axis. — firstname.lastname@example.org