By Kudakwashe Gwabanayi
EARLY last week the scent of the rains filled the air while dry tree leaves could be seen being blown around by winds, signalling the beginning of the 2021/22 farming season.
The meteorological department wasted no time, sounding a stern warning that the scattered showers that drizzled in some parts of the country did not mark the beginning of the rains. The weather people urged farmers to do land preparation and keep ears on the ground for the correct information on planting dates.
The warning was double edged in that there are some farmers who still have wheat in their fields who do not want the rains. On the other hand, there are others who are raring to plunge into the new season.
Excitement and anxiety engulfed the farming community, with seed and fertiliser manufacturers and sellers taking strategic positions to push their products and make money by advertising.
However, Agribank appears invisible when it should be taking the lead. News that the bank is transforming itself into AFC Commercial Bank gives hope of better days because Agribank has failed to live up to farmers’ expectations. As the season starts, those who want to access government inputs for farming will go to CBZ to access security, guarantees and loans, while Agribank seems to be taking a spectator seat.
There is no brand visibility at a time they should be making an imprint, especially on the backdrop of last season’s bumper harvest. Agribank is wholly owned by the government, while CBZ is partly owned by the state. It boggles the mind why Agribank surrendered the farmers’ market share and does not seem to want to take a leading role in financing government programmes, like Command Agriculture, Pfumbvudza and the Presidential Inputs scheme, leaving farmers exposed to business people, who are after profiteering, creating mountainous debts for farmers over the years.
Over 10 years ago, government gave resettled farmers 99-year leases which it claimed were bankable. However, farmers are having difficulties to secure loans and capital for their projects. Earlier this year,Agriculture minister Anxious Masuka told a Lands Parliamentary Portfolio committee that the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe (BAZ) had rejected government’s offer, insisting the 99-year-leases were not worth the paper they were written on.
However, the minister argued before the committee, the leases were bankable and the government had since informed BAZ it would revive the AFC to provide finance to resettled farmers’ projects.
Masuka said under the AFC loan scheme, farmers would inject 15% upfront to get requested loans.
“For 10 years now, the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe and government have been in discussions for the agricultural transformation. The missing link in agricultural sector is finance and this has been the reason to re-establish the AFC,” he said.
“The 99-year lease is bankable according to government, but there is confusion in the Bankers Association. They think that bankability is transferability. When you transfer your liabilities on this lease, you can transfer the land rights. There is a difference between farming on the land. That is our interpretation of bankability as government.”
The minister told the lands portfolio committee that discussions would continue with three other commercial banks; Agribank, CBZ and another unnamed financial institution for the state-funded agricultural programmes. On its part, Agribank must take this opportunity and offer farmers loans using the 99-year leases as collateral. Those that fail to pay will lose their land and the bank can use the land amassed from bad debtors to do income generating projects.
The bank can also employ many products to lure farmers into their fold starting with scholarships for bright students with interest in agriculture whom it will then employ. It will also need to employ actuarials who have a focused interest in farming and will assist in debts assessment for farmers.
The current situation, where farmers are threatened to lose their land if they fail to settle debts must not prevail. Despite 2020/21 season having good rains, there are some areas that did not receive enough water for crops leaving farmers who had borrowed from government swimming in debt.
Agribank must, as a matter of urgency, take a leading role in government farming programmes and impose itself as the rightful player in giving financial solutions to the farmers. Recently, FBC Bank offereda wide range of clientele a medical aid scheme.How hard can it be for Agribank to tailor out a medical aid scheme for the farming community? The bank might as well offer funeral cover for farmers and their workers.
Most indigenous farmers and their workers remain unbanked as they sell their produce in cash and do not have time to go to the bank as farming is hands-on. The bank must take this as an opportunity to bring banking, along with many other products to the farm gate, instead of chasing for clients in towns and cities.
It is common cause that currently the bank is offering farm mechanisation on a rental basis. The process is cumbersome. It is either you are tossed from one office to another seeking a combine harvester for your wheat, or the bank employees just do not pick up calls, putting your mature produce at risk. An effort to get a tractor to plough four hectares in Norton drew blanks from the bank. Whilst it is a good effort, and thought to engage in such an exercise, it must be followed to the heart considering that farming is a time-sensitive activity that punishes those who procrastinate.
There are so many facilities that are lacking on our farmers’ land that can push our productivity to dizzy heights that the bank can assist. Farmers need dams, water pumps, irrigation,grain storage facilities,electricity transformers, tractors and combine harvesters; all these are capital intensive essentials that Agribank can assist farmers to get on loan. These facilities could be on offer from the bank but how many people are aware.
It is time the bank gets out of its comfort zone; roll up its sleeves and starts being visible. The gap between expectations and reality about the bank operations is worrying and Agribank cannot continue to be a dwarf in huge robes 22 years after inception. At some point it hasto fight for its birth right, mature and outgrow the robes. There is no better time than now.
Gwabanayi is a practising journalist and a farmer in his own right. — 0772 865 703 or email@example.com