Our rural future in post land reform Zimbabwe

Harvesting lucerne for feeding rabbits. Pic T.L Magwiroto

Taruvinga Magwiroto

When we analyse any situation, we are constantly faced with the task of understanding how a complex situation is created and developed and how important are the various components relative in time and space” (Boyle 1981:40).

Patrick Boyle (1981). Planning better programs. McGraw-Hill.

Analysing any complex situation is never easy, as that quote from Boyle emphasises. To me the phrase “post land reform Zimbabwe” is more of a metaphor for the future rather than a descriptive label of the status quo. So I will seek to analyse the situation with my eye firmly fixed to the future, so that this article is of less interest as an analytical treatise but more useful as a vision of the future. Whilst it is true that there is a “post land reform Zimbabwe”, it is a fluid concept, a flux of policy, practice and praxis in which nothing is yet settled, and people are feeling their way to the future.

However, it can be argued that there is indeed a “post land reform Zimbabwe”. If we are to imagine a frozen moment in time, we can get a picture of the current situation, and comment on the picture vis a vis people’s expectations of “the good life”.

Here are some of the issues:

Predominance of smallholders and a renewed appetite for getting wealth off the land.

The land reform programme redistributed land from the mostly White-owned large commercial farms, in the process splitting it into smaller landholdings called A1 and A2 farms. Typically, A1 land holdings are less than 10 ha while A2 can be anything from 40-400 ha. While pre-land reform the smallholder sector accounted for 56% of farming land, now that figure stands at 92%. The smallholder farms predominate.

Based on my interaction with farmers and entrepreneurs, I get the sense that there is a strong appetite by smallholders to make a livelihood and wealth off the land. This is mostly because of the inspiration and example of the White commercial farmers who had become wealthy from agriculture. People look up to that ideal and think: why not us?

Indeed, the “new farmer” is a different kind of farmer:-the land reform benefited a wide spectrum of Zimbabwe’s socio-economic-political stratum. Anyone who really wanted land and was determined to get it got it. Maybe not the ideal size or location, but almost everyone got something. This means that “new farmers” are everyone you can think of: professors, medical doctors, the local party youths, opposition politicians, and military shefs, former farm workers, diasporans, professionals, civil servants, you name it. The actors in the rural sector are diverse, and this brings its own challenges and opportunities.

A collective failure?

As we all know, statistics will never paint the complete picture. But they help us see trends and patterns. There is a sense that our food security status has been under threat since about 2000, and the trend has been generally going south. Similarly (and unsurprisingly), undernourishment has been increasing.

If we go back to the quote by Patrick Boyle, we really begin to see the challenges in ascribing cause and effect to any situation.

Are we suffering from food insecurity because of the land reform? Yes, and no. The land reform in and of itself could not cause food insecurity. We are suffering from food insecurity because of the agricultural policies and reward systems that has been adopted, which emphasise foreign exchange earnings over food security. Tobacco is paying more than maize, so people would rather grow tobacco (and import maize?). Food security has many facets, including accessibility, affordability, availability and consistent supply of food. If we are not growing enough maize, it is not readily available, we do not have access to it and its supply tends to be erratic. We are not fully food secure.

Is the land being economically used? Maybe yes, maybe no. The land reform was certainly in large measure an issue about politics and correcting historical wrongs, never about economics. It is certainly true that some people took the land to satisfy the need for owning land, rather than to cure any itch for farming. That said, a lot more people are trying their hand at farming, so that in the end, the safe answer to this question is yes. Justifying it in economic terms misses the point, just as ignoring the future economic performance is misguided.

Is land being productive? That is a more difficult one. Are people getting the maximum possible out of their pieces of land? I would say no. There is still scope for improvement, particularly in the management of the land resource itself and the use of knowledge to get maximum returns in a sustainable manner.

Do farmers have the competence? Or asked in another way, are we doing the farming competently? Do we have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to get the most out of the land? I think there is scope for improvement. Though I must say I am impressed at the willingness for learning and participation in learning platforms, especially on WhatsApp groups and other social media.

Support systems? There is certainly room for improvement. Things are changing, the extension clientele has changed, the agricultural landscape has changed, the extension platforms and media have changed. The top-down approach is certainly no longer tenable; knowledge is now more widespread, and easy to come by. The “experts” are just one among many information sources. Are the support systems adapting? They have to, otherwise they will find themselves becoming obsolete! They need to retool, re-skill and possibly retrain their staff.

Markets? The local market is limited, and in most cases, tilted in favour of speculators and middlemen. The poor farmer bears the brunt of the system. Tobacco marketing comes to mind. External markets are restricted, by both local incapacity and structural constraints. The overall macro-economic situation is stifling the entrepreneur, and most small businesses will fold if the situation persists.

To be continued…

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