I’ve heard it said, several times since I started interacting with the grassroots, that “the tragedy in post land reform Zimbabwe is that the bulk of the people on the land today are not farmers”.
I believe this is an assertion worth interrogating.
How do we define a farmer?
I’ve been grappling with this question for a long time, yet I’m not near unraveling it.
Who is a farmer? I would define a farmer as a person whose livelihood is based on growing crops and/or keeping livestock. From this definition, owning land only is obviously not enough to qualify one to be a farmer. Conversely there are many farmers plying their trade on land that is not theirs. Being a farmer has nothing to do with owning or not owning land.
From the definition I have given, we cannot ascertain whether a person is a farmer by design (choice) or by default (forced by circumstances); whether they are successful farmers or also-rans.
Moreover, we can conceptualise farmers as moving along an evolutionary continuum from subsistence to commercial, obviously with many shades of grey in between.
That’s where the big question is. If human nature is inclined to growth, we can assume that farmers also possess aspirations and ambitions that may have nothing to do with the present state of their farming enterprise. In other words, a person’s present state does not reflect what they want to become, or what they are capable of becoming if given an opportunity to grow.
That’s the crux of my argument.
If, as a society, we want our best farmers on the land, we need to be thinking about how to identify those with potential to become good farmers, and capacitate them.
The difficulty we have is in identifying those who are already good farmers, those with potential to become good farmers and those who are hopeless at farming.
Another difficulty is how do we support farming potential? Remember we have said being a farmer has nothing to do with owning land per se. We have many land owners who are farmers, and equally many who are not farmers. We have landless people who are capable farmers, and many landless who could be capable farmers if given the opportunity.
As an example, past experience has shown that incentives based on the size of one’s landholding do not work. Many national resources have been wasted on people who happen to be owners of A2 plots but who are in fact far from being farmers. Such pseudofarmers just the inputs or loans and divert them for purposes far away from farming. That has been a perennial challenge since the fast track land reform.
One way to ensure that we get it right is to support potential. This potential can be assessed using multiple factors.
1. Production track record – what has this person done in the past, farming-wise? What do records show?
2. Financial records – what do these show? Do they have a record of borrowing and paying back? Do they honour their debts?
3. Skills/Training – what’s this person’s level of skill in farming? Do they have any initial training? How about participation in on-going learning? Experiential learning, short courses etc.
4. What is their aspiration and ambition – do they have a credible strategy and plan for achieving their goals?
My argument is that outside a multi-factor method that takes into account the power of potential, we as a society will continue to make the mistake of incentivising farmers who are not farmers at all, while prejudicing potential farmers who can move this country forward.