PoliticsNews & AnalysisZimbabwe: New farmers look for certainty


Posted on Thursday, 27 October 2011 19:30

Zimbabwe: New farmers look for certainty

By Frank Chikowore

Small-scale farmers are producing bumper crops, but they need commercial financing and security of tenure if they are to improve results dramatically


Lack of long-term finance and political uncertainties are holding back the new generation of farmers that emerged from President Robert Mugabe's chaotic land resettlement programmes. Most of the arguments about those reforms – President Mugabe and his supporters insisted they were addressing the consequences of a colonial land grab – have been con- signed to history.

All the parties in the power-sharing government – ZANU-PF and the two MDC factions – want to find a way to build on the steady improvement in farm production over the past three years and the rising importance of small-scale black farmers.

Tobacco harvests doubled to 125m kg from 2009-2010, although that is still way under the peak of 200m kg in the 1990s. The Zimbabwe Tobacco Association represents just 130 white commercial farmers, yet some 51,000 small-scale black farmers produced just over 40% of the tobacco harvest last year.

There has been a similar revival of maize production. After droughts in the early 1990s, production fell to 1.52m tonnes in 1999 from 2.6m tonnes in 1996. Amid the political ructions of land reform, maize production fell further to 0.7m tonnes as hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans went hungry.

But last year maize production was up to 1.3m tonnes and this year production is forecast to exceed 1.5m tonnes. Likewise, sugar production slumped by 75% a decade ago but recovered last year to reach 350,000 tonnes.

Yet the new farmers could do much better if the government carried out promised land audits, and banks recognised their 99-year leases as a form of collateral that would enable farmers to borrow for capital investments.

In Doma, 180km north-west of Harare, new farmer Wilbert Mushonga employs 45 people (up from 10 a decade ago) on farmland that was parcelled out to him in 2001. Mushonga wants the government to finance farming because bankers are reluctant to help.

"Capital injection is a big challenge as most banks are reluctant to fund our farming operations. They argue that the 99-year leases we were given by government are not bankable," Mushonga told The Africa Report as he inspected his winter wheat crop.

We have no money to pay for workers' salaries because when we settled here we had no savings. It was a political issue

Despite the financial frustrations, Mushonga has soldiered on: he once had to sell his cars and a house to sustain his farm. Now the farm has tractors as well as a combine-harvester. Mushonga's 2,000ha farm, one of thousands seized from about 4,500 white commercial farmers, is one of the few productive farms under the 99- year leases.

About 400 white commercial farmers have remained on their farms, according to the Commercial Farmers Union. Although Mushonga has raised enough money to invest in his own farm, other new farmers such as Tendai Nhare are struggling. Nhare was allocated a farm in Musengezi, a few kilometres from President Mugabe's rural home in Zvimba, about 80km west of the capital.

"We have no money to pay for workers' salaries because when we settled here we had no savings. It was a political issue," says Nhare. "Some [farmers] got tractors during the government's farm-mechanisation programme, but the majority of us did not get anything. We appeal to authorities to ensure that we have access to those implements if we are to make any meaningful contribution to the growth of the economy."

Economist John Robertson says the country could regain its pre-land-reform status as the "breadbasket of southern Africa" if farms redistributed under the land reform programme are put to good use. "There has not been any meaningful production in the country's farms since 2000, and this has had a negative impact on the country's economic growth which relies heavily on agriculture," says Robertson.

Apart from distributing farmland to the black majority, the government should ensure that new landowners can get access to credit. Nhare criticises government for pegging producer prices for maize and tobacco, arguing it is holding down productivity.

"Why does the government set producer prices for us?" he asks. "Assuming those prices were fair, the input costs with current prices means we cannot break even." The state-run Grain Marketing Board still regulates the price of maize. Nhare adds that there is a growing shortage of labour on farms as the owners cut back operations due to a lack of bank finance.

Silas Hungwe, president of the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union, which represents mainly black farmers, reiterates concerns about finance and the security of the new leases: "There is a need for a credit facility to be accessible to new farmers. And there has to be security of tenure, because most of the people who were resettled are not able to improve the land they occupied, mainly because they were not sure whether they would be on the farms permanently."

Hungwe says a shortage of experienced agricultural extension-service workers is also holding back produc- tion in the newly resettled farms, as many growers lack the necessary technical skills.

In its latest economic blueprint – the five-year Zimbabwe Medium Term Plan 2011-2015 – launched on 7 July, the government said agriculture should contribute between 15-18% of GDP. MDC members of the government want to "rationalise the land reform process" by finalising the land audit and the issue of title deeds.

"The problem that we have in agriculture," says finance minister Tendai Biti, "is that people do not have security of tenure. It is a fallacy to think that government can finance agriculture on its own: the burden of financing also relies on the private sector."

In June, land resettlement minister Herbert Murerwa threatened new farmers with eviction from their al- located properties if they did not produce effectively. Some farmers dismissed such comments as "counter- revolutionary".

Politicians such as Biti want to see a comprehensive audit performed, which would both expose some of the inequities in land reform, and also help establish a credible land tenure system that would "unlock land value and facilitate investment".

Those politicians from ZANU-PF who have unfairly benefited from land reform have so far managed to delay the audit, but an independent tabulation of legal land holdings will be essential if Zimbabwe's farmers are to access the investment and finance they critically need.

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 October 2011 19:41

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