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Zimbabwe agriculture: A commanding performance

By Frank Chikowore in Harare and Honoré Banda
Posted on Monday, 9 July 2018 08:58

Thanks to good weather and a new scheme to finance maize farmers, production is booming. The government has studied the success of contract farming in the tobacco sector and is using some of those principles to boost maize production through a series of opaque deals that involve finance from local companies. In 2016, then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa launched the so-called Command Agriculture programme to provide farmers with loans for inputs that must be repaid with a fixed share of maize production.

The government is claiming responsibility for the 2.2m tonnes of maize due to be produced in the 2017/2018 season, but favourable weather has also played its part. After two years of drought caused by the El Niño weather pattern, national maize production had dropped to just 512,000tn in 2016/2017. For the maize-focused Command Agriculture programme, the government says it borrowed more than $500m from ­local ­companies after finding that commercial banks were asking for double-digit ­interest rates. Members of the opposition are crying foul, saying that the government never sought or received parliamentary approval for the maize deals. Former finance minister Tendai Biti told local media last year: “Command Agriculture is a parallel, illegitimate process.”

A company named Sakunda has been behind much of the recent agriculture financing. It has ties to the giant commodity trader Trafigura, to whom it sold its petrol stations in 2014. Sakunda seems to have good relations with the ruling party and is involved in many sectors of the economy. Kuda Tagwirei is the public face of Sakunda and is Mnangagwa’s nephew. In June, Sakunda said it would work with the government on programmes to finance maize production on 1m hectares of land over the next five years. The country currently has about 1.9m hectares of land under maize cultivation.

The government is now turning its attention to livestock and other areas. In February, Mnangagwa’s government launched the $300m Command Livestock programme to increase levels of beef production, which plummeted after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in cattle more than a decade ago.

Big fish to fry

The fish market is also booming, with fish farmers like Nyasha Mukwena of Marondera District producing tonnes of bream and tilapia in ponds. “I left my baking profession to start this fish farming project in 2017. I started with only two ponds but now I have 18 ponds capable of producing 150,000 bream and 150,000 tilapia in three months,” says Mukwena. He adds that fish farming is not labour-intensive, as he is operating with a workforce of just four people. “I only need a lot more people when I am harvesting the fish. Refrigeration is of great importance when harvesting, so I am in the process of importing refrigerated vans so that the fish would always be fresh when they get to the consumers.” To support fish farming, the government, through the department of national parks and wildlife, is breeding hundreds of thousands of fingerlings in provincial dams.

Mnangagwa’s government is more conciliatory than its predecessor, but says it will not backtrack on land reform, which has weakened the influence of large, white-owned commercial farms and strengthened the network of black smallholders. Mnangagwa’s goal is to make the country and the agriculture sector more attractive to both local and international investors. Farmers need better roads and access to markets, and some state-owned companies in the sector are performing poorly. In May, Singaporean agribusiness Wilmar announced its interest in taking over the parastatal Cotton Company of Zimbabwe. Cotton production reached a peak more than a decade ago then dropped off dramatically.

Going forward, the government’s finances – it has billions of dollars in debt and is in arrears to international financing institutions – will be a major constraint on this new agricultural fervour. The system is also yet to be tested by a season of poor weather, and policy-makers in Harare have not revealed if there are safeguards in place to protect farmers from price drops and bad harvests.

This article first appeared in the June 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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