Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector is emerging from intensive care after a decade of decline blamed on President Robert Mugabe’s often violent farm seizures, but its full recovery remains fragile and will depend on political and economic stability in the nation.
Once a breadbasket of the region during the first two decades of independence, Zimbabwe has for the last 10 years relied on food handouts from aid agencies after production plummeted when Mugabe’s supporters forcibly took commercial farms from white farmers.
The plunge in production coincided with the collapse of the economy, which was marked by hyper-inflation and acute shortages of foreign currency and high unemployment.
Commercial farming was once a preserve of white Rhodesian farmers, but in the last decade the sector has embraced a new crop of black farmers who have struggled to maintain previous production levels due to widespread shortages of farming inputs like seed and fertiliser.
“We are very happy to see this recovery and I think it is sustainable and it means the whole economy will recover as well,” said Wilson Nyabonda, president of the black Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union.
The plunge in agriculture could have bottomed out as witnessed by rising production in tobacco and maize and a rebound in dairy and cattle farming.
Tobacco farmers this year surpassed the target of 70 million kg, with a bigger crop of 120 million kg, although still far below the 236 million kg achieved in 2000 at the start of the land seizures.
But there are signs that the momentum will hold next year.
Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board chairman Andrew Matibiri says tobacco seed sales are 66% up on last year.
There are now 51 000 registered small-scale black tobacco growers, compared with the 130 white farmers that the white-dominated Zimbabwe Tobacco Association says remain.
Black farmers now account for 42 % of production, a 100 increase from last year.
Attracted by good prices, more black farmers grew tobacco, and it is no wonder they jammed auction floors this year.
Maize production reached 1,35 million tonnes this year, slightly up from 2009 but a bigger jump from 2008 when output plumbed new depths of 500 000 tonnes.
“There is a feeling that the food security situation is improving from what it was in 2008 when the country had probably its worst output,” said Jacopo D’Amelio, regional information coordinator with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Morgan Nzwere, head of Zimbabwe’s top maize seed supplier Seed Co, said local seed production would rise 200% this year due to increasing demand.
But questions remain on what is really driving the recovery in agriculture.
Mugabe and his Zanu PF are quick to remind everyone that the much criticised land reforms are finally paying dividends and black farmers are now filling the gap left by the white commercial farmers.
The reforms have earned the country a bad reputation for not upholding the sanctity of property rights but Zanu PF is unmoved by the criticism.
“The land reform was vilified by many people especially the West but we have been vindicated. What more evidence do you want to show that land reform is a success?” Zanu PF spokesman Joram Gumbo said.
That “success” is disputed by the few remaining white farmers, who once contributed $600 million to the economy from annual exports.
The Commercial Farmers’ Union, which in its glory days had more than 4 500 members, is now a pale shadow of its former self, comprising a few hundred bitter farmers who remain under pressure from Mugabe’s supporters to leave their farms.
The union’s annual congresses were once a parade of wealth and power, but now serve only as a platform for evicted farmers to vent their anger.
But some have moved on and have started thriving farming operations in Mozambique, Zambia and even Nigeria. That could be their only hope.
Economic analysts say higher agriculture production is a result of political and economic stability that has been ushered in the country in the last 20 months.
The analysts say a stable economy and the introduction of multiple foreign currencies in place of the worthless Zimbabwe dollar has reinvigorated farmers and encouraged them to return to their fields in anticipation of real earnings.
They argue that although the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe splurged more than $400 million in three years on agricultural equipment and subsidised inputs for farmers, this had failed to lift production to current levels.
In the 2008/9 agriculture season, after Mugabe and the main opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a political deal to end an election dispute, donors began to provide free fertiliser and seed to 700 000 households, which saw national maize output more than double.
FAO says donors, led by the European Union, plan to provide free and cheap inputs to some
500 000 households.
But analysts question whether the recovery will continue, noting that more than one million people would still need food aid this year.
The analysts also point to failure by farmers to get bank credit, which ultimately drives many into the arms of shady schemes where they are given inputs and forced to sell their crops at below market prices. This practice is rampant in tobacco and cotton industry.
Farming experts fear that any relapse in the economy and a return to political violence will hit agriculture the most.
Although the unity government has been rocky, which is blamed on Zanu PF intransigence, it has managed to stabilise the economy and its policies have reassured Zimbabweans that the country could be on an irreversible path towards full recovery.
“It is wishful thinking to imagine that we will see a sustainable recovery without addressing those fundamental issues that have led to the collapse in agriculture,” John Robertson, a consultant economic analyst, said.
“As long as there is no respect for property rights and as long as there is no tenure system in place, we can just forget that Zimbabwe will retain its breadbasket status.” – ZimOnline.