As the planting season draws closer, the farmers’ preparedness comes under scrutiny.
Are they well equipped to produce enough to sustain themselves, feed the nation, and export to earn the country the much-needed foreign currency?
Agriculture is the Zimbabwean economy’s Achilles heel, and some, using the old adage, have even claimed that when it sneezes, the economy catches a cold.
This cements the belief that agriculture is central to the country’s economic recovery, with the Finance minister Tendai Biti pegging the economy’s growth predictions for December 2010 at 8,1% largely because of the rebounding of the agricultural sector.
Since the colonial times, agriculture has been contributing double-figure percentages to the country’s gross domestic product.
It is even said to be the single largest source of income for the majority of the populace especially in the communal areas, yet the sector was not spared from the challenges of the past decade.
Although the food deficits of the past decade can be attributed to several challenges such as unpredictable rainfall patterns, depleted financial resources, and the international politicisation of the land reform programme, the farming sector needs to learn to make do with what is available and maximise output.
The cry over the changing rainfall patterns has become a common excuse for poor crop yields and the resultant food insecurity the world over.
Not to discredit such claims, planning well in advance can change the fortunes even in times of adversity.
These changes have been projected, our meteorological services department constantly monitors them, the Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum sits twice a year, yet the appropriate information rarely reaches the farmers who desperately need it for planning their agricultural activities.
The Department of Meteorological Services, just like any other department, bled as a result of the economic challenges of the past decade, and so has its information dissemination system.
I have read of farmers lamenting their lack of access to weather reports and how this has impacted on their farming activities.
How many of our farmers in the communal and resettlement areas receive the 10-day weather updates, let alone interpreting them?
Yet information on rainfall patterns helps them in knowing what crops to grow that particular season, and when to start cropping.
The absence of this information has “forced” some of them to revert to their indigenous knowledge that has sometimes been labelled as backward, primitive and an attempt to scupper the civilisation of the rural folk.
Of course, without proper testing and documentation, this knowledge can be prone to misinterpretation and can be wrongly applied.
It differs from place to place too, and as such should be understood within the geographical and cultural context.
Maybe I am just a neo-indigenistas; I passionately believe in indigenous knowledge’s usefulness to agriculture.
I also think that it is the role of the media to communicate this knowledge, the differences that are present from place to place, and its pros and cons.
However, for the success of the agricultural sector, this knowledge should not be used in isolation of scientific knowledge, or vice versa.
Rather, a marriage of the two might help in planning and improving the farming methods.
I cannot understand though why the Department of Meteorological Services and the mobile network providers in the country cannot join hands to facilitate the accessibility of the information on weather patterns by the farming community.
With the network providers competing for the widest geographical coverage in the country, and with their pool of subscribers increasing in the farming communities, the inability to exploit this avenue for the benefit of the country is regrettable.
If roping in the mobile network providers to communicate the Met Office’s rainfall predictions is very expensive for the department, we will then have to ask where the corporate social responsibility of these network providers is.
How much do they realise from their subscribers?
Surely they can afford to part with a few cents for an SMS or two to inform their subscribers of the rainfall predictions and what to expect in the growing season.
This communication facility can draw lessons from elsewhere.
In the Philippines, for example, text messages are used to advise farmers on rice growing.
Media reports in August 2010 indicated that this service was established to bring back the days of “rice surplus” in the Philippines, which used to export but now has become the world’s biggest importer of the staple crop.
I believe then that using text messages to disseminate information to the farmers is feasible, and might just be the missing piece in the farming puzzle.
Farmer preparedness is not just about access to information though.
There are several other issues that we need to consider.
Access to inputs and credit facilities on time, and the knowledge of how to farm and treating agriculture as a business, are some of the issues that come to mind.
There is no denying that most of our farmers possess limited farming knowledge, and some of their practices on the farms have even been scorned upon by environmentalists and others because of their “possible” environmental implications.
For example, the farmers are said to be burning their plots and adjacent ones indiscriminately.
The Department of Agricultural Extension Services, which is mandated with developing the capacity of the farmers in appropriate farming practices, is heavily incapacitated, and cannot achieve all this on its own.
Agritex’s extension officers even require refresher courses so that they can share with the farmers up-to-date practices.
Farmer representation by the existing farmers’ associations is also said to be very weak.
This is more striking at the selling stage, and some farmers end up not realising the profits of their sweat.
Any injury to the Achilles tendon makes the economy limp.
As such, investment in agriculture should be based on an understanding of the ramifications of bad planning, misinformed decisions and lack of preparedness.
Mukundi Mutasa writes in his personal capacity.
He can be contacted on