Appropriate agriculture machinery in Zimbabwe: the vital role of rural innovation and service hubs

The economic crisis, now persisting over 20 years or more, has thrown up a whole set of challenges for agricultural production and marketing in Zimbabwe.

The demand for new machines – of all shapes and sizes – arises due to the changes in Zimbabwe’s agricultural landscape as well as the on-going economic crisis.

Mechanisation appropriate to these contexts is essential, and Zimbabwe’s farmers, together with service providers, innovators, engineers and manufacturers, are responding with a innovation and entrepreneurial skill typical of Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

As any reader of this blog knows, land reform since 2000 has created a new agrarian structure with small and medium scale farms in the land reform areas now an important part of the production mix.

These farms have larger areas than the smaller plots in the communal areas and so produce more, have higher demands for labour, increasing the incentives for mechanisation when labour is short.

 These farms produce surpluses and are therefore more commercialised and so require access to markets for their produce, again driving demand for machines to assist with agricultural processing and transport.

The economic crisis, now persisting over 20 years or more, has thrown up a whole set of challenges for agricultural production and marketing in Zimbabwe, again discussed extensively on this blog before.

The consequence has been that the new production has from the land reform areas is channelled to more localised value chains, with connections to small towns being crucial in a new local economic dynamic in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

 This remains poorly understood and not accommodated in policy thinking or aid agency responses (who still focus on the communal areas), but, as we have been arguing for years, this phenomenon is important to understand if we are to figure out ways forward for rural development in Zimbabwe.

This then is the context for small-scale, appropriately designed mechanisation across a whole array of functions related to agricultural production and marketing, examples of which we have discussed in the previous blogs in this series.

In the past, the support for mechanisation was focused on big, high-tech and expensive machines – the classic tractors, combines or centre pivot irrigation systems.

These were central to the success of white-owned large-scale commercial farming in the country, and they remain important in large estates and commercial farms.

But the scale of farming in most of the country means that such equipment is mostly not appropriate.

Unfortunately, the standard policy approach has not adjusted to the new conditions, and in agricultural fairs and bilateral exchange programmes we see such equipment being touted as the solution to agricultural challenges.

A focus on high-tech solutions extends to the current interpretations of ‘precision agriculture’, a theme highlighted in the big Food and Agriculture Organisation mechanisation conference mentioned in the first blog in this series.

Satellite tracking, artificial intelligence, computer directed applications and so on is fine for highly capitalised enterprises with huge turnover and large profits, but are irrelevant for most farmers in Zimbabwe.

Instead “precision” is achieved in different ways – relocating a pump and moving a flexible pipe to a particular spot; tilling the land in a way appropriate to the soil, slope and crop; transporting a threshing machine to a particular farm to allow rapid sale of the product.

New forms of small-scale mechanisation, whether for production, processing or transport must be designed, manufactured, serviced and repaired.

This has resulted in a whole network of what might be called innovation and service hubs across the countryside and in small towns especially near resettlement areas.

Such hubs are not very fancy – more like workshops, welding sites, engineering businesses, agrodealer shops or garages.

They don’t just work on agricultural machinery, but use design and engineering skills on a huge range of equipment – from cooking pots to building materials to passenger cars. But they are essential in the innovation ecosystem that is supporting the growth of small-scale agricultural machinery adoption.

Therefore, in the absence of formal mechanisation programmes that support appropriately scaled technologies, there is a new informal, local innovation ecosystem, linked to a network of servicing, repair and post-sales support, that has emerged.

This is private, entrepreneurial and based in those haphazard workshops you see in every small town, and increasingly in the rural areas, with piles of old metal, broken down cars and tools of all sorts.

Not the slick image of industrial manufacturing, but nevertheless essential.

Because such places are locally-run and located in places not far from the growing demand, the way they work is participatory and interactive.

A customer comes with a problem, discusses with the owner and a new design emerges in discussion with welders, electricians and others.

The processes are simple – some additional welding, some make-shift adaptations of existing designs – but they are effective, and meet demand.

Some new designs take off and become part of the portfolio of products being offered, as we have seen in previous blogs.

Except for the most simple carts, barrows, cultivators and ploughs, machines are rarely made from scratch.

Such hubs must rely on the manufacture of core elements – notably engines – elsewhere.

But these days the sourcing of appropriate products suited to small and medium scale agriculture is much easier.

With the growth of Chinese and (to some extent) Indian origin machinery, notably pump engines, but also an array of other equipment including motorbikes, two-wheeled tractors and so on, cheap, scale-appropriate machinery is now available that can be incorporated into locally-made machines, which can be adapted, repaired, service and supported in ways that other suppliers are unable to do.

This type of hybrid design and the bricolage approach to engineering we see in the workshops across our study areas is of course looked down on by ‘proper’ designers and engineers, but these are the people and places that are driving the small-scale agricultural mechanisation revolution in Zimbabwe.  

This is a revolution that is happening elsewhere in the world, as discussed in the first blog in this series, but it remains under-appreciated, poorly understood and frequently ignored in Zimbabwe.

 So obsessed are policymakers with the shiny, high-tech types of machinery offered in aid programmes that they see the current system as “backward” compared to an apparently ‘modern’ alternative.

Our short blog series, however, suggests that this stance is a grave mistake, and the informal, apparently basic, but always appropriate, design, innovation, manufacturing and servicing system that is evolving across Zimbabwe’s rural areas is where future development efforts need to start.

  • *This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland


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