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January 31, 2009

Economic distortions lose Zimbabwe another farming season

by Bernard Mpofu

A man stands on the roadside, signals a Chinhoyi-bound commuter omnibus to stop and momentarily, the driver pulls off the road. Hastily the man disappears into the thicket of what was famously known as “Little England” farm and returns with a 20-litre container full of diesel.

It is at this stage that perplexed passengers deduce that the vehicle required immediate refuelling. "I have got diesel and fertiliser in abundance,” he tells the driver. This has become a thriving practice for farmers with access to government-subsidised fuel and fertiliser.

Stretches of fallow land and yellowish maize crop have become a common feature in traditional grain-producing regions, which were this agricultural season expected to grow 80% of the 500 000 hectares targeted for maize under a government farming programme.

An apparent deficiency of nitrogen and under-utilisation of arable land are telltale signs of a low yield expected from the widely publicised “Champion Farmer” programme. Despite reported cases of abuse by senior government officials, official figures indicate that over 30 million litres of fuel is required to meet the targeted tillage. Government has procured less than half of that amount to date.

Last month, Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba –– the chairperson of the national resource mobilisation and utilisation committee of the programme –– threatened to name and shame high ranking officials involved in an inputs scam. However, only a handful of little-known individuals have so far been exposed. While the nation braces for a bleak agricultural season, some farmers are making a killing from selling inputs.

Experts predict the 2008/9 cropping season to produce less than a quarter of the two million tonnes of maize grain required to meet annual national consumption.

An international aid agency, Famine Early Warning Systems, last year said Zimbabwe’s combined commercial and humanitarian cereal imports must treble by March 2009 to meet the country’s requirements for the remainder of the marketing year.

University of Zimbabwe Graduate School of Management professor, Tony Hawkins, said food shortages could fuel food inflation in the coming year. “From the look of things, this is going to be a poor agricultural year not because of the rains but due to critical shortages of inputs,” Hawkins said. “Resultantly food inflation could increase. It remains to be seen how the demand-supply gap would be reduced through imports.”

Government has often blamed natural causes for poor yields, but it will have to come up with another excuse if the country experiences a poor harvest after the meteorological department forecast a favourable rainfall pattern.

“The rains are good but the situation is bad,” said Renson Gasela, the secretary for lands and agriculture in the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara. Gasela, who is also a commercial farmer based in Gweru, blamed government for failing to plan for the current season.

“There was a lot of seed in the press, but nothing on the ground. Planning for next year’s crop should start now in order to break the cycle of food shortage. We are getting these perennial problems because government does not plan on time. It often wants to plan in October and November,” Gasela said. Time, he added, could be running out for farmers to plant small grains that can thrive without fertilisers.

Seed and fertiliser supplies in the country were poor until South Africa and Sadc came up with a R300 million package, but the assistance came too late. Ministers and senior government officials allegedly abused some of the inputs from the package.

Fearful of imminent food shortages, government has since advised farmers to grow crops like cowpeas, soya beans and millet. More so it continues to distribute small amounts of grain to farmers in provinces like Masvingo, halfway through the cropping season.

“This season is all decided, we can’t do anything. Small grain also has a period of growing, but again it’s getting too late to plant them,” Gasela added.

Analysts warned that the shrinking base of commercial farmers resulting from continued evictions by government and suspected war veterans could again negatively affect farming activity.

According to a Zanu PF Central Committee report submitted at last year’s National People’s Conference, 341 out of 6 708 commercial white farmers have been “recommended” by the party’s provinces to continue farming since last March. Manicaland and Mashonaland provinces had the most evictions.

The sharp decline in agricultural productivity comes at a time when government is boasting of the Reserve Bank-facilitated farm mechanisation programme.

“Not all the beneficiaries are farmers. Some of them are urban-based MPs who rarely visit their farms. In terms of being a beneficiary, the country has become more mechanised but not necessarily so when it comes to productivity,” Gasela said.

Zimbabwe Farmers Union president and Zanu PF National Consultative Assembly member Silas Hungwe contends that the 2008/9 cropping season could be better than the previous season notwithstanding inputs shortages. The current season promises to be better than last year’s,” Hungwe predicted. “Unavailability of inputs such as ammonium nitrate will, however, reduce the yield. We have been in successive years of food shortages, therefore we encourage farmers to continue growing maize and small grains.”

Government currently has three groups of farmers, which it hopes would produce adequate food supplies — targeted champion farmers, disadvantaged rural farmers, and the donor-driven “self-financing exercise.”

Zimbabwe’s poor agricultural output has been blamed on the chaotic land reform the government embarked on in February 2000 after it lost a constitutional referendum.

Zimbabwe Independent

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