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September 19, 2010

Zimbabwe's 'new' farmers finally start to blossom

by Godfrey Marawanyika

Douglas Mhembere had only a plastic bag in hand when he took over a farm eight years ago under Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's land reforms.

"I arrived here with nothing, just buns and a drink in a plastic bag, and I sat down on that log over there to have my food," Mhembere said, pointing to a felled eucalyptus bough at his Ushamba farm, 70km west of Harare. "There was nothing here. Nothing."

To get him started, a neighbouring white farmer lent him a tractor to prepare land to grow maize and tomatoes and in time he tried tobacco farming. The white farmer declined to be interviewed, but Mhembere said the gesture put him on a path toward success, placing him among a new generation of farmers who increased Zimbabwe's tobacco output for the first time in eight years.

"I have so far managed to buy two new tractors and some irrigation equipment," said Mhembere, who once ran a grocery kiosk but now has a 300-hectare holding and 40 workers.

This year Zimbabwe expects to reap 114-million kilogrammes of the "golden leaf" worth more than $320-million, nearly double last year's harvest, an increase that tobacco officials attribute to bigger crops from new farmers like Mhembere. That's still far below the 236-million kilos recorded in 2000 when Mugabe launched land reforms to resettle black Zimbabweans on farms owned by whites, who at the time held most of the best farmland.

Mugabe said the scheme was needed to correct the legacy of colonialism, but the reforms were marred by deadly political attacks against farmers, who saw their land turned into militia bases for ruling party attacks on the opposition. Hundreds of thousands of black farm workers on white farms were forcibly evicted, while Mugabe's top aides seized prize farmland. Small farmers like Mhembere were often left with little support to finance their operations. Production of both food and cash crops like tobacco plunged, leaving Zimbabwe dependent on food aid and drying up foreign currency reserves.

But this year farm officials say harvests actually increased -- partly because of good weather and donor support for food production.

Private merchants also stepped in to boost tobacco, which was the country's top foreign currency earner a decade ago, offering incentives that nearly doubled the number of growers to 51 000 this year.

Only about 130 white tobacco farmers are left, according to the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, which represents large-scale farmers.

"Almost 50% [of resettled farmers] are now growing tobacco because of good pricing," said Kudzai Hamadziripi, spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Tobacco Industry Auction Centre.

For nearly a decade, government failed to help the resettled farms use their land effectively with a select few benefitting from handouts from the central bank, while their meagre incomes were ravaged by hyperinflation.

Now that the local currency has been abandoned in favour of the US dollar, prices have stabilised and farmers can budget from one season to the next.

Most new farmers like Mhembere are contracted to grow crops under an outgrowers scheme in which merchants buy fertiliser and seeds. Farmers then sell their harvest to the merchants to pay off the debt.

But he's been among the lucky ones. While other new farmers had to fight off rival land claims or Harare's elite, Mhembere's property has not been a source of friction. His tobacco harvest this year was up 26%, and he's started producing seedlings for the planting season in November. He also has 48 cattle although he started with just three.

It remains to be seen if Zimbabwe's farms are solidly on an upward trend, but Mhembere says land reforms were among the best policies Mugabe adopted since independence from Britain in 1980.

"If ever President Mugabe did anything for the majority in this country it is the land reform which is real empowerment for blacks. Land reform is about sharing, land reform was never about chasing whites.

"The problem is that some of the whites did not want to share."

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