Food security in Zimbabwe: why a more sophisticated response is needed

food-aid-1

The food security situation in Zimbabwe – and indeed across large swathes of southern Africa – is serious. El Niño has struck hard and production levels this past season were well down. The UN estimates that in Zimbabwe alone 4.1 million people – 42% of the rural population – will be in need of support before the next season. Aid agencies are raising funds and are involved in a major humanitarian operation (see WFP and USAID, for example).

We are now entering the most difficult period. Between September and March, when early ‘green’ crops become available, the food situation will be tough, and many will be reliant on handouts and purchased imported food. Disposal of livelihood assets is already occurring and FEWSNET predicts that large parts of southern Zimbabwe will be in ‘emergency’ conditions, together with parts of Mozambique and Malawi.

There is little doubt that the harvests this year were really poor. And this was on the back of a bad season last year. This means that stocks are low and funds circulating in the local, rural economy limited. I do not want to question for a minute the severity of the situation, but I do want to challenge the way it is being portrayed, and ask whether this allows for the most effective targeting of those really in need.

Data challenges

For Zimbabwe the basic data comes from the annual ZimVac report, complemented by various crop surveys. ZimVac, as discussed on this blog before, is a major survey based on a sample of 14,434 rural households across 60 districts. Enumeration areas are chosen across districts and samples selected based  on population density estimates from the most recent population census. It assesses food production, cash income, livestock and so on, and comes up with a food access estimate, based on a daily 2100 k Calorie intake requirement during the consumption year to 31 March. Those unable to meet food needs through a range of sources are deemed to be in deficit and in need of support. This is where the 4.1 million figure comes from – the number of people estimated to be in this situation at the end of March 2017 (even if just for a day).

But as discussed before on this blog, these estimates may miss out on certain aspects. For example, In April, when visiting field sites in some areas hit badly by drought, I was surprised how much maize was being produced in home gardens and around settlements this year. While the main field crop had failed, more intensive production near the home. Sometimes involving supplementary irrigation, and certainly higher inputs of organic fertiliser, home garden areas were producing maize, including substantial quantities of green mealies. These crops rarely get noticed in the larger censuses as they focus on the main field crop, but added up these can be significant, although of course totals are way down on other years.

The other missing story relates to livestock. This year there were major concerns that the El Niño drought would decimate livestock. There were significant die-offs early on, but thankfully sporadic rains fell in February. This was too late for most crops, but it did replenish grass and water sources in many parts of the country, including those drought prone areas of Masvingo and Matabeleland that were suffering livestock mortalities. This turn-around will have had major impacts on food provisioning in these areas in the absence of harvests. There were entrepreneurs buying up animals in numbers and this was a ready source of cash for many. Many livestock were moved to resettlement areas where there is more plentiful grass due to (currently) lower population densities. The high livestock populations in resettlement areas, particularly in southern districts, adds to their food security resilience.

Livestock and their movement is often forgotten in food security assessments (ZimVac covers elements of this, but it’s complex, and difficult to capture in large surveys). Along with the importance of green mealies, other ‘famine’ crops, and the range of (often illegal) coping strategies that people employ mean that successful food provisioning is far more extensive than the UN agencies suggest.

While the data is broken down by district, it is not differentiated by the type land tenure and use. We do not get a sense of the differential vulnerabilities of, for example, communal area dwellers, those with A1 or A2 farms, villagised or self-contained, nor workers linked to such rural households. We know from extensive research that rural communities are highly differentiated, both within and between sites. At the moment we get a very blunt assessment, district by district. The report lists the ten best-off and worse-off districts, for example. Some of the districts where we work, where there was more land redistribution, both in the Highveld and further south, are in the better-off areas. Does this mean land reform areas are less food insecure? We cannot tell from ZimVac data as presented.

A more complex pattern: why land reform is not to blame

There are hints though that a more complex pattern sits below the aggregate numbers. The ZimVac summary report (p. 150) shows that nationally only 11% of households will be food secure this year based on their own cereal crop production. This is even lower in drought-prone areas, such as Masvingo, for example. On aggregate 58% of the national rural population will be food secure through the consumption season, but this is made up through access to income from a variety of sources, not just food production. How do these aggregate figures match up with data from the new resettlement areas?

We’ve been tracking food production in our study areas in Masvingo for some years. In our sites in Masvingo and Gutu districts for example across the harvest seasons from 2003 to 2013, between 44% and 69% of households produced enough for household consumption (estimated at 1 MT). In the Wondezo extension A1 site in Masvingo, farmers produced on average 2 MT in 2014 and over 6 MT in 2015, with 85% and 89% producing sufficient from maize alone for household consumption in those years. In our A1 resettlement sites in Mazowe, over 5 years between 2010 and 2014 seasons the average household maize production was 3.5 MT, declining over time as tobacco production increased. This means that on average 78% of households produced more than a tonne of maize in each year, and were food secure from own-farm production alone. This of course does not account for the significant cash income from tobacco in Mazowe (realising nearly $3000 per household on average across A1 farms between 2010 and 14), or vegetable production and livestock in Masvingo, along with other sources of income.

In other words, the ZimVac sample must be very different. 11 per cent this year (and higher but still low figures in other years) having sufficient food from own production is way lower than in our admittedly much smaller samples in the resettlements. In our areas, consistently over time and across sites, we do not see the level of food insecurity recorded by the ZimVac surveys – although of course it exists in pockets, among certain vulnerable people. There are of course communal areas nearby our A1 sites where the situation is quite different, and it is probably from here that the ZimVac data derives. Our comparisons with communal areas showed the contrasts, with resettlement areas outperforming communal areas across the board. But without any differentiated national food security data, it is difficult to make sense of the aggregates generated by standard crop assessments and livelihood surveys.

This food security crisis therefore is not the result of land reform as some would have it (as I keep telling journalists who ask; here’s an example from a Dutch daily that offered a more sophisticated take). Other countries in the region have suffered badly from the same drought, and Zimbabwe has before, long before the post 2000 land reform. In fact, land reform areas are an important part of why the actual underlying situation is better than it might be. My hunch – still not tested despite much encouragement – is that ZimVac’s sampling frame (appropriately for a national sample that is proportional to population density) is focused on communal areas. This means that the dynamics of the new resettlements in the food economy are being missed out on.

As reported many times on this blog, we see significant flows of food and other finance coming from the A1 resettlement areas, both to communal areas and to urban centres, through kin networks and labour migrancy. This is unrecorded and therefore not accounted for. My guess is that it is really significant in the overall food security story in the country, and taking account of land reform in the wider assessment would allow a redirection of effort by humanitarian and development agencies to support production for boosting local food security and economies, investing where the potential lies.

There is no reason for complacency though. Things could and should be much better, with proper investment. For example, the lack of irrigation infrastructure (and its state of repair, and its poor functioning due to intermittent electricity supplies) is a cause for major concern, and undermines resilience

The politics of food aid: why a more targeted approach is needed

Food aid is of course is highly political. It always has been, and accusations of partisan allocations have occurred again this year. Many are happy not to rely on the obligations and patronage that food aid implies – whether to the party-state or NGOs – and seek their own way. But there are some who are really destitute, without the networks that provide support. They are really needy and include a lot of people, but it’s certainly not 4.1 million. They include widows or older parents without living children, child-headed households, farm labourers, those with illness and disability, for example.

They all need help, as existing provisioning and coping strategies are insufficient. They are scattered all across the country – including in the high potential, richer areas within communities who are otherwise prospering, and are difficult to find. These are the people who need food, and would be a better focus for a more sophisticated, targeted approach to relief, which could combine with a more strategic developmental approach to increase production and market led economic development across communal, resettlement and urban areas.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Zimbabwe’s political uncertainty continues

mugabe-at-airport

In Zimbabwe, a day not a week seems like a long time in politics. It is difficult to get a sense of perspective when so much is happening, and so fast. Just scanning the daily compilations made by the amazing Zimbabwesituation.com (what a service this has supplied since 2000!) is overwhelming, and being immersed in the day-to-day means that it is difficult to separate wood from trees.

Recent Zimbabweland blogs reflected on the popular #This Flag movements and wider protests, which seemed to have come from nowhere. They can of course as easily disappear, in the foment that is Zimbabwean politics. In recent weeks, as the state feared opposition groups capitalising on discontent, there was an attempted two-week ban on protests. This was in turn overturned by the High Court, as the Attorney General’s office provided an inadequate case. Meanwhile, on the back of the dramatic rejection of the President by his strongest allies, the war veterans, fears in the party about its base continue. Former Vice President, and war veteran heroine, Joice Mujuru’s rally in Bindura was nearly blocked, to the outrage of People First activists. And in the ranks of the wider opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai and Tendai Biti seem to be talking again, with ‘olive branches’ being offered and talk of alliances being once again rekindled. And of course the backdrop is the continued speculation about President Mugabe’s health, with the tracking of Air Zimbabwe’s UM1 to various destinations becoming an obsession for some.

On the land front, the attempts to create a new land administration system are being hampered by dispute, contention and continued lawlessness. The now Cabinet-approved Land Commission Bill, emerging from the cross-party Constitutional Agreement, provides a framework for audit, compensation and oversight (more on this on the blog soon), as well as the payment of lease fees, under a revised 99 year lease arrangement. But, perhaps inevitably, things are not settled. With volatile politics, seeking a stable, technocratic solution, rooted in laws and regulations, is almost impossible.

So what to make of it all? There are as many views as commentators, but someone who speaks from a non-partisan position, and on the basis of both distance and long, intimate engagement in Zimbabwe is Professor Stephen Chan, from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. In January this year he offered his views to the New York Times. He made the case for tentative re-engagement by the West, and a focus on the players within ZANU-PF:

Unpalatable as it appears, there is much to be said for swallowing hard and re-engaging with the regime….Should there be conditions for re-engagement? The West probably won’t be able to resist making calls for less opaque financial and political dealings. But the land issue is settled: There is no politically viable force that would seek to restore farms to ousted whites….The world will one day soon see the end of Robert Mugabe. But his party will likely live on, and it is within that party that, like it or not, the West must now find people with whom it can work toward some kind of viable future….

Much has changed in the 8 months since then. In his mid-August interview with the Daily News (reproduced below), his core argument of the need to engage, and the expectation that change will emerge from within ZANU-PF persists, despite the influence of the #ThisFlag movement.  Not everyone will agree with the analysis – and there are many in the original post’s comments section who don’t – but a hard look at the forces at play does help. I am sure, just as some of Professor Chan’s predictions from January turned out not to be true, so too with his prognosis here. But making sense of uncertainty is always a challenge. And the current situation is more than baffling to me at least. So, in the hope that it can shed light, here are the published extracts from the interview with Daily News Senior Assistant Editor, Guthrie Munyuki:

Q: We have seen ructions in Zanu PF over the unresolved succession issues, how are they likely to shape the future of Zanu PF?

A: Yes, these ructions will destroy Zanu PF as the party of liberation. The war veterans have lost faith in Mugabe. Joice Mujuru, a genuine war heroine, has been purged. Emerson Mnangagwa, a hero of the struggle, has been under sustained attack.

Those who will be left will have played no part in armed struggle. If that is the case, those who succeed Mugabe will need a successful policy programme, but all we see is struggle for succession and no policy programme.

If  Mnangagwa also falls, then the Zanu PF of the 2018 elections will not be the same party of the 1980 independence elections.

Q: At 92, President Robert Mugabe is considered to lack the stamina and energy he once had in keeping Zanu PF intact, does his age underline the current squabbling in Zanu PF?

A: There is no major leader anywhere else in the world who is Mugabe’s age.

In China, which also venerates age, you cannot become a member of the Politburo or become President if you are over 60. You must have done that in your 50s and then the President only has two terms, so it is impossible to still be President in your 70s.

But I think there is a misunderstanding here about age: it is not just that someone lacks the stamina and vigour of youth; it is much more that one takes into age the habits and mental processes of one’s own youth.

But a man who was in his 20s 70 years ago will not be able to understand the aspirations, technological environment, and complex future imaginings of those who are in their 20s today.

In a way, it doesn’t matter how much Zanu PF squabbles, if the president and the entire party lose touch, at one and the same time, with its living liberation history and with the ability fully to understand the needs and aspirations of very young people.

It then loses its past and its future and has only its squabbling present.

Q: Is there any role left for him to play in keeping Zanu PF together when one considers that he is now being identified with the G40 faction yet previously he would, at least publicly, maintain a neutral role.

A: What is the G40? We in the West keep hearing of the G40, but we recognise not a single brilliant technocratic name; we recognise no one who has the intellectual capacity to rescue Zimbabwe.

Whether Mugabe will come down firmly on the side of the G40 or not, my worry is that the G40 will not bring successful policies to Zimbabwe.

Q: How significant is Mugabe’s fall-out with the war veterans and how do you see things shaping (up) in Zanu PF given the relationship that the ex combatants have with the military?

A: To lose the war veterans is a disaster for Mugabe. They fought. They sacrificed. Who else carries the mantle of the men and women who suffered in the field against huge odds?

I saw the Rhodesian war machine. It took huge courage to go up against that. Losing the veterans will mean, as I said, Zanu PF is no longer the party of liberation.

Q: For a long time Emmerson Mnangagwa  was touted as the likely man to succeed Mugabe but  there are doubts based on how he is being  humiliated by juniors in the party while Mugabe’s watches on. What’s your take on that?

A: I cannot read crystal balls. Perhaps this is not yet over. We shall see. But it is extraordinary to see a vice president treated this way.

Q: What options are there for Mnangagwa and how does his relationship with the military and the war veterans help him in his bid in light of the current attacks by G40?

A: Mnangagwa retains close links with the military, past and present.

To alienate him may be to alienate very powerful other people. But a coup would be very bad for Zimbabwe.

Whoever is president of Zimbabwe should be something for Zimbabweans to decide, not men in uniform. But I do think Zimbabwe is entering a tense moment.

Q: The economy has remained in the doldrums, leading to strikes and protests as well as suggestions that Zimbabwe could have its own Arab Spring; Is Zimbabwe ready for this?

A: There will be no Arab Spring. Besides, the Arab Spring brought nothing to the people of north Africa and only untold suffering to the people of Libya and Syria.

People can wrap as many flags around themselves as they like. This battle will be fought in the great institutions of the country. Zanu PF is one such institution. The army is another. I hope the judiciary will be another. And, if the church is to be an active institution in all this, it will take more than just one single Pastor.

Q:  Can the opposition political parties profit from this situation?

A: The opposition parties have nothing I recognise as viable policy platforms either.

Q: Is their grand coalition possible given that they seem to be hesitant and overly cautious in going towards this route?

A: There will be no grand coalition.  The opposition leaders are content to be princelings in their own courts. They are afraid that one of them might indeed become king.

Q: Zimbabwe’s face of the opposition for 16 years, Morgan Tsvangirai, is suffering from the cancer of colon, how does this impact his party’s chances in future elections?

A: Tsvangirai will no longer be a force in Zimbabwean politics. He has made his mark in history. He was a very brave leader of the opposition, and a far from perfect prime minister.

Q: Do you see him having a role in the 2018 elections?

A: No powerful or decisive role whatsoever.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Empowering chickens: why Bill Gates’ plan may be flawed

gates chicken3

Are chickens the route to rural women’s empowerment? Bill Gates thinks so. In a recent Gates Notes comment piece he announced ‘a big bet on chickens’ with an initial distribution of 100,000  to rural women in Africa. With just 5 chickens, he argued a woman could earn $1000 in a year. Melinda Gates meanwhile emphasises the empowerment angle, arguing in a blog that “raising chickens is considered women’s work, and the money from selling chickens and eggs belongs to women to spend as they choose”.

Simply handing out chickens and expecting these to improve livelihoods is of course not so straightforward. That is a big income from an initial 5 chickens! There have been many well-meaning projects that have done the same over many years. The relationship between poultry, disadvantage and empowerment for women is complex.

As Joseph Hanlon and Teresa Smart point out for Mozambique commercial poultry production is a costly business. Successful businesses require basic infrastructure, veterinary care, assured supplies of day-old-chicks and effective markets. Few manage this, and as our profiles of new agricultural entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe, the new poultry producers must rely on established businesses and services for support, and not all the beneficiaries of such enterprises are of course women. Most rural people rely on a few chickens of local breeds that require little maintenance and provide an important source of nutrition and income, but not sufficient for economic empowerment, by any stretch of the imagination.

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In our surveys across the resettlement areas, nearly every household has a few indigenous, village chickens. These are widely used, but do not provide a stable or significant income. Across 400 households in our A1/A2 sample in Masvingo province, we found 16 new broiler operations, but only two of these exceeded the $1000 profit level being suggested by Bill Gates; most made about $500 profit and many much less. These were 50 to 100 bird operations, reliant on significant and expensive inputs, not available to most women, except in the few cases when they were organised in groups.

Hanlon and Smart contrast the Gates NGO model with that of Brazil. In the last few decades, Brazil has become a major producer and exporter of chickens. Frozen chicken cuts from Brazil undercut local production in many parts of the world including Africa. The Brazil model, heavily invested in by the state investment bank, BNDES, relies on large producers of chicks, and a major support network established through contracting arrangements with small-scale producers. This realises massive economies of scope and scale, which are very difficult to replicate in African settings.

In Zimbabwe, large-scale commercial farmers are often crucial links in the value chain in a fast-changing commercial poultry sector. In Masvingo for example, the Mitchells’ farm supplied day-old chicks to many farmers, and continues to do so across the communal and new resettlement areas, despite attempts at land grabbing. The presence of such an operation, with all the infrastructure, skill and market connections that it requires, has been crucial to the success of the medium-scale new entrepreneurs that we profiled. As Hanlon and Smart argue:  “As usual, the aid industry can only see the two extremes and ideas that come from outside – Bill Gates’ five hens or Odebrecht’s [a Brazilian company] millions of chickens. The successes in the middle, and the successes developed locally, are ignored”.

Bill Gates and his team have to understand the changing global political economy of poultry production in their announcement, as well as the range of enterprises that actually exist. As Jim Sumberg and colleagues point out for Ghana there are many competing narratives about the role of poultry production in economic development. Too often the NGO vision – often tied to naïve ambitions of local economic empowerment – dominates but does not match the facts on the ground.

Major evidence gaps exist in the debate, and the Gates proposal has fallen foul of these. In Ghana, as elsewhere, we simply don’t know how many chickens there are, and in what sized flocks they are being kept. There are confusions between a generic ‘chicken’, and different types – broilers, layers, and the ubiquitous ‘road runner’ chicken, seen in villages across the continent. Each require different inputs, feeds, management care, and levels of capitalisation, and they usually operate in very different markets. ‘Indigenous’ chickens are valued for taste, ritual slaughter and other uses; broilers and the ‘improved’ breeds that the Gates Foundation are distributing do not cut it.

Patterns of consumption of meat are changing too, with chicken often favoured over for example beef, due to cost. But it is the very cheap imports (from Brazil in particular, but also Europe and the US) that have driven this in urban areas, along with the opportunities that supermarkets provide for frozen products. This is not the vision of the mini flock of village chickens owned by newly empowered women. In Ghana as elsewhere, policy is confused and conflicting, as different interest groups compete, but often with a poor understanding undermining any pretence at ‘evidence-based’ policy.

Empowerment of course is a political process. It’s about recognition, rights, voice and participation, not just about chickens, and new sources of income. Empowerment must also challenge the wider structural political-economic factors that keep poor people poor, and women disenfranchised. Cheap frozen chicken from Brazil will not go away as long as free trade regimes and cheap oil allow transnational value chains that can often undercut even the most diligent producers in rural Ghana, Mozambique or Zimbabwe. As we’ve long learned, giving women new assets without the requisite changes in gender relations and shifts in power relations in the domestic economy, can result in intra-household struggles, with men often benefiting more than women.

Easy gestures from rich philanthropists are insufficient, and must address these wider issues if the highly commendable focus on poorer rural women and their empowerment is to be addressed. Handing out chickens may not be the simple solution that it first appears.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Zimbabweland in 2016 – time to catch up

I am going to be on holiday for a few weeks, so now is the time to catch up on all those posts you missed. Normal service will resume in September. Below are the top 20 posts so far this year by number of views. Click on ‘view’ and enjoy reading!

Putting this list together I was having a look at some of the search terms and comments too. There are quite a diverse bunch of readers, with many interests. Some of the most popular blogs (from last year, but still being read in numbers) are the ones in the series on ‘Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs’. There were three – on poultry, pigs and irrigators and all are viewed regularly (links are at the end of this blog).

Interests in agricultural production are reflected in the search terms used to find the blog, with pig farming/rearing/piggeries (and variants) being by far the most frequent, with poultry/chickens and cattle not far behind – with queries on everything from feeding regimes to marketing options to prices. Who says there are not plenty of rural entrepreneurs out there, with access to the Internet, eager to find out who is doing what and to get advice (although I am not sure many of my blogs are that useful for pig farming to be frank)?

There are also many types of comments on the blog. Along with the usual viewpoints,  agricultural entrepreneurs make use of the blog to get in touch with others. Here was one from a few weeks’ back: “I am interested in doing business with Zimbabwe meat suppliers, I need to collect especially the bones from Zimbabwe to South Africa, is there anyone interested if yes please send me an email urgently”. Forget Sharaka, who is studying in Costa Rica, even got in touch with Tinashe who posted a query on pig production, advising: “we are doing an agro-business course and our project is of raising pigs for a year. I would advise you to make a business research….simply to avoid loses and make profits instead”. Good advice!

Other comments that I liked included the engagement with the recent blogs on Zimbabwe’s riots and new forms of activism. This included Gregory D commenting that in rural areas, there are other forms of popular culture that engage youth beyond social media, including a new craze for Zim dance hall: “rural youths are not really miles behind their urban counterparts. I can give an example of the Zimdancehall music phenomenon, which in its early days seemed just an urban craze but literally took over the whole country with even rural youths ditching Sungura music which they were accustomed to and associated with to be in line with their urban folk. In the same way, such citizen activism can include rural youths if concerted efforts are made to include their voices and aspirations as well”. Other comments have usefully provided additional information, and new links, including Debbie Potts’ very helpful bibliography on informal urban dynamics in Zimbabwe.

The series on ‘small towns’, featuring Mvurwi and Chatsworth, drew lots of interest, including from Gerry Wood in Cape Town. He commented: “Well this article on Chatsworth is heart warming. As a young man of 17 years I worked at the station as the administration clerk mainly selling tickets and managing all the paperwork on the goods being transported. I shared a Railway house with a much older man. There was no electricity and only a “long drop” for a toilet. I think the Station Master had better home conditions.
Well done to the people of Chatsworth and surrounds on its great progress.”

So please do keep posting comments, and engaging with the diverse Zimbabweland community. Since January there have been 35,500 views and you’ve come from over 130 countries, with Zimbabwe, the UK, the European Union (counted separately apparently from the UK – is this a consequence of Brexit?!), the US, and South Africa being the top sources.

Anyway, here are the most visited blogs so far this year. More in September on themes ranging from local level land governance to regional food security to land politics and more. With Zimbabwe’s fast-changing politics, there is always much to comment on! Happy reading.

  1. View What will Brexit mean for Africa?
  2. View Drought politics in southern Africa
  3. View Small towns in Zimbabwe are booming thanks to land reform
  4. View Are China and Brazil transforming African agriculture?
  5. View Why tractors are political in Africa
  6. View Research collaboration for global challenges: why it’s really hard
  7. View Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems
  8. View Why is IDS a special institution?
  9. View Riots in Zimbabwe: don’t mess with the informal sector
  10. View How the Sustainable Development Goals can open up political space for transformative development
  11. View #Hashtag activism: will it make a difference in Zimbabwe?
  12. View Small towns and economic development: lessons from Zimbabwe
  13. View Does land reform increase resilience to drought?
  14. View The changing face of global agricultural research
  15. View Why 50-60 million hectares should be transferred to smallholders in South Africa’s land reform
  16. View Mvurwi: from farm worker settlement to booming business centre
  17. View The El Niño drought hits livestock hard in Zimbabwe
  18. View China: Zimbabwe’s ‘all-weather friend’
  19. View Chatsworth: from railway siding to growing small town
  20. View Seeds for Africa’s green revolution: can India help?

Zimbabwe’s agricultural entrepreneurs

    • View Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs II: Poultry
    • View Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs I: pig production
    • View Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs III: irrigators

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Rethinking Chinese engagement in Africa

One of the projects I have been running over the last few years has focused on how China and Brazil have engaged in African agriculture. It involved research in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as China and Brazil.

The results have been published in a special issue of World Development, available free to download. As I reflected in a recent blog on The Conversation site, Chinese engagements are often not what they seem, and run counter to many of the standard media narratives. A SciDev article recently featured the project too, summarising key findings.

In a recent ChinaFile podcast, I explained some of the results to Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden. Here’s what’s on the ChinaFile site, and the podcast is below:

“The Western and African media have long fuelled the myth that Chinese investors are buying up vast tracts of land across Africa as part of a neo-colonial plan to export food back to China. Sure, on one level, the theory appears plausible: China has around 20 percent of the world’s population with less than seven percent of the planet’s arable land, so it seems obvious that Beijing might look abroad in search of farmland to feed its people. There’s only one small problem. That premise, no matter how convincing it may sound, is just flat-out wrong.

Johns Hopkins University professor Deborah Brautigam detailed all of the reasons why this myth remains so durable in her 2015 book Will Africa Feed China? A lot of it, according to Brautigam, has to do with a mix of bad journalism, Western narratives of African victimization, and the Chinese themselves who oversell their ambitions in Africans.

Now, though, there’s a twist to the story. Not only are the Chinese not on a land-buying spree in Africa, it appears they are actually doing more to support African agricultural development than any other country in the world.

Professor Ian Scoones from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex recently completed a four-country research project on Chinese agricultural engagement in Africa and discovered that the combination of Chinese immigrant farmers in Africa along with the deployment of Chinese agricultural technology and People’s Republic of China government training programs that have brought some 10,000 African officials to China have all had a remarkably positive impact on Africa’s struggling agricultural sector.

Professor Scoones joins Eric and Cobus to discuss why Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems.”

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Why we should stop talking about ‘desertification’

Stop-le-desert

A great new book has just been published called ‘The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands’, available at a shocking price from Springer. It is edited by two people who know a thing or two about these issues – Roy Behnke and Mike Mortimore – and it has 20 top quality chapters from all over the world, documenting why the term desertification has passed its sell-by date, if it ever had one at all. It is an impressive and timely synthesis, and I hope will become available in cheaper or free formats soon.

The myths of desertification have a long history. Ideas of desiccation and desert advance framed colonial science, informed by the narratives of the ‘dust bowl’ in the US. Yet whether from long-term environmental monitoring, areal and satellite photography, ecological modelling or local knowledge and field observation, the standard narratives have been found severely wanting. Unfortunately this accumulated evidence has been ignored, and the narratives of desertification persist. Why is this? As I discussed at the book launch event in London recently, we can get some insights from some reflection on the relationships between science and policy in this area – particularly in Africa – over the last 30-40 years.

Paradigm change

Within science, the debate has followed in many ways a classic Khunian cycle. A standard paradigm was challenged, a new paradigm proposed, and normal science then proceeded to test and nuance. In the 1970s, influenced by the new mathematics of complexity, ecologists such as Bob May argued that stability not an expected feature of ecosystems, even under deterministic conditions. In the context of African rangelands, Jim Ellis and team in Turkana – notably through the classic 1988 paper – contributed to an understanding of ecosystems not at equilibrium where density-independent factors (rainfall/drought/flood/snow) meant that animal populations were not at equilibrium, and different management regimes needed to apply.

Challenges to desertification myths, and simplistic equilibrium approaches to rangeland dynamics based on Clementsian succession ecology, have long been made. Jeremy Swift and Andrew Warren wrote classic papers in 1977 for the UN Conference on Desertification, but both were ignored. Stephen Sandford’s classic book of 1983 on pastoralism made many similar points, based on a mountain of evidence. The Woburn conferences in the early 1990s that I helped organise – and the two books that followed that I helped edit (here and here) – picked up on these findings and extended and expanded them, looking at the implications. A new paradigm for African rangeland management was born. African debates, we hoped, would become more compatible with mainstream ecology that had been around for several decades, and link to practice elsewhere – most notably in Australia.

This consolidation of empirical data within a new conceptual frame provoked lots of new work, and I don’t know how many PhDs and other studies have flowed from this. It also provoked inevitably some misunderstandings. For example, the assumption for example that all dryland systems were the same as Turkana (they are not – as I showed for Zimbabwe and Layne Coppock showed for Borana, in the Rangelands at Disequilibrium book); that in non-equilibrium systems degradation wouldn’t occur – of course it can, but in different ways. Others, such as Andrew Illius, helped introduce a more spatial perspective, highlighting the importance of patch dynamics in complex dryland ecosystems. Others extended and nuanced the argument, by integrating perspectives on animal and herder behaviour for example, as in Saverio Kratli’s impressive work in Niger. In the last decade, the science of remote sensing and GIS has enhanced spatial understandings of environmental change massively, reinforcing the argument against a linear view of desertification and a more dynamic view.

Susanne Vetter did a good job in summarising where the debate had got to by 2004. A more balanced view emerged – at least in the scientific community. This was ‘normal science’ in the Khunian sense and continues today. I get loads of papers to review that use the debate a starting point, and don’t have to go through the rigmarole of justifying the argument in the way we did in the 1993 Rangelands at Disequilibrium book.

Policy and institutional inertia and resistance

But the relationship between science and policy is not linear. If accumulated evidence had led to a transformation of paradigms, then surely policy and practice would follow suit? Well, no this is not how it happens! Evidence and policy, despite the rhetoric around evidence-based policymaking, are not neatly linked. Here the politics of knowledge and policy intervenes. Why is it that, even when scientific evidence is incontrovertible, then shifts in policy discourse and practice doesn’t happen? As always, in the debate about drylands in Africa we have to look at the intersections of discourse, actors, interests and politics – and so the politics of knowledge in policy. Here other forces are at play, beyond the slow accumulation of knowledge.

There were some in policy and practice circles who backed the non-equilibrium view, questioning the simplistic versions of desertification across the drylands. But this was sometimes a naïve advocacy for ‘indigenous’ systems – valorising transhumance or nomadism in a simplistic, romantic way. Ignoring challenges of land management, and inventing an ideal ‘tradition’, is not the answer.

Mainstream institutions and policy, while often playing lip service to changes in the growing critiques of the desertification framing, did not take the argument for rethinking on seriously. Paradigms may have shifted in science, but not in policy. Even today, it is amazing how often you see projects, documents, statements, plans repeating the same old story; as if debates in science over decades had never happened. Last month was ‘World Desertification Day’ held in Beijing when many speeches were made repeating old myths. Each time there is a Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Combatting Desertification, every government signatory, including Zimbabwe, has to trot out the arguments in its submission.

Why don’t things change?

In a commentary in the Living with Uncertainty book in 1994, Stephen Sandford said we would have to wait a generation for things to change (we have, and things still haven’t!). One reason is that a new ‘normal science’ only permeates through slowly via training, curriculum change and so on. Has this happened? I suspect not. My son just did A level biology – and he had to learn Clementsian succession by rote. I fear this is also the case in Africa. Incumbent power also resists change. This reflects the conservative nature of institutions and professions. While the science of rangelands has shifted, among field level departments, aid agencies, and their officials – old ideas stick. There is fast turnover of staff, poor resourcing, and institutional inertia and limited learning. A perennial pattern, perhaps especially in Africa.

But it’s not only inertia. There is also a more active politics of resistance. Take Ethiopia. Over the years, the policy documents framing pastoral development have changed. The well-funded Pastoral Community Development Project had a lot of the right rhetoric when it was established. It seemed to have taken on the new paradigm. But implemented by the Ministry of Federal Affairs, the programme has often focused on a programme of sedentarisation, fixed water points, and environmental measures to – you’ve guessed it – combat desertification. Threats of desertification and an old approach to dryland development align with Ethiopian state interests, making the drylands governable by a centralised state. When confronted – and I have been in several debates with high level officials on this programme – it’s defended essentially in political terms. Science is a long way from the discussion.

There is also the persistent and insidious power of incumbent institutions, hooked into a narrative that will not budge. In my view, one of the most mistaken moves in this field in the last 25 years was the creation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. As a concession to African states in the post-Rio deal, it has not had the traction of the conventions on biodiversity or climate change. The desertification narrative suited many purposes, and the critiques first raised in UN circles in 1977 were not heeded. The rhetoric is more sophisticated these days – participation, inclusion, cooperation, local knowledge and a wider view of land degradation are all part of the mix these days. But the fundamental frame remains – paradigm shifts do not shift UN bureaucracies, and too often resources are wasted and attention diverted from the real challenges of the drylands. Such organisations – and the UNCCD is not the only one – also become legitimators for science that has long been challenged. I don’t know how many comment pieces, policy briefs and communiques I receive that repeat those tired and long-disputed statistics of the areas of the world that are desertified or the amount of Africa that is suffering a nutrient deficit. Too often it’s spurious science and economics presented as fact, supporting a narrative that we thought had been dismissed decades ago.

Embracing uncertainty, working with variability

As science over many decades has shown, non-equilibrium ecology is a useful way of thinking about complex, highly variable dryland ecosystems – especially in the context of climate change. In particular, it provides a useful basis for challenging simplistic, linear desertification narratives. The key lesson is that there is no simple, standardised solution to dryland development, especially with fast-changing climatic, economic and political contexts – flexibility, agility and adaptive management is key. It is not amenable to a standard, control-oriented technocratic response. Just as the science has undergone a paradigm shift, so must policy and practice.  Of course wider contexts matter too. An ecologically-determinist view is inadequate – land tenure, administrative systems, investment regimes, and political economy contexts are vital. Since the non-equilibrium ecology challenge of the early 1990s, the contexts of Africa’s pastoral drylands have changed dramatically. Land grabs, privatisation and enclosure, settlement and the growth of towns, and changing commercial economies in the drylands have had a huge impact. Non-equilibrium ecology will not provide the answer, just a pointer. A wider engagement with political economy is necessary too.

Particularly worrying in the last ten years has been how the desertification narrative has been reinforced by debates about climate change. Again, against much evidence, climate change is simply taken to mean a secular shift, and so increasing desiccation, leading to land degradation and desertification. In fact, much climate science points to processes of increasing variability and uncertainty, not secular change. The satellite image data shows ‘deserts’ expanding and contracting over time in a complex patchwork, and not simply advancing. A focus on non-equilibrium, dynamic systems points to a different response – one centred on flexibility, adaptive management, responsive care and resilience, not control and technocratic intervention. The desertification narrative promotes a control-oriented response – with destocking, ‘green belts’, forest planting and engineering solutions dominating – rather than one that embraces uncertainty, and makes productive use of variability, as in the non-equilibrium paradigm. But of course realising the alternative paradigm is difficult. Institutional biases, procedures and routines reinforce control, especially when funding agencies and governments have fewer and fewer people in the field, connecting with the real world of the drylands. Funding flows, metrics, goals and targets just add to this, and I fear that both large-scale climate finance and the framing of the SDG goal 15 will only compound the problem.

The end of desertification?

So will this book make a difference? Is this the end of desertification talk? I hope so. But I also doubt it, unless it is more fundamentally connected to a political project of shifting the underlying politics of knowledge and practice that underpin the desertification narrative. Evidence as we’ve seen is not enough. We have to expose powerful people and institutions; we have to refuse to engage with organisations that promote inappropriate models of dryland development, and challenge them forcefully at every turn. I recommend a Tumblr site dedicated to ‘desertification nonsense’ that exposes organisations, governments, aid agencies and others (rather like the one exposing all-male panels, where the potential thumbs up from David Hasselhoff aims to encourage any workshop or conference organiser to change their plans). More positively, we have to develop, share and promote the new narrative – translating the science of 25 years or more into new ways of doing things. We have to focus more on training and curriculum change, and shift perspectives across generations. And we have to engage all these people still stuck in the old paradigm in our research, and avoid the perennial danger of the academic/research bubble, where paradigms change, but don’t make a difference.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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#Hashtag activism: will it make a difference in Zimbabwe?

zimbabwe-protests

Over the last few months a new type of politics has been brewing in Zimbabwe. Fed up with the mainstream parties, people have been taking to social media to express their demands. The most prominent has been the #ThisFlag movement, adopting the national flag as the symbol to rally around.

Led by a pastor – Evan Mawarire – it has generated massive interest, both in Zimbabwe and in the diaspora, and resulted in a successful stay-away in early July. Other movements, linked by social media, include: Occupy Africa Unity Square and Tajamuka/Sesjikile, as well as numerous bloggers, Twitter commentators, Youtube channels and Facebook accounts. Will this make a difference?

Some say this is the start of a ‘Zimbabwean spring’, echoing the movements that toppled governments in the Arab world a few years ago. But we need to be cautious about such parallels. There have been some excellent, reflective commentaries on this emerging phenomenon from Alex Magaisa, Miles Tendi and Brian Raftopolous in recent weeks. Let me highlight some key points made.

Genuine grievances are being expressed as the economy nosedives

Corruption, repression and lack of economic opportunity certainly are real concerns in Zimbabwe today, particularly among youth and urbanites. The riots discussed last week were an expression of this among vendors, taxi operators and others working hard to make a living in the ‘informal economy’

On Twitter, the core demands are stated, thus: “#ThisFlag will continue to be a civil rights movement driven by its citizens against: Poverty, Injustice, Corruption”. Most would sign up to this. But how does it translate into a political project, beyond the demands? This requires reaching out to wider constituencies.

This is an urban phenomenon, but Zimbabwe is largely rural

Only 34 percent of Zimbabwe’s population is classified as urban by the World Bank. This is far less than say Tunisia where the Arab spring started, where 68 percent is urban. This makes a big difference, as Twitter, Facebook and other social media are not active in many rural areas. People are of course engaging through multiple routes, and Whatsapp connections reach further. But most activists live in the major towns and are young, and hashtag activism doesn’t reach older generations, or people in rural areas where the majority live.

Rural people certainly have grievances against the government, but they are different. Many got land during the land reform, but they want state support to help make their farms productive and their rural economies grow. These are different demands, and different people; coalitions across the whole electorate will be vital in any future election. ZANU-PF, by both fair and foul means, have been past masters at assuring a vote.

The commentaries make this point, but only in passing. Miles Tendi asks: “where are the voices of Zimbabwe’s rural youth, who despite their numerical majority, have played a marginal role in online activism? Alex Magaisa comments: “The new citizens’ movement which has made waves in recent weeks has been concentrated in the urban areas. In this regard therefore, it is not very different from the traditional political opposition and organised civil society.”

To my mind this is the crucial issue, meaning this will remain a protest movement, but not one that brings change, unless wider alliances are built and a rural agenda is forged – something that opposition groupings coming from trade union backgrounds have singularly failed to do in the past. A failure to engage with rural politics by the urban and diaspora commentariat along with activist organisers is a big mistake.

If hashtag activism is not linked to civic movements and structures on the ground it will not result in change

Raftopolous comments on the new type of politics: “This movement is different to earlier forms of civic activism in a number of ways. First, it does not appear to be driven by any particular political party. Second, since the demise of the structures of the labour movement in the first decade of the 2000s, the forms of organisation in the informal sector have become much more fluid. The result is that this form of activism is more difficult for the state to track, but it also makes such interventions more fragile and more difficult to sustain. Third, the modality of protest appears to have drawn from forms used in South African protest movements. These include the burning of buildings, such as the torching of the Zimbabwe Revenue Service building at the Beitbridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the burning of tyres in the streets”.

Raftopolous argues that we may be witnessing “a change in the idea of citizenship” in Zimbabwe, as new people engage in politics. But Tendi argues, “These predictions of Mugabe’s imminent downfall are wrong….. social media activism can never substitute for organized political activity on the ground”. He continues: “it is not enough for Zimbabwe’s urban youth to simply oppose the status quo through social media. Let’s say that a successful youth uprising were to remove Mugabe from power tomorrow: Who would take over in his wake? What sort of political and economic agenda would this new leader have? Most of Zimbabwe’s social media activists have yet to give lucid answers to these important questions, while the few who do are plagued by a lack of consensus about who would lead a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and what that leadership’s agenda should be….If social media activists want to make a successful contribution to political change in Zimbabwe, they need to work in sync with traditional civil society groups and, crucially, effective opposition political parties”.

The problem, as Alex Magaisa, comments is that opposition parties are not effective, and civic movements are poorly funded and have over the years fallen into “the rigid confines of donor-demarcated programmes”.

The opposition parties are in turmoil

Alex Magaisa’s always-informative Big Saturday Read this week has dissected the recent announcements of the MDC-T president, Morgan Tsvangarai, with two additional vice-presidents appointed in the party. This was spun as preparing for the next election, but does it represent an attempt to control an unseemly succession struggle, or a clever route to cooption of different factions? Tsvangirai has revealed that he has colon cancer, so the party requires a new strategy. A recent statement tried to link itself to the #ThisFlag movement, but the connections through to local party structures are not clear. The wider movement has a broad political base, rooted in disaffection with the status quo, rather than any particular party loyalty, so it may be difficult to connect new citizen activism to opposition politics and votes.

Repression and control of social media and protest is likely

ZANU-PF has always been effective at suppressing dissent, both within the party and within the country. It has used violent means in the past, and will do so again. And of course there’s tweeter-in-chief, Prof. Jonathan Moyo MP, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, with an impressive 78k followers. Cyber security has risen up the agenda, and there will be attempts to monitor and restrict social media for sure. The Central Intelligence Organisation has had much advice from Israel and others, and blocking online activism is certainly possible.

As Magaisa argues: “We are likely to see more arrests of activists in the citizens’ movement. Ordinary members of the public will also be arrested and prosecuted as examples to others. There will also be new laws to criminalise conduct on social media and other similar spaces. There will be further statements and warnings from the coercive elements of the state, all designed to deter and scare people from using social media to challenge government. In this regard, the citizens’ movement will find that its struggle is really not very different from the struggle which the traditional opposition parties and organized civil society have faced in the past. The question is whether this new citizens’ movement has devised new tools to overcome or get around these impediments”.

Key to the unfolding story, as Tendi explains, will be the role of the military. Also divided but held in check by webs of patronage and control, if any group breaks loose, then the dynamic changes immediately. Not paying the army on time is clearly unwise. But as Tendi says the hashtag activists have no route into these military-security networks, and have paid such issues little thought, a “fateful omission”, he argues. He explains, “Mugabe maintains his hold on power largely because of the army’s internal divisions, particularly among the senior officers….. He has also used the intelligence services to sow divisions and maintain surveillance among the generals. Unless Mugabe’s opponents can develop a strategy to bring a decisive majority of senior military officers over to their side, even the most effective social media campaign will be for naught”.

Looking forward

Tendi concludes his Foreign Affairs piece, looking forward: “Young people, urban and rural, do not seem to be discussing among themselves whom they should support in the 2018 election, or what sort of political and economic agenda they want to see for their country. What Zimbabwe needs now, most of all, is a well-thought-out and pragmatic approach to the 2018 election — one that will unite civil society, the opposition parties, online activists, and urban and rural youth. That is the key to finding a new path ahead”.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

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