BRICS and development: new hubs of agrarian capital

When talking about the BRICS countries and their role in development, there is a lot of hot air surrounding debates on ‘South-South cooperation’ and plenty of warm words offered about ‘mutual learning’ and ‘solidarity’. But it was refreshing to be at a conference last week at PLAAS in Cape Town on the engagement of Brazil, China and South Africa in patterns of agrarian change to start from a different perspective: the influence on development pathways by the BRICS as new hubs of capital. The proposition of the BICAS group – similar but with different emphases to the CBAA project (also affiliated to the Future Agricultures Consortium) – is that we have to understand the origins, political and economic driving forces and limitations of the new hubs of capital, in order to get to grips with new dynamics of agrarian change across the world. There was a huge amount discussed at the conference, and the details are only now sinking in, but let me offer a few first thoughts on the emerging debates and their implications.

Emerging dynamics

Despite the hyperbole often associated with ‘rising powers’, one thing that struck me from across the presentations was the limits to accumulation and the extension and penetration of new forms of capital. There has been much debate about ‘land grabbing’, alongside much misinformation and confusion about its extent, but many of the big investment deals that were profiled soon after the 2007-08 crisis have not materialised, and even very high profile programmes – such as Prosavana in Mozambique, the subject of much debate and a panel at the conference – have not really materialised on the ground.

Capitalist accumulation of course takes many forms, and not always those of violent displacement and dispossession. Instead, a much longer, quieter pattern of accumulation may be happening, driven by a new global configuration of capital. This is what Jun Borras called for southeast Asia, the ‘thousand pin pricks’ of small scale transfers of land and extension of (often) Chinese capital in the region. In Africa too, while land grabs still continue, Ruth Hall emphasised the extension into processing, input supply, agricultural technology including seeds, transport and retail. The multiple ‘value webs’ created are crucial in understanding the impacts of the extension of capital from the new hubs. Compared to dramatic grabs, the slow, cumulative ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’ may have as big an effect in the end. But, participants argued, this requires a different lens to understand its dynamics.

Of course since the financial crisis, the possibilities of accumulation have changed. Africa with its vast land area, and apparent emptiness, was seen as a new frontier. But since then commodity prices have collapsed, and the urgency of seeking new markets via Africa – to Europe and beyond, possibly assisted by aid-funded preferential access and state support from African governments eager for investment – has receded. Africa in particular has proven a tough place to extend business ventures. Red tape, local politics, harsh environments, poor infrastructure plague new capital, just as they have old capital.

Domestic political contexts and economic imperatives in China, Brazil and South Africa have changed too. Talk in China is of the ‘new normal’ where consumption demand stabilises, and growth rates decline from the supercharged levels of a few years ago. As China turns to rebalancing and making the economy more sustainable, the massive commodity demand has tailed off. This of course has a direct impact on Brazil, where the decline in commodity prices, particularly in agriculture, has major consequences. This has combined with the domestic political crisis dominated by corruption scandals and a backlash by the middle classes. Concerns again are more inward looking. South Africa has its own economic and political crises, reflecting its failure to deal with the legacies of apartheid, as discussed on this blog last week. This at one level pushes capital to seek alternatives elsewhere, but also highlights the rather fragile claim to be a ‘rising power’, when perhaps Nigeria will prove its economic might in the region if conflicts in the north can be addressed.

Another theme running through the conference, and now more thoroughly understood thanks to some great new work, is the influence of financialisation. This is transforming land and agrarian change, as new players – be they equity funds, sovereign wealth investments, or banks of different sorts – see land and agriculture as new asset classes and investment opportunities. As Moises Balestro commented, the old landowning rentier class of Brazil has a new ally in financialisation. This transforms the way capital operates – no longer necessarily driven by companies associated with nation states (whether BRICS or not), but often truly globalised flows of finance that upset the notion that new political blocs centred on states rule the roost. Such finance has no particular national character, nor any form of political accountability, yet has enormous power and influence.

The mirror effect

Alongside these changing dynamics of capital and accumulation trajectories, another theme of the conference was how the political economy of the new hubs of capital establish the nature and direction of new investments abroad. This is a strong theme of the CBAA project that argues that the histories of domestic political economies in China and Brazil, and the associated imaginaries and narratives of agriculture and development, strongly influence what forms of agricultural development cooperation arrives in Africa – and so the meanings of agriculture, farming and development, and with this the pathways that emerge through these encounters.

In Brazil the long-running tension and political accommodation of both agribusiness and ‘family farming’ with agrarian reform, that Sergio Sauer and Sergio Schneider both talked of, is exported in various projects and technical assistance programmes. Models appropriate to Brazilian contexts – and reflecting this on-going very Brazilian political struggle – arrive in Africa, resulting in frequent confusion, as various cases under the CBAA project describe.

From China, the tension between ‘filling the rice bowl’ and the need to keep a stable, rural peasantry and the narrative of agricultural modernisation was discussed by Ye Jingzhong. This is also reflected in its ‘going out’ policy, as elaborated in CBAA work by Chinese Agricultural University colleagues led by Li Xiaoyun. Thus in different Chinese Agricultural Technology Centres, emerging from different provinces in China, very different visions of agriculture and development are reflected. There is no one China, and variegated forms of capital, reflected in the range of emphases of Chinese State Owned Enterprises that generally run these centres in Africa.

South African capital as it extends into Africa reflects a more unified vision, with its projection of large-scale commercial farming and vertically integrated value chains. This of course mirrors the historical evolution of South Africa’s agrarian sector, from the apartheid era to today, linked closely to what Ben Fine calls the minerals-energy complex that has historically defined South Africa’s political economy. With the power of large agribusiness even more entrenched by the processes of post-apartheid liberalisation, and now reinforced by financialisation, the extension of South African capital, perhaps especially in retail, processing, transport and logistics, but also technology and input supply is, as Ruth Hall and Ward Anseeuw, described, pushes a very particular logic and vision.

There is thus a striking mirroring of domestic struggles, tensions, accommodations and political-economic dynamics as capital extends from the new hubs. This imposes particular directions for accumulation and investment, and smooths certain paths for capital, and so the nature of investments. For this reason, in order to understand agrarian change, the scope must be cast wider, as much activity is focused on roads, mines and infrastructure development. Across the world, aid and state backed investments in ‘corridors’ and ‘investment zones’ are providing conducive conditions for capital accumulation. New agribusinesses follow on behind, often as the second or third wave of investment. This is a long game, where the quick wins of the speculative post-crash boom have gone, but state-capital alliances are forging longer term patterns, setting in train investments and visions of development framed in very different contexts, as Chinese, Brazilian and South African hubs (as well as Indian, Turkish, Indonesian, Vietnamese and other new hubs) extend their reach.

Beyond the rhetoric of South-South cooperation

To my mind, this is the context in which the high-sounding rhetoric around ‘South South cooperation’ must be set. For Zimbabwe, ‘Looking East’ to China – or to south of the Limpopo to South Africa or across the Atlantic to Brazil – must be seen in this light. While ‘conditionalities’ are not as imposed by the west or the old International Finance Institutions of the World Bank or IMF, there are consequences of engagement. Transfers are not just cash or technology, but much more. They include visions and trajectories of development that were constructed elsewhere, and so carry with them different politics and economic relations.

Talking about the emergence of a class of new entrepreneurial farmer, linked to urban markets, in Tanzania (very similar in many ways to what we see in Zimbabwe today), Marc Wegerif, only half jokingly, commented that being low on the World Bank’s index for doing business may be a good thing, providing some level of protection for smaller, domestic economic players. No-one denies Zimbabwe needs investment, but this conference reemphasised that understanding the wider system of finance and capital accumulation in a regional and global context is essential, so this can be responded to strategically.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland


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Xenophobia and inequality: notes from the ‘Rainbow Nation’

I am currently in South Africa where liberal opinion is reeling from the latest wave of xenophobic attacks in Durban and other cities. Flamed by comments from Zulu King Zwelithini and Edward Zuma, the President’s son, the attacks against migrants, mostly from elsewhere in Africa, have left many dead and a large number displaced. Zimbabweans have been caught up in this, with reports of some deaths and hundreds of Zimbabweans having fled to camps for safety. This was not supposed to be what the Rainbow Nation was about.

Yet it has happened before – in 2008, and again in 2013, and continues at a low level in the poor, urban contexts where poverty and inequality are extreme on a daily basis. South Africa has attracted many from across the continent, picking up business opportunities, providing labour and contributing to the economy. They come from Nigeria and across West Africa, from Somalia and across the Horn, and of course from other countries in southern and central Africa, including Zimbabwe.

No-one knows how many migrants are living and working in South Africa. The figures being bandied around again this week don’t add up. Some claim there are a between 2 and 5 million migrants (quite a range), others say there are 3 million Zimbabweans. The truth, as I outlined in an earlier blog, is rather less dramatic. Nevetheless, migration to South Africa, as it has been for a long time, is a crucial part of regional livelihood strategies. In the colonial era, Zimbabweans would come and work in the mines and farms, as part of a pattern of circular migration. This continues today, where ‘border-crossing’ for temporary work or trading is crucial for many Zimbabwean’s livelihoods. Migration is not new in southern Africa – it is in fact essential for the regional economy, and now on a wider scale with new patterns, and added to be many others from across the continent.

A negative, sometimes violent, reaction to foreign migrants in times of economic hardship is of course not just a South African problem. The current UK election campaign at turns blames migrants for all ills, as well as praises them for their contribution to the economy. There is no doubt that vulnerable migrants in Europe are exploited and paid lower than wages that others can claim, and so act to drive wages down. But they also contribute massively in terms of skills, entrepreneurship, business acumen and hard work. The same applies in South Africa.

But the reactions in Europe and South Africa do not look at the larger problem. This at root is a pattern of uneven economic development on a regional scale, and deep inequalities within nations. The great hopes for the Rainbow Nation in 1994 have not been met. The scars of apartheid are obvious for everyone to see. The symbolic removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes  – that xenophobe supreme buried in the Matobo hills – from the University of Cape Town has sparked a wider debate on why it is so long after freedom there are only a handful of black professors of South African origin at this most prestigious of universities. Such inequalities are felt even harder in the townships of Durban and Gauteng, where unemployment is rife, and opportunities are few. Meanwhile great riches are displayed by those living in their protected condominiums in the smarter suburbs of the same city.

Inequality breeds distrust, hate, conflict and violence. Without a state that is able or willing to intervene, address past and current injustices, and embark on realistic redistributions, whether in land, housing, services or economic opportunity more broadly, the only resort is a form of local level violence, where gangs and militia rule. The late action and response from the South African state in this recent wave of violence is shocking, and the complacency of the elite is also palpable.

Last weekend a link was been made between conflicts in other parts of the continent, with the warnings reported that there would be ‘pay back’ from Boko Haram and Al Shabaab on South Africans. Yet these conflicts in Nigeria and in the east African Horn also emerge from local disputes; a sense of injustice and lack of attention from the state. Locals are easy recruits into a wider movement because they offer an alternative, however restrictive and violent, to what is currently on offer; which is either neglect or direct persecution of marginal groups by the state. Sometimes portrayed as part of ‘international terror network’, linked to a ‘global jihad’, as pointed out in an excellent new IDS briefing, such conflicts are actually in their origins and motivations quite local, and based on the consequences of deep and persistent inequalities, including around rights to land and access to services, unaddressed by states.

Zimbabweans are caught up in the current horror in South Africa in large numbers. The Zimbabwean government has sworn to repatriate those who want to come home, while Zimbabwean citizens have protested volubly in a march on Harare’s South African embassy. Regional economic integration is the dream of SADC and the AU, but unless South Africa can address its own inequalities, and provide opportunities for migrants in a safe environment and on a level playing field, this will remain a pipe dream. Just as in Europe, closing the borders and discriminating against migrants is not the answer; it’s the underlying inequalities that must be addressed – something that South Africa over 21 years has patently failed to do.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland




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Beyond Zimbabwe’s ‘politics of despair’

There have been two excellent commentaries on Zimbabwe’s political situation recently by Brian Raftopolous and Joost Fontein. Both point to a ‘politics of despair’, a sense of despondency that no alternative is possible at least in the short-term. They make rather depressing reading. I agree with their analysis in broad terms, although as I point out below, they miss out another more pragmatic politics of hope. They focus on (mostly) a view from the metropolitan middle classes, committed to a democratic transition. In different terms, this is the view expressed widely in the diaspora. The excitement around the potential for change that was seen in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, has dissipated.

Raftopolous points to the changing global configuration of power and interests that frames the Zimbabwe situation. Contrary to the last decade, he argues, “calls for democratisation are being pushed back by the statist imperatives of securitisation and stabilisation with few attempts to confront the constraints of neoliberalism”. This is apparent amongst western nations whose concentration on southern Africa has been diverted to the concerns with militant Islamic insurgency in eastern and west Africa. SADC as a body seems not to be pushing a democratization agenda, and with Mugabe at the head of the AU this year, his focus will be on other questions, not least the threats of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. As Raftopolous points out, the Chinese, now major backers of the Zimbabwe state, with bilateral trade reaching $1.4 billion, are not, despite claims to the contrary, interested in disrupting a neoliberal status quo that benefits their commercial interests.

Given this, “the challenges for the opposition in developing an alternative vision for Zimbabwe are immense”, comments Raftopolous. “At a domestic level the opposition has to confront the combined coercive and patronage structures of the ruling party. On a broader regional and international plane the opposition must contend with Zanu-PF’s capacity to combine its nationalist and Pan Africanist invocations with the ‘normalisation’ discourse of neoliberalism and the clear international trend towards re-engagement with the Mugabe regime”.

Combined with the “constant bickering” of the opposition parties, there does not seem much prospect of an organized opposition response, even in the 2018 elections. With the opposition in disarray and key leaders on sabbaticals in the US, writing biographical reflections of their earlier heroic struggles, and the ‘Renewal Team’, at least for now, being expelled from parliament, there does not seem to be much likelihood of early regrouping.

This is the politics of the long-haul. A view reflected in the commentaries picked up by Fontein. He reflects on the hope that characterized the mood of the early 2000s. Correctly he observes, this was far from universal,  “but the doom and gloom of ‘authoritarian nationalism’, and the ‘end of modernity’ for a ‘plunging’ Zimbabwe, that preoccupied scholars, did not always match the confidence in new and better futures that one also encountered on Zimbabwe’s streets and resettled farms”.

He, however, observes that with hindsight, “all this hope seems profoundly misplaced”. He goes on to paint a rather dismal picture, where no hope for change is offered. He concludes “Despondency is prevalent and a new timescale of hope and aspiration has taken hold that makes both the present and any immediate future appear equally uninspiring. If people are just waiting, as many have suggested, most have resigned themselves to the long haul”. For his friends working in local government in Harare who had not been paid for months, this is indeed the reality (although perhaps offset by the growth of an excellent underground strand of satirical comedy).

Raftopolous points to the underlying factors leading to this politics of despair. These range, he notes, “from the re-organisation of Zanu-PF and its political machinery of patronage, coercion and electoral chicanery, to the massive dissipation of opposition energies in the context of large-scale changes in Zimbabwe social structure since the 1990s”.

But it is these changes in social structure – rooted in the land reform – that I think have been missed in these analyses. Maybe I am overly optimistic, but while these portrayals – of the international setting and for the employed, urban middle class – are unquestionably accurate, I don’t think they reflect the whole picture.

In our work in the resettlement farms of Masvingo, Mvurwi and now Matobo, we come across a spirit of optimism. Yes there are hardships and frustrations, and often damning tirades against the elite political class (but also, as noted last week, examples of resistance). People point to how things are better than they were, and are improving. We have been recently analyzing data from our surveys in Mvurwi, and you can see where this comes from. Across five years from 2010, all households across three A1 farms have been averaging production of maize at 3.2 tonnes (although with much variation), and tobacco averaging nearly a tonne. Around half of all households sold over a tonne of maize in 2014, many considerably more. And the numbers of cattle, cars, combis, tractors, trucks, cell phones, solar panels, pumps and more that have been bought in the last five years is phenomenal, according to our data.

These figures far exceed anything possible in the communal areas from where many came. And those who came from jobs in town swear they will never go back. Perhaps surprisingly, even though extremely income and asset poor, farm workers still resident in the compounds on these farms registered improvements, with many increasing cultivation, and acquiring assets. They all mentioned many problems of an often fragile existence, but nearly 60 per cent indicated that things had improved since land reform.

The contrasts with the depressed and demotivated discourse in the urban areas, where hope of change had been offered by the MDC in the 2000s, the resettlements seem a world away. Many problems remain, but things seem more hopeful and positive, focused as they are on the day to day travails of farming rather than on uncertain government salaries and a failing old, core economy. In a month or two (probably in June), there will be a blog series on our data from Mvurwi to illustrate the underlying patterns of livelihood change that generate this. But this is not just in the higher potential areas such as Mvurwi; even in Matabeleland where I was last month, and in the midst of a poor rainy season, many expressed a sense of achievement and potential when talking about their farms, and the future.

Generating a new sense of hope, out of which a new politics might emerge, will have to come from the fields and farms of rural Zimbabwe, and especially the resettlement areas. The opposition’s failure to engage with the realities of the land reform, and for much political commentary to ignore it too (including the otherwise excellent pieces from Brian and Joost) means that the other side of the Zimbabwe story is not heard, and another, more positive, future is not imagined.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland



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When Zimbabwe’s land grabbers don’t get their way

Reshuffling of political power at the top always has implications at the bottom in Zimbabwe. And so from December last year, with the purging of the Mujuru faction at the ZANU-PF congress, there were multiple rumblings elsewhere. As ever in Zimbabwe, issues of land were important. With a new configuration of power and leadership, some thought that this was the time to use their weight to get land.

Since the land reform – and indeed before – a spate of land grabbing has been seen around the time of elections. Either just before, for those fearing losing power, or just after as those with new power exert it. This was especially the case in 2008, when the ruling elite feared time was up. As it turned out the chaos of election violence meant they hung on, and were able to consolidate positions, resulting in another round of grabs. These are widely resented, including by the majority of land reform beneficiaries who after all were normal people, coming from nearby communal areas and towns, with few connected to this party

The fall out of the ZANU-PF congress upheaval has seen some pushing their luck, confident that they are in the right camp, while others have used attempts to grab land as a way of distancing themselves from the toxic consequences of being associated with the ‘Gamatox’ camp (the term associated with the Mujuru faction – a banned pesticide against weevils).

But land grabbers don’t always win. And indeed in this latest round, many, despite their credentials, have lost. Resistance and protest from villagers, authorities condemning the attempts at usurping ‘strategic’ farms, contests in the courts, and local press and international condemnation have put paid to a number of attempted grabs.

The most high profile recent land grab attempt was at Maleme farm in Matabeleland South. Here a senior CIO (intelligence agency) officer tried to force his way onto the farm. There was local uproar. This was a farm that was being used by a number of groups for local outreach. The white farmer was hugely popular in the area, and the projects widely appreciated. The local chiefs got together and petitioned the government, and in local meetings villagers living nearby vowed to destroy the fences and the farm if it was taken over. The chiefs backed them, saying that they would not support the takeover and would sanction the protests. Meanwhile the case hit the press, and international petitions were launched.

This particular grab of course touched a raw nerve. This was Matabeleland, a place where massacres at the hands of a ZANU-PF led military force took place in the 1980s. And here was a Shona officer from the same group attempting to take land. The arrogance and insensitivity was apparent to anyone from the area. The Gukurahundi period is deeply etched in people’s memories, and the seeming peace in Matabeleland is shallow. While the chiefs are notionally servants of the state, and usually closely linked to the party, their allegiances are at root local, as are their memories.

After much obfuscation, in the end the Vice President – Phelekezela Mphoko, the lesser known of the two beneficiaries of the December putsch – came to the area, and talked with the chiefs. He announced that the offer letter – pushed through by the local land committee that included the CIO officer as a member – was to be rescinded, and the farm would be returned ‘to the people’ (or at least the former owner and the various groups that use it as a base).

This was a major victory widely celebrated in Matobo. We have a new study site in this area, and were working on its establishment with colleagues from NUST at the time. It was certainly clear who people – including those in positions of authority in the state – backed in this confrontation. This land grab was a step too far.

But this is not a single, isolated case, peculiar because of its prominence and international exposure. There have been a few others recently where senior, apparently very powerful, individuals have tried to take farms, and have been (at least for now) pushed back. One case in Masvingo, in another of our study areas, was Barquest farm, near Lake Mutirikwi. Here a minister tried to claim land on the farm, notionally as part of a ‘joint venture’ with the farmer who supplies day-old chicks across the province and beyond. The Masvingo authorities have since 2000 designated this as a strategically important farm, protected from take-over. Again the farmer is highly popular and well known in the area. When the attempted grab was highlighted everyone I talked to was outraged. This was a person who allegedly had other farms, including access to conservancy land. Some put it down to an attempt to present himself as a solid backer of the winning faction in December, casting off aspersions of links to the Gamatox faction. Others saw it simply as greed.

In any case, no doubt influenced by the complex political contours that shroud every move particularly post-December, the new provincial minister, Shuvai Mahhofa, asserted her new-found authority, and withdrew the offer letter, and referred the wider allegations of multiple land ownership to an investigation. For now the crucial day old chick operation is safe, and the many involved in small scale poultry production in the region breathed a sigh of relief. Had this happened in 2008, or almost any time in the previous 15 years, the outcome would have been different. Perhaps, some surmised, things have changed.

Across the country there are a number of examples where ‘protected’ farms have been under siege. These are usually commercially successful but strategically important operations such as at Barquest, where small-scale operations in the new resettlements depend on them, and cannot replicate them given the level of expertise and capital investments required. Dairy farms were the most common, where early in the land reform, agreements were made among government officials in the provincial technical implementing ministries that they would not be offered as part of the A2 scheme. Such local agreements among the technocrats however were often not heeded by those in the political-military-security elite, who went on a rampage at key moments, often grabbing, then destroying, these strategic farm businesses. However some have remained, protected in various ways, such as the case of Barquest, and remain important for agriculture in their areas.

Another case has been Centenary farm near Figtree, again in Matabeleland, where a long court case, with many twists and turns, continues to be fought over the farm, where a senior official from the President’s office tried to take it over. This is an important dairy farm in the region, run by a widely respected Matabeleland farmer, with enormous experience in the dairy sector. Unexpectedly, the court upheld David Conolly’s claim to hold onto the farm, and has requested the land grabber to abandon the farm. This dispute hangs in the balance, but just maybe here again common sense – and Zimbabwe’s collective long-term interest in supporting and rehabilitating the agricultural sector – will win out against individual political opportunism.

Land grabbers in Zimbabwe therefore do not always get their way. This is perhaps especially so in places like Matabeleland and Masvingo where local economic imperatives, as well as local politics and allegiances, hold sway. This is reinforced, especially in Matabeleland, by deeper memories of external interference by a violent state. Local voices against predatory land grabbing it seems are gaining the upper hand, and are fuelling alliances of resistance among local people, chiefs, technocrats and local politicians. As a new politics of the countryside emerges, this dynamic may well be important for the longer term.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

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Soil management in Africa: ways forward

Some years ago, as part of the e-debate hosted by the Future Agricultures Consortium we had a discussion on ways forward on soil fertility management policy. The conclusions are just as relevant today. In reviewing the excellent contributions to the debate (well worth a read), I highlighted 6 themes.

Context matters. Contexts – social, economic and ecological – must be taken into account in policy. Simple, blanket solutions do not work. They have been tried before and failed; and we should avoid making the same mistakes, no matter how urgent the situation is or who much money there is to be disbursed.

The argument against continent-wide (or even national) blueprint programmes has of course been long made. That is not new. Which contexts matter and what implications does this have for what should be done on the ground? This relates to the question about the merits of using inorganic fertilizers as the entry point to an integrated soil fertility management approach. There are contrasting, often ideologically-charged views on this. But there may be more consensus if we get specific about context.

Figure 1 offers a very simple, rather crude matrix of contexts. One axis focuses on agro-ecological contexts (from low to high responsive soils and available soil moisture). The other axis focuses on socio-economic contexts (from conditions where returns to inputs are high to those where they are low), emphasising context-specific input profitability and affordability.

Figure 1: Contexts for soil fertility management


Low responsive soils (loworganic matter, low rainfall) High responsive soils
Poor returns to inputs(profitability and affordability low)



Low external input options make more sense – external support required 


Efficient application (e.g. micro- dosing) critical – market assisted 
High returns Mixed strategy appropriate Application of inorganics make sense – market based

In situations where soils are highly responsive (to external inputs, such as inorganic fertilizers, and so have above-threshold levels of organic matter), and where returns to inputs are significant (and are perhaps the major factor constraining production – i.e. land tenure, market and other production constraints are not so important), then programmes focused on inorganic fertiliser use appear to make a lot of sense.

This does not mean that these should be high-level, blanket recommendations – all sorts of efficiency measures (such as micro-dosing) make sense. It equally doesn‟t mean that investing in the building up of organic material (through cover crops, green manuring, low/no-till etc.) is irrelevant. Far from it: the responsiveness of soils, and therefore the returns to inorganic fertiliser, is highly dependent on this being sustained.

But what about in situations where soils are less responsive (due to low organic matter, poor rainfall, or a combination of both), or where returns to inputs are low (due to high prices of the inputs, low prices of farm products and poor market and transport linkages)? Here the conclusion is less obvious. Here an integrated, and long-term effort is essential, with combination of technologies, services and policies.

Contexts outside the bottom-right hand box of Figure 1 are by far the most numerous in Africa, and are where most poor people live. Unfortunately most programmes, at least implicitly, seem to focus on the bottom right corner, as contexts are not considered as explicitly as they need to be.

Scale matters too. A consideration of context must occur at different scales. Figure 1 could be applied at regional, national, district, village, farm or field levels. The two axes can vary over very short distances, as both agroecologies and market conditions change.

The responsiveness of soils (and so the appropriateness of different fertility inputs) can vary dramatically within a farm and field, and farmers’ own soil fertility management strategies are often geared to this micro- scale. Micro-dosing with inorganic fertilisers, complemented by organic fertiliser applications, can allow very fine-tuned approaches at these micro scales.

Thus larger-scale programmes must be able to respond to scale variations and be flexible in their design and approach. They equally need to be supported by both participatory, bottom-up design principles, but also by effective soil diagnostic, testing and mapping approaches.

Socio-economic differentiation is important. Different soil fertility management strategies make sense to different farmers, depending on their own socio-economic context. In other words, in relation to Figure 1, the vertical axis varies across households (and even within households, say between men and women) depending on patterns of socio-economic differentiation.

This is clearly important for targeting and the design of programmes, such as differentiation between households with different levels of market access. Designing input support schemes requires a detailed understanding of such socio-economic variation. In some areas and for some households simple market mechanisms, perhaps supporting the growth of agro-dealer networks, may work well. In other areas, focused ‘smart subsidies’ may allow a positive spiral to develop, where more farm output leads to more investment in soil fertility inputs. In other areas for other households a more broad-based support will be needed, focused on providing a social safety net.

Past experience, and much current practice, avoids such differentiation, opting instead for a bureaucratically easier and more politically-saleable blanket approach, open to political manipulation. This has been the case in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, with fertiliser subsidy and handouts being part of political patronage networks, involving both the state and non-state actors. This is dangerous, generating distortions, disincentives and inefficiencies.

Don’t forget longer-term dynamic trends. As discussed, contexts matter, but they are not fixed. They vary across space and across socio-economic group. They also change over time. A number of longer-term dynamic trends are mentioned across the contributions, each of which can dramatically affect the configuration of the axes in Figure 1.

Climate change, and with this changing rainfall and temperature patterns, is especially significant. A drying climate, with more variable rainfall and hotter temperatures (as predicted for significant areas of Africa) may make the application of inorganic fertilisers less like a good bet, as the contexts shift (to the left in Figure 1). In some areas, of course, the opposite may happen. This deep uncertainty about the long- term dynamics of climate must affect planning for soil fertility programmes. Adaptation measures which improve resilience will have to be part of these – and this means thinking about water, sanitation systems and soils at the same time. Basic soil and water conservation measures can go a long way, as can low/no till approaches, mulching and cover crops, as long as labour costs are not too excessive. Integrating cropping with livestock production has many spin-off benefits for soil fertility management.

Another trend – and in the last period a dramatic shift – is the price of inorganic fertiliser. This is a key factor in shifting the profitability and affordability – and the relative balance of different options. With inorganic fertiliser prices (of N and P) having increased by many fold, this clearly has shifted contexts too (to the top of Figure 1). Many questions arise: Is this going to be a long-term trend or a blip, potentially reversed by declines in oil prices? What will drive long-term change? How will fertiliser manufacturing and packaging investment in Africa make a difference?

There were no easy answers to these questions. But they need addressing in any future designs of policy and programmes, with measures to protect against future shocks and long term trends. Past interventions have often been disastrous, undermining the capacity of the African agricultural sector to respond. The abolition of fertiliser subsidies and the virtual ban on parastatals in the 1980s/1990s was a big mistake according to many. As with the technical responses on the ground, diversity and flexibility in design are the key words, if long-term resilience and sustainable development pathways are the aim.

In thinking about policy we need to have long-term trends in mind. if people are moving out of farming, or engaging as part-time farmers, straddling different livelihoods, the economics of soil fertility management may be seen in a very different way. Designing programmes on the assumption of full-time farming is increasingly problematic, and serious attention needs to be paid to the soil fertility management needs of ‘future farmers’ not just assumed ‘ideal type farmers;; potentially with quite different scenarios playing out in different places for different people.

Cultural dimensions of soil fertility management need to be central. There are many dangers of a ‘technical fix’ mode to solving soil fertility problems. It’s important to ask how farmers frame the problem themselves. Farmers often don’t see things the way some soil scientists do. Their understandings of soils are more holistic, centred on a perspective that looks at the wider ‘health’ of the soil-plant system.

Local peoples‟ knowledge, which consists not merely in picturesque representations of the properties and potentials of local soils, inherited from the past (“indigenous‟ knowledge) but also in experiential and adaptive knowledge from project successes or failures as found relevant to their livelihood circumstances.

The solution is not necessarily to apply some ‘medicine’ (or fertiliser), but to deal with the problem systemically. Indeed, in some contexts, inorganic fertilisers are viewed with suspicion, being seen as foreign contaminants of soils. This holistic perspective is more akin to agro- ecological approaches, where a more integrative view of soil systems is required.

A shift in perspective on the part of science and policy may be needed if the slogans of ‘soil health; for Africa are to have purchase. The indigenous, cultural understandings of soils and their management need to be taken on board, and seen as central to the design of programmes and policies.

Understandings that really get to grips with the complexities and dynamics of complex systems are essential. A variety of professional, institutional and other biases often prevents scientific analysis and policy-making from engaging with this. This remains a massive challenge, especially for the implementation of large programmes focused on soil fertility, and suggests a substantial capacity development focus for the future.

So how to go beyond the diagnostic-prescriptive framework for designing intervention and promoting change, driven by aggregate figures and simplistic framings? How to get nuance and specificity into the “special initiatives” or “Africa-wide programmes” that no doubt will follow from the International Year of Soils. As Ken Giller from Wageningen has argued, we must go from an obsession with ideal designs, or even ‘best bet‟ technologies or ‘best practice‟ management, to a ‘best fit‟ approach, that takes context – and so agro-ecological and socioeconomic contexts – as the starting point.

Perhaps some version of Figure 1 might therefore offer a just the sort of heuristic to help such a design as part of a conversation between planners, scientists and farmers that helps get us beyond the ruts that soil management policy has got into. This is vital for the post-settlement support necessary in the land reform areas in Zimbabwe, just as it is across smallholder Africa. If the 2015 International Year of Soils, that this blog series marks, is to have any meaning, the lessons and cautions noted above, and in previous blogs must be heeded.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland


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Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – launched a major ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort. The Abuja declaration, following on from the African Fertilizer Summit of 2006 set the scene for major investments in boosting fertilizer supplies. CAADP – the Comprehensive African Agricultural Developent Programme – has been active in supporting the follow up to the summit, particularly through it work on improving markets and trade. Other initiatives abound – the Millennium Villages programme, Sasakawa-Global 2000, the activities of the Association for Better Land Husbandry, among many others. All see soil fertility as central, although the suggested solutions and policy requirements are very different.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in sustainable ways; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate.

What would a framework for policy and implementation look like? This is much more contested. A variety of ‘models’ – often with rather implicit policy assumptions – are being, or have been, tested. These include (among many others, and different permutations):

A technology package approach: state led extension delivery– high input demonstration plots linked to a programme of extension and credit support to encourage uptake of a technically recommended package (usually associated with improved seeds). This has been standard fare of most agriculture departments for years, but with limited impact – as the evaluations of the World Bank’s Training and Visit system showed. SG-2000 developed a more focused approach in the 1990s, with variable success, in part because the input levels recommended were very high (and expensive – up to 150kg/ha), and so often inappropriate to agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances. Other ‘package approaches’ have focused on agroforestry, conservation tillage and other technologies, but up-take and wider impact has been patchy.

Universal subsidies, price control and state support for input supply – the state-led subsidy approach of the 1970s and 80s involved highly controlled fertiliser markets and price control/subsidy. These systems were largely overseen by large parastatal organisations which offered pan-territorial pricing and supply through distributed depot networks, often linked to credit schemes often with poor pay-back records. Subsidy programmes were initiated in response to major oil/gas price hikes in the 1970s and persisted at huge cost to the state until economic liberalisation policies were introduced from the 1980s. They have been widely criticised, although positive outcomes have been realised, such as in Malawi, but at great cost to the exchequer and with high risks of intensifying patronage.

‘Smart’ subsidies and voucher schemes: facilitating market mechanisms – this approach has been tested widely, resulting in substantial boosts in aggregate production of maize, particularly in the good rainy seasons. This resulted in decreased food prices, benefiting not only producers but also consumers (many of the rural poor), and hopefully triggering an upward spiral of investment and labour generation. Questions over long term financial sustainability have been raised, given the high costs of imported fertiliser, and the potentials for leakage and poor targeting in the voucher system.

Village level demonstration and extension: area based integrated development – this approach is at the heart of the Millennium Villages Programme, and has been a feature of integrated rural development programmes of different sorts for decades. The programme, for example, offers subsidised fertiliser and shows its effect through demonstration plots. This has resulted in significant increases in fertiliser use and substantial yield growth, claimed to be up to three times previous levels.

Bulk purchase, packaging and local manufacture: investments to deal with upstream supply constraints

Many of the preceding options are reliant on mineral fertilizers in some shape or form. With high production costs due to energy costs (for nitrogen – although declining oil prices should see a shift in this pattern) and limits to easily accessible supplies (for phosphorus), fertilizers are set remain expensive, even relative to higher crop commodity prices. Local packaging and supply has proven successful in areas of high demand, such as Western Kenya through public-private partnership arrangements (e.g. FIPS-Africa), this has meant more appropriate products in packs which are affordable are supplied. To reduce input costs further larger scale interventions are envisaged by some, including bulk purchase of fertiliser for Africa with negotiated price reductions (e.g. the African Development Bank initiative and IFDC’s MIR project). Others have even more ambitious plans for local manufacture of fertilizers in Africa to increase supply and reduce prices, through aid-subsidised investment in plant development. The overall policy frameworks for these initiatives remain unclear, but remain important if appropriate blends/supplies are to get to farmers across diverse Africa farming systems.

Improving agro-dealer networks: making markets work. Improving market access through the support of agro-dealer networks helps to reduce price of inputs and can result in improved information flows and technical advice to farmers. A distributed private sector response to input supply can, however, quickly be undermined by inappropriate subsidies or project intervention. Agro-dealers usually operate on small margins and fluctuations in supply, demand and price can affect their ability to stay in business. Umbrella organisations that support small dealer operations can offset some risks and provide back-up. However, inevitably, most commercially viable operations are in relatively high resource endowment agricultural areas, supplying relatively richer farmers. The reach and poverty impact of private sector based solutions remains hotly debated.

Scaling up local success: project support for local level innovation systems – over many years numerous projects have been initiated that have supported local innovation capacity and the participatory development of technologies. Many of these have focused on managing soil and water resources. Some have proven one-off events with limited uptake; but others have spread widely with major positive impacts on farming livelihoods. How can such successes be replicated, and mainstreamed as part of agricultural development, becoming less reliant on unreliable project based support?

These ‘models’ are familiar to more general approaches to rural development and policy in Africa and beyond. There has been much experience across Africa of each – from the technology packages and extension approaches of the colonial era, revived in the 1970s through Training and Visit to the integrated, area based approaches of the 1960s and 70s to the project mode of the 80s and the market-led approaches of the post-adjustment and economic reform era.

What is interesting today is that all are being proposed and experimented with often in the same place at the same time; yet often with remarkably little reflection on past experiences and lessons. A hardnosed assessment of such lessons is vital in advance of any new initiatives emerging from the International Year of Soils, asking what works where, when and why – and for what?

Does anyone remember the much heralded Soil Fertility Initiative of the early 2000s? What happened to that? New initiatives must not suffer the same fate. Today, there is a political momentum for action generated by a global concern about rising food prices and lagging production. There is a renewed focus on agricultural development as a source of economic growth and poverty reduction, particularly in Africa. And there have been a variety of documented successes across Africa, ranging from the Malawi fertilizer story to local agro-ecological change in the Sahel, from which to draw. Together, these factors combine to a positive context for debating appropriate policy frameworks for soils in Africa.

Some important questions are raised, pertinent to Zimbabwe as elsewhere:

  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?
  •  Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility management approach? If so, what should a programme look like, bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?
  • How can efficient use of fertilizer use be ensured, avoiding the danger of benefits being captured more by fertilizer manufacturers and traders than small scale farmers?
  • Do subsidies have a role in ensuring input provision and, if so, what is meant by a ‘smart subsidy’? If not, what other incentives/investments make most sense?
  • What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?
  • What is the role for the state – in managing, supporting, coordinating, regulating, financing – and which parts of the state need support to make this happen?
  • What type of policy processes are required to ensure pro-poor outcomes and avoid capture by elites, commercial interests and others?
  • What enabling conditions need to be in place (e.g. trade policy, infrastructure, investment)
  • How should ‘success’ and ‘impact’ defined?

Some of these are addressed in the final blog in this series, coming next week.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

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Why an integrated approach to soil management is essential

Debates on soils and their management have too often been unnecessarily polarised between promoters of ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘agroecological’ agriculture and those who argue that only large supplies of mineral fertiliser are the answer. These are often pitched in ideological terms, with little reference to technical understandings of soils. What can we learn from the decades of technical research on soils in Africa about what makes sense, where and for whom?

Experience across Africa demonstrates that a ‘one size fits all’ solution is inappropriate. An integrated approach to soils management is required, mixing different inputs in different amounts for different places. Deriving from extensive research we have learned that:

  •  Radical technological solutions to soil nutrient problems, such as through genetic modification for increasing nitrogen fixation, are unlikely given the complexity of the plant genetic/physiological processes involved, except through boosting nutrient utilisation at the margins. Similar gains may be realised by much simpler techniques, such as micro-dosing (see below).
  •  Fallowing remains an important strategy for long-term soil restoration in some places where land pressures are not intense. Improved fallows, using legumes and trees have been shown to have positive impacts. These approaches however take time and require extensive land areas.
  •  Conservation tillage approaches can work well, but reduce the availability of crop residues, often a critical source of fodder in mixed crop-livestock systems. They may be too labour intensive to apply beyond a small garden area. Herbicide based no-till systems developed for large-scale farm+s are usually not appropriate in African farming smallholder farming systems.
  •  While essential, there are distinct limits to biological soil fertility options, particularly in already nutrient-poor soils. Rotation, manuring, composting and other ‘sustainable agriculture’ and ‘low external input’ techniques are valuable, but often require considerable labour and skill inputs, as well as large volumes of biomass.
  • Inorganic fertilizer use is low across Africa, averaging around 9 kg/ha (outside South Africa) according to the FAO. It is highest in southern Africa and lowest in the Sahel and Central Africa. Constraints to fertilizer use include: high prices, high import tariffs, market power of few suppliers, poor supply infrastructure, inappropriate bag sizes, inappropriate blend/mixes, poor labelling, adulteration, lack of enforceable regulatory systems, low rainfall, low agronomic efficiency.
  •  African soils are highly variable – they respond to inputs in radically different ways. Crops on poor sandy soils with low clay/soil organic matter content, for example, respond poorly to mineral fertilizer applications. This means that fertilizer focused programmes are inappropriate in large areas of the continent, unless complementary biological measures are taken.
  •  Home fields, gardens and old settlement sites respond better to mineral fertilizers, as soil organic matter has built up over time. Distinct variations in input responsiveness can be seen across and between farms. Application of inorganic fertilizer makes sense in some farms – and parts of farms – but not in others.
  •  Micro-nutrient deficiencies (e.g. Zn) may be as important as N, P, K and S. Getting the right composition, based on local soil testing and blend management, may result in major increases in production.
  •  Increasing the agronomic efficiency (i.e. the marginal increase in production per unit of input) of inorganic fertilizer use requires a) soil moisture, b) organic matter/clay fraction, c) efficient application. Measures to deal with water control and soil structure/organic content, take time and long-term investment. Efficient application can be enhanced through ‘micro-dosing’ – applying small amounts to plants in ways that maximises nutrient uptake.

A critical lesson from all this work is that a highly context-specific approach is required that takes into account the fertility status of the soil, the availability of organic inputs and the ability to access and pay for mineral fertilizers. Making soil fertilisation pay also depends on output markets and the value of farm products. This varies enormously across Africa, within regions and even within villages and fields.

As discussed in the opening blog in this series, simple diagnoses based on generalised country or region-wide estimates of ‘land degradation’ or ‘soil mining’, based on often wildly inconsistent extrapolations from micro-data, are often rather meaningless. While the narrative of a seemingly universal soil depletion may raise the profile of the issue, the prescriptions that sometimes follow are often inappropriate. Simplistic accounting approaches based on ‘nutrient balances’ do not do justice to the complex soil biology and chemistry, and site-specific dynamics, that affect soil fertility problems in different places.

This is not to say that soil nutrient deficits are not a problem. They are; and often are the major constraint to production, particularly in relatively wetter agro-ecosystems in Africa. Identifying where these challenges lie is an important task, but one that requires site-specific diagnostic techniques, with participatory field assessment tools showing much promise.

However, just adding nutrients is not enough. Given resource constraints – of both fertility inputs, labour and cash – maximising the agro-economic efficiency of input use must be a critical objective of any soil fertility management strategy. Without such an approach at the heart of any programme, resources will be wasted and the much needed production boosts will be inadequate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland



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