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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Homefields and outfields: different sites, different response to soil management

There is a long and distinguished history of soils research in Zimbabwe, led by the Department of Research and Specialist Services and the University of Zimbabwe (see a review of some of this in the Zimbabwe chapter of the Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa book (download here). We know an enormous amount about soils of different types and their responsiveness to different combinations of inputs. This is vital information to support the post-settlement agrarian reform programme, but is barely used.

Farmers who gained land in 2000 have often profited from a short window of high soil fertility on land clearance, but now the soils need more intensive management. But there is no available soil testing service, no extension support, and they are having to find their own way, often in challenging circumstances where input supplies are variable (and politicised), and availability of manure and other biomass is limited.

The basic challenges are best illustrated by a dramatic graph based on long-term research at Harare research station. The decline of soil fertility and so yields on land clearance is massive and quick, and the ability to increase responses due to input application is important but marginal.

 

These data are from rich Highveld red soils, and the pattern will be different in the majority of sandy or sandy loam soils elsewhere, where loss of organic matter is often more sudden, and very difficult to reverse. Many soils in the communal areas where cultivation has been continuous for over a century are essentially silica based substrates, with little inherent fertility or organic matter and so very poor structure. This is farming as hydroponics, where water and nutrients must be held in the substrate for the period that plants need it. This requires careful soil water and nutrient conservation efforts, ones that are quite different to those needed in other, richer soils.

This highlights the contrast between ‘outfield’ crop farming (often on very poor, sandy soils) and ‘homefields’ or gardens, where soils are richer, and improved by organic matter additions and careful cultivation. These two systems are quite distinct, and managed separately with different levels of attention and inputs. Sociologically they are distinct too, with homefields and gardens often the domain of women, while outfields being farmed by men (although of course this is not universally the case). There are therefore often intrahousehold disputes over where valued inputs – labour, manure, compost, fertiliser – are placed, reflecting this gendered differentiation of farming.

The garden/homefield vs outfield distinction is important for designing interventions, as there are quite different priorities in each, both technically and socio-economically. This is often forgotten. The rise of ‘conservation agriculture’ as a panacea to Zimbabwe’s agricultural challenges has meant a massive focus on digging pits in fields, supported by numerous NGOs and development agencies. But too often the key distinction has not been acknowledged, and problems emerged. Conservation agriculture (pit digging, with focused application of feritliser) is a gardening technique and highly suitable for small areas – indeed versions of it have long been applied before the development agencies arrived. It makes sense to limit application, focus water and nutrients, and manage individual plants intensively when working in a garden (even I do it in my own allotment in Brighton). But when agencies try to get people to do it in a whole field over a large area it is not surprising that it doesn’t work, and is widely resented (‘dig and die’ is the local term). People may temporarily comply to get the inputs, or as part of social pressure, but in the long term such efforts are not going to have an impact. This is why a differentiated response is essential.

In next week’s blog I will discuss some of the lessons from the extensive scientific and technical work that has been carried out in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, and draw some implications for the design of interventions. 

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


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Soils for life: Some cautionary tales for the International Year of Soils

You may not know, but 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Soils are of course vitally important for agriculture and livelihoods, but they often go unsung and are routinely uncared for. The Year of Soils, promoted by the FAO, is aimed to put soils into the spotlight. The Director General of the FAO, Jose Graziano Da Silva, puts it nicely: “”The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production”.

The recent high-profile Montpellier Panel report pulls together much of the science, and makes a strong case for taking an integrated and holistic approach to soil management to promote soil health. If we lose soils, then we lose the basis for life, it argues. While climate change, correctly, has gained the international spotlight, making sure the basic substrate for human survival is in a good condition may be equally important.

If you want to learn more about soils you can attend an event virtually every week somewhere in the world this year. A highlight is the ‘Global Soil Week’ in Berlin next month, when soil science and policy will be discussed in a number of sessions. The organisers have produced a ‘Soil Atlas’, a compilation of infographics, which projects the data and the importance of soils.

Yet we must be careful when making the case for soils that we do not simplify and overstate. This is always a temptation when trying to raise the profile of an issue. To generate attention, headline grabbing statistics are always helpful. But they may not actually be useful, as they can distort responses and obscure understandings. Thus, while I agree with virtually everything in the new Montpellier report, I was disappointed to find that the old and much disputed figures of global soil degradation and nutrient loss are trotted out yet again.

There is no doubt that changes in soil structure, losses through erosion and soil fertility decline are important issues. But these global figures are derived from some dubious calculations that are often rather meaningless. Aggregated up from multiple small studies, they say nothing about how soil and nutrients move around landscapes; they say nothing about how soil nutrients are made available in different settings; and they say nothing about the net effects on livelihoods given people’s adaptive capacities.

These endless presentation of these dubious figures irk me especially because we spent a long time in the late 1990s and early 2000s trying to generate a more sophisticated debate about soil fertility in African agriculture. In 1999, Camilla Toulmin and I asked whether nutrient budgeting has any use for policy. In the same year, we did a report for DFID on the subject. In 2001, a major book, Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa, (pdf here) followed. This offers an overall summary of the extensive field research from Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe. The follow-up 2003 book, Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa, (pdf here) offered reflections on the politics of policy around soils and land degradation, with cases again from the same countries. These issues were further debated in 2008 as part of a Future Agricultures Consortium convened e-debate.

In a series of four forthcoming blogs, I will highlight some of the issues raised and draw on the discussions in the e-debate. These remain as pertinent today as they did then. The bottom-line message is that we should base our understandings and response on what is happening on the ground, not on simplistic, aggregated assessments based on problematic nutrient accounting techniques or soil erosion and degradation measures calculated at inappropriate scales, often based on remote sensing and mapping that cannot get to grips with the variegated patterns of soils.

Instead a social and technical analysis is more appropriate a farm and landscape level, where we can gauge how people use and manage soils, and find ways to improve soil quality – including soil organic composition, structure, biodiversity, and nutrients (macro and micro). Soils are immensely complex ecosystems, and so are management responses by farmers, who have deep and intimate knowledge of these vital resources.

Rejecting the headline numbers and questioning the rhetoric about soil degradation (and desertification and the rest) does not mean to say that I do not think that these are pressing and important problems, as some have tried to argue in the past. Quite the opposite. I just think that an appropriate diagnosis of the problem leads to better solutions, and that the alarmist, generalised, disaster oriented statistics can lead to the wrong, and often highly damaging, responses.

There is a long history of this in Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular. The 1930s dustbowl in the US provided a clarion call for colonial scientists to intervene in what they saw as fast-degrading peasant agricultural systems. The soil engineers designed ridging systems and so on to protect the soil from erosion, and these were often highly inappropriate and widely resented. Indeed in Zimbabwe, the top-down enforcement of soil erosion measures was the basis for mobilisation by freedom fighters in the liberation, so resented were they. To this day, the grumbling we hear around the ‘dig and die’ conservation farming impositions result in similar resentments. It’s not as if farmers reject the idea of soil management, but they argue that these are not always the right responses. And indeed there are many scientists who agree.

Alternative innovations for managing soil, nutrients and water in farm systems are plentiful, but not part of large-scale programmes, as Mr Phiri’s experiments in Zvishavane graphically show. The diagram below was drawn with farmers in Chivi as part of our earlier work (and appears in the book). It shows how soil nutrients flow around the farm, and are managed. This response is not simply responding to an aggregate soil nutrient deficit, but takes into account income, labour, asset ownership (livestock, carts and so on), topography, agroecology and farm management priorities, and so on, to come up with a system of soil management that is highly sophisticated, and site specific. It involves both organic and inorganic sources of nutrients; it uses application techniques that maximise plant uptake (fertilisers can be applied in microdoses with teaspoons, for example); it differentiates between different soil types (often variable within a single field); it matches soil improvement with farm and household priorities; and it combines an outfield arable production system with intensive gardening.

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Above all, most smallholder farms in Africa use an integrated approach to soil management. Farmers are not concerned with the ideological positions of ‘agroecology’ versus ‘chemical agriculture’, organic versus inorganic, and so on. In most farms, fertilisers are combined with manure, with waste and compost, and directed in ways that maximise their value. Farmers are not concerned with the labels adopted by NGOs and policy advocates. Too much of the debate about soils and farming does not connect to the field realities and livelihood challenges of real farmers. Too often the debate is played out with misleading statistics, aimed more at raising money and profile than revealing complex realities, and in ideological ghettos that create unhelpful fundamentalisms around what should be done (in an unrealistic ideal world), rather than what makes sense.

In the next few weeks – marking the International Year of Soils – this blog will explore some of these issues in more depth, with the hope that we can get beyond the unhelpful divides and inappropriate responses that have characterised thinking about soil management in Africa over too many years.

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

 


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