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.

soilsa
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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A hot commercial success: growing chilli in the eastern highlands

Our film series Making Markets: Land Reform, Agriculture and New Local Economies in Zimbabwe that we launched last year focused on beef, horticulture and tobacco. These are well known crops in Zimbabwe. But commercial success generated by smallholder agriculture is happening in other less traditional crops too.

Recently I came across a video of a project in Nyanga focused on the growing of chillies on contract (watch it below). It tells a very similar story to our cases: vibrant commerical agriculture linked to markets, and supported through contracting arrangements. Group arrangements in production and marketing help, alongside a guaranteed buyer offering decent prices, as well as that critical ingredient, finance. In the case of chillies local businesses add value to produce a range of products including chili sources and pastes. The crop is also sold internationally, reaching distant markets as far as the USA. As the film shows, a 0.2ha plot can result in a $1000 income stream. The bank teller in the local town, the film claims, is kept busy banking farmers’ receipts.

This example has been facilitated by an external project. There are always risks with this, as we have seen in countless failed NGO and donor projects in the past. Let’s hope that they thought through the implications for long-term business sustainability, and that farmers do not become over-reliant on a production system that will inevitably have ups and downs. The commitment of only a small land area means that the farmers will no doubt have other crops being grown, and the chilli farming is only one part of a wider set of enterprises on and off farm. This is important for longer term livelihood resilience, something that perhaps can be questioned in the over-reliance on tobacco (one of the crops focused on in our films) across large swathes of the tobacco. A decline in global demand, a drop in price, a collapse in credit finance, a withdrawal of competitive contractors could all have devastating consequences.

Patterns of commercialisation in agriculture are diverse, but some key ingredients are necessary. These include a strong and reliable market, access to cheap finance, good quality control, market intelligence and the ability to lower costs through good location, cooperative organisation and so on. The Nyanga chilli project has all the elements. Check out the video here:

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

 

 

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Regalvanising the state from below: how a road got regraded

Recently we were driving to one of our study sites in Mvurwi area in Mazowe district for a showing of one of our videos on land and markets. We were surprised by the quality of the road. It was recently graded and in good condition; a far cry from when we last struggled to get to the same A1 resettlement area. We arrived at the homestead of Mr and Mrs Nyamarova where a group were gathered for the video showing, and we commented on the quality of the road. Had the government come and improved the road?, we asked.

Mr Nyamarova explained. The road had got progressively worse in the past year or so, and it had become increasingly impassable especially in the rains. This had caused major problems. Minibus taxis (combis) had stopped coming, and people had had to walk several kilometres to the nearest junction in order to get to town. This was not only costly in time and energy, but also meant that cases that those who had to get to hospital fast were at increasing risk. This is a vibrant tobacco growing area, but the contractors for the tobacco complained about the road and charged higher fees. Other traders who once came to buy crops and other products failed to show up, and those who had bought ‘town’ cars from the proceeds of their tobacco were unable to use them. The lack of a road was hitting the community hard, increasing costs and imposing inconvenience and risk.

The roads in the resettlements were all farm roads originally. They were used infrequently and often with heavy vehicles or tractors. They were not constructed for large populations with diverse transport needs. Their locations connected sections of large properties, but were not necessarily geared for the plying of goods and people between homes, farms and town. The resettlement areas across the country have suffered badly from a lack of infrastructure support, the consequence of the lack of post-settlement planning and investment over the past 15 years. This is hitting agricultural potential, as well as people’s livelihoods and well-being, hard.

So why was this road in such good condition? Had the state come to the rescue, and finally prioritised resettlement infrastructure development? Had the old ‘district development fund’ been revived and a new fleet of graders deployed? Now ‘sanctions’ had been relaxed, had a donor provided the funds? Well, no. The state remains as broke and incapacitated as it has been for years, and no magical external donor had arrived on the scene. In this case, an innovative local solution was forged.

Frustrated by the lack of action by the local government services in Mvurwi (the community had petitioned them for months, requesting that the road be repaired and regraded), a group of farmers got together and proposed a solution. Everyone in the A1 scheme would pay US$10 into a fund, and they would approach the council and pay for the job to be done. And indeed this is what happened. A deal was struck that the grader, languishing for years in the CMED compound in Mvurwi would be serviced, and filled with fuel through the community contribution, and the council would deploy the driver and technicians who were equally languishing in their offices – paid a salary with little to do. The $10 a head fund was not enough to cover the costs, so they decided that a surcharge would apply for those with transport businesses and large tobacco crops, and so three such farmers, including Mr Nyamarova, added a further $200 each.

The basic infrastructure, expertise and capacity of the state still exists in Zimbabwe. Unlike in some countries it has not been completely lost. Against all the odds, civil servants – from senior officials to lowly technicians or drivers – still turn up to their jobs. Offices are full of people, but action on the ground is limited because the state financing of recurrent costs has dropped effectively to zero. This means extension workers don’t travel to the farms, schools have teachers but not books, health centres have nurses but no medicines, and roads departments have graders and drivers with no fuel or maintenance budget. Small amounts of funding therefore can go a long way. NGOs often make use of this rather remarkable latent capacity of this languishing state infrastructure and pay government workers to do a range of jobs.

Regalvanising state capacity for investing in public goods is an essential task in the post-land reform era. In the absence of an effective centralised taxation system that can generate significant revenues, and in the context of rampant corruption that removes funds from the state, particularly at higher levels, local solutions must be brokered. This case of local, informal, community-organised taxation from Mvurwi, that meant our Toyota Corolla town car could reach our destination and without the walk we expected, certainly offers some hope for the future.

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

 

 

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Booming agricultural markets and the politics of control in Zimbabwe

One consequence of land reform has been the growth of informal produce markets. This has occurred in every town. Vegetables, grains, oil seeds, fruits and more are piled high, sourced from diverse locations in the rural hinterlands. Although divided across multiple traders and involving a complex array of actors in the value chain, this is big money.

eMakombo, an agricultural information service, monitors the value of cash exchanges in Mbare market in Harare, the largest in the country. Across a huge range of agricultural products, they calculate that these market exchanges amounted to US$30m in 2014, with tomatoes accounting for an astonishing US$12m. A recent eMkambo Vibes briefing observes:

The true performance of agro-based economies like Zimbabwe can be seen through people’s markets (the so-called informal agriculture market) where the volume, variety and velocity of commodities and hard cash are more than formal markets.

Speaking of Mbare, the briefing notes:

The market serves all income levels and all sectors of the economy including mining, manufacturing as well as processors, input suppliers, food chain stores, transporters and government institutions. It also creates post-harvest employment around activities like harvesting, grading, transportation, off-loading, marketing and repackaging for end-users. From harvesting up to when the commodity is in the hands of consumers, employment creation is tenfold. We start with two employees loading the truck and at the end of the chain 20 people will have been employed. Although this form of employment may not be formal or monthly, it is hourly everyday employment which ensures household income and sustenance. To that end, the market distributes wealth.

 In our work on local economic development, and as demonstrated in the films we have produced on three commodities – tobacco, beef and horticulture – such informal markets are essential, with new value chains thriving, generating employment and wealth among a wide group of people.

eMakambo’s market information service which includes a call centre, SMS price updates and a website with a range of market information is an incredibly useful addition to Zimbabwe’s growing agricultural economy. Tapping into the informal dynamics of market development is essential, and making use of mobile phone technology and other means of transferring and sharing information is vital.

Of course with such flows of revenue, the growth of agricultural markets brings attention. Councils want to regulate them and extract fees. Politicians want to control them. Regulators feel the need to insist on all sorts of requirements. And criminal gangs see the opportunities for rent seeking and extortion. Markets are inevitably intensely political sites.

For example, Mbare market in Harare has become a battleground in the past years, and a focal point for the struggle between ZANU-PF factions and between ZANU-PF and the opposition. The notorious criminal youth gang, Chipangano, has been involved in racketeering on a massive scale, and was linked to a purge of the political opposition in such areas. Insistence on ZANU-PF cards from vendors, and protection payments and extortion were common-place. In the rampant rush to accumulation that characterises Zimbabwe’s corrupt politics, rumours of senior politicians being involved in controlling urban markets, attempting to wrest control from MDC controlled councils were common, especially prior to the 2013 elections.

While the intensity of this struggle for control of market revenues is more subdued in other towns and cities, politics and money are always close neighbours, and patronage networks never far away. The success of agriculture, and so informal markets involving large numbers of people and huge revenues, inevitably attracts a new political economy, one that too often has unsavoury elements, involving violence, intimidation and crime. Yet despite the harassment, violence and the political manoeuvring, Mbare market’s $30m cash revenue flows remain seriously impressive; a bright spot in an otherwise depressed economy.

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

 

 

 

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