A few weeks back I had the opportunity to discuss technology options for Zimbabwean farming with two different groups. They had very different ideas about what was appropriate. And neither seem to have asked farmers themselves. Nor have they taken account of the particular technological challenges of Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure. Both, for different reasons, seemed, to me at least, inappropriate technologies for the vast mass of Zimbabwean settings.
The first was a discussion around ‘Conservation Agriculture’ (CA) in Wondedzo Extension, a villagised A1 scheme in Masvingo district where CA is being promoted by an NGO, Hope Tariro. This low-till approach, involving digging planting pits by hoe in small areas to concentrate moisture and fertility inputs, is being pushed by donors in Zimbabwe in a big way. It is central to programmes led by the FAO, as well as across numerous NGOs. It is supported by the EU and DFID among other donors, and is backstopped by a range of technical support agencies. These include the River of Life Church and the Foundations for Farming, where CA is inspired by ‘callings from God’ and the Sustainable Agriculture Trust, led by a group of former white farmers and supported by substantial EU-FAO funds, as well as CGIAR Centres like CIMMYT and ICRISAT.
I talked to the local extension agent in the area who was preparing for the planting season with his demonstration farmers. He estimated he spent around 60% of his time during the farming season on supporting CA activities in the area. He was politely equivocal about the approach, but he was clear it was diverting his time from other activities. It is an extremely intensive gardening approach, which requires an area to be fenced off and all crop residues returned to the land. Farmers refer to it as ‘dig and die’ due the back breaking work involved, but they are glad of the free seeds (and in some cases fertiliser too). But is this an appropriate technology for the new resettlements?
On very small areas, with substantial labour inputs, yield increases are clearly possible, but this is not an approach which will deliver sustained growth in farm production in the larger arable plots of the new resettlements. Designed for micro garden plots, it may be appropriate for some areas, but not many. In a discussion at the nearby irrigation scheme, we raised the idea of testing out CA there. A woman immediately jumped up and exclaimed: “No! We will not do this! This is our cooperative irrigation. If we have the NGO here, they will make us irrigate with buckets!” There was general agreement: the NGO imposed ideas were fine to get hold of seed and could be done on small areas near the villages, but they should not disrupt their core economic activities on the irrigation scheme. The discussion moved to the problems of CA, and the usual list spilled out. Too much labour, small areas, burning of crops with concentration of fertiliser and so on.
The next opportunity to discuss farm technology came a few days later at the China Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre , recently built by the Chinese Government on the campus of Gwebi College just outside Harare. This is being run by the agricultural machinery company, Menoble, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanisation Sciences. The facility is impressive as is the shiny machinery in the courtyard. The Centre hosts regular training programmes for Zimbabwean farmers and extension officials. But with some exceptions, the machines are only useful for massive farms – of the order of 1000ha or so. The model, it was explained, is the large-scale commercial farms of NE China, where the company has its major market. What about the famous small-scale farms of China?, I asked. No, this is backward farming, not the future, it was argued by one official. Although later I was shown there are some maize and potato planters and harvesters appropriate to 20-30ha plots to show that ‘small-scale’ farming had not been forgotten.
Neither group had, it seems, thought about the demands of the new agrarian structure. Today, 90% of Zimbabwe’s farmers are smallholders, representing 80% of the farmed land. This is a dramatic change from the past. The argument of the donors and NGOs pushing CA is that many of these farms in the communal areas are very small – perhaps only one or two hectares. Here an intensive gardening approach may be appropriate, if the labour is available. But what about the new resettlements? The average holding per household in the A1 schemes is 30-40ha, with cultivated areas in our study sites in Masvingo increasing, now averaging 5-10ha. CA does not make sense in these areas. But nor does most of the Chinese machinery on offer at Gwebi. The Chinese company officials argue that production should occur on large, modern, efficient farms, equipped with the latest machinery (huge cultivators, combine harvesters and planters pulled by 15HP tractors). A familar tale about the supposed superiority of large-scale farming, and the need to transform a backward smallholder sector, forgetting of course how Chinese economic growth was supported by millions of smallholder farms following the reforms.
Neither the western donors and NGOs nor the Chinese seem to have thought hard enough about the contexts into which their technologies are supposed to fit. Nor have they discussed properly with their clients and customers. Of course Zimbabwean farmers are very polite, and will not turn away an NGO, in case its work can be redirected towards something useful. They are happy to take free inputs (worth around USD$40 per household), but, as with the outburst at the irrigation scheme and the derogatory nick-name for CA, they are reluctant to see this as a solution. Equally, extension workers and farmers alike will attend the Chinese training courses and marvel at the big machines, but will they take up the suggested technical options? Even if they could afford them, this is extremely unlikely. Only a small proportion of farmland is now over 1000ha, representing only a few farmers. Is this the target market for Chinese machinery, and could be basis for a long term business plan for Menoble? I doubt it.
So here we have two sets of inappropriate technology being pushed by two very different sets of donors, driven by particular perceptions and assumptions. Technology transfer has come back into fashion in the aid world, but all the critiques that Robert Chambers and others made way back on the problems with this paradigm still apply. In a new agrarian setting, there are some real technological challenges, but these will have to be met together with inputs from farmers and a much better sense of scale requirements and farmer needs and priorities. Perhaps the Chinese, the Brazilians (also offering tractors) and the ‘traditional’ donors could support this – focusing on rehabilitating Zimbabwe’s agricultural R and D capacity.