Zimbabwe’s agricultural extension service, Agritex, was the pride of Africa in the 1980s, before the ravages of structural adjustment hit in the 1990s. There were extension workers throughout the countryside, and a network of subject matter specialists, most highly experienced and qualified. The quality of the training and advice offered was unparalleled anywhere on the continent, and for a time the service was well resourced with extension workers reasonably paid and with transport and so able to move around.
Today the extension service is a sorry reflection of past glories. Many qualified staff left or passed away (the ravages of HIV/AIDS hit many government services very badly), posts are unfilled, the transport capacity virtually non-existent and the ability to offer up-to-date advice severely hampered by the parallel decimation of government research services. Most farmers rely on private input suppliers, agrodealers and their neighbours for advice these days. Of course there are extension workers in the field, and they are usually extraordinarily committed and informed, despite the poor conditions of their posts. In the communal areas many get additional incentives from NGO programmes, often diverting their work to projects like conservation agriculture or group gardening.
I had some interesting discussions recently with a number of former Agritex staff and resettlement farmers about what they thought of the service today, and what they thought about its future, particularly in the post land reform era. They reminisced about the past of course, and acknowledged how effective Agritex had been, but they were also sanguine about the future. What do the ‘new farmers’ really need?
The discussion identified three important things: information (and particularly up to the minute market and price data), brokering (between farmers and contractors, suppliers, markets and service providers, to ensure that deals struck are fair and regulated) and business management skills (they were confident about agronomy, but not running a business, even a small one: managing accounts, cash flows, investments and the rest). This is a very far cry from the standard Agritex approach, based as it was on the old World Bank Training and Visit system, and of course with its roots in the colonial era with the post of ‘Chief Instructor of Natives’ held by the famous American missionary, E.D. Alvord for many years. Today the emphasis should be very different, my informants suggested.
This would require a total rethink of Agritex, and agricultural extension in general. Indeed a department in the Ministry of Agriculture may not be the appropriate organisational vehicle at all. My informants pointed out that the new farmers, compared to their compatriots in the communal lands, were younger, better educated, more mobile, and with good access to town. They all had mobile phones, and many had smartphones with Internet access. Many were making money, and had investment, marketing and business planning decisions to make, often juggling an agricultural enterprise with other activities. Many women were independent operators, or took on particular roles within a more complex business than the standard communal area farm.
Of course not all resettlement farms are like this, just as not all communal area farms are classic family smallholder farms focused on subsistence agriculture with some off-farm activities. There is a huge diversity, and tailoring approaches to extension and development more generally to different groups is essential. In our study in Masvingo we identified 15 different livelihood strategies across the sample of 400 households in 16 sites that we clustered into four broad types. In a recent DFID-funded initiative three categories are identified that roughly chime with our livelihood types: market oriented surplus producers, smallholders who are surviving and are in need of livelihood support, and those who are struggling and in need of social protection.
Our discussion focused on the first, and some of the second, group. But this is a big and growing proportion of the new farming population, and the one that is really going to get agriculture moving. While social welfare approaches are clearly necessary, if there are to be long-term transitions out of poverty and onto growth paths that are sustainable backing those who are engaging with markets, developing their farms, and investing should be a priority. And supporting such people with the type of service that meets their needs I would argue is a useful public service. Some of it of course could be paid for in time, but as a strategic government investment it could easily be justified.
The new DFID programme is being implemented by FAO, and appears to be focused on ‘training’ focused on building ‘resilience’ through ‘climate smart agriculture’, with a range of high-sounding objectives set. But is this going to be old-style training, rekindling the glory days of 1980s Agritex (although in this case implemented by NGOs) and focused on instruction and demonstration around farming techniques (including conservation agriculture)? Or will it be building capacity around the priorities of information, brokering and business that we identified? There has been a repeated default in new programming by aid agencies as well as government to return to the past, and not rethink for the future. This is $48 million of UK taxpayers’ money, so let’s hope it is better focused than previous efforts, and helps to rebuild an agricultural research and extension capacity in Zimbabwe that is fit for its new purposes.