Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

Last week’s blog discussed the massive growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe. How is this affecting the wider food system? What are the impacts on traditional sources of production in the rural areas? And what was the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in precipitating these changes?

With transport costs rising and inflation hitting hard again, the incentive to grow locally and self-provision grows. For farmers in rural areas, this has always been possible, which is why they have weathered the compounding storms of economic collapse and the pandemic relatively well. As we have reported a number of times on this blog, the supply of food to towns from the resettlement areas where surpluses are produced fundamentally shifted the food supply system across the country since land reform.

The importance of resettlement areas in food flows

Over the last 20 years, those living in town have become increasingly reliant on food from those producing in the land reform areas. I was talking to a colleague in Zvishavane recently and, as in previous years, the resettlement areas to the north of the town along the Gweru road are supplying maize and other produce to town dwellers, both through informal exchanges between relatives and the market. Where rural food supplies are close and transport is possible – in this case along a major road where buses and other vehicles move frequently – the flow of food to urban areas remains key.

This avoids the costs of the centralised food system of the past where maize and other staples were sold to the Grain Marketing Board and then on to millers and those in town bought processed flour for consumption. This route is now expensive and inefficient. Today there are many more flows of food within the system, most of which are unrecognised and unrecorded – which, as discussed here before, is why the national food security data are so problematic.

However, the high and secure production from the De Beers resettlement farms near Zvishavane does not mean that town residents are not investing in agriculture. The same colleague told me that many are moving mobile grinding mills from the rural areas to town, where crops are being grown in ever larger amounts. This is not just small-scale vegetable gardening to provide ‘relish’, but significant amounts of grain for basic food provisioning. This is an important change, and one that has accelerated during the pandemic.

Pandemic transformations

Through the pandemic, as we have documented many times in our two-year blog series on COVID-19 experiences in rural areas, lockdowns prevented the transportation of agricultural goods to urban areas. Roadblocks, complex permit arrangements and incessant requirements for bribes made normal agricultural market expensive and full of hassle.

Over time, as we have documented, some found ways round these restrictions by moving and selling at night or making deals with the authorities, but it was not easy. This meant that the cost of rural produce increased relative to that produced in town. In the past, because of the limitations of land, the costs of water and labour and so on, this was not the case. Through the pandemic, the comparative advantages of crop production – including of cereals, oil seeds, livestock, as well as the usual vegetables – increased in urban areas. For example, today urban producers can supply a bundle of rape to the market for a dollar, while a bucket of maize from town is US$5-6, while in the rural areas it’s US$7-8. The same goes for broiler chickens, with a rural one costing US$5 compared to one in the rural areas being US$7. This reverses the price differentials of a just few years ago, and this is having major consequences.

We asked about changes through the pandemic in all our field sites, and a rough-and-ready estimate was derived from a number of informants. This is not hard science but reflects the reality that we have all seen. The results are shown below, which show the approximate percentage of residents in different towns in our study areas who are farming in open spaces (meaning beyond just backyard vegetable gardening) in two periods.

SitePrior to COVID (2016-2019) (%)During COVID (2020 to date) (%)
Mvurwi2540
Masvingo3570
Triangle/Hippo Valley4555
Maphisa2050
Chatsworth3055
Chikombedzi2545

Since the onset of COVID-19, many lost their jobs and while some returned to rural areas, others had to make ends meet in town. The lack of transport possibilities during COVID meant that town residents also had assure supply, once offered by exchanges with rural relatives and others. Shops became expensive as the economy declined further and inflation crept up. This was made worse by the unstable local currency (RTGS, Zimbabwe dollars) and many preferred to barter and exchange or produce their own food.

With schools closed and sports, church and other activities cancelled there was a greater supply of labour for agriculture in town. Even urban-based young people shifted attitudes towards farming, seeing it as an option to make a bit of money and help out their families. The array of crops has expanded too. Farming involves producing staple crops, vegetables, but also responding to the demand for COVID-19 treatments (garlic, ginger, chilli, lemons) as well as ornamental trees for the development of new suburbs being invested in.

The result has been a sharp increase in demand for land in urban areas, particularly those where the rural hinterland is further away, as reflected in the higher percentage engaging in farming in the city of Masvingo compared to other small towns, where residents have closer connections to nearby rural areas, with many having access to their own plot.  

Consequences for rural production: permanent or temporary?

This shift towards urban farming was an important adaptive response to the combined challenges of economic meltdown and the pandemic. It is having profound effects on the wider food system and putting pressure on rural producers who now must compete with lower cost urban farming where market access is assured, with urban farmers able to capture markets in timely fashion given their proximity. Rural farmers, particularly those who managed to capture lucrative contracts with supermarkets in town, are complaining bitterly.

With the breaks in supply during the pandemic, contracts were lost and tomatoes, vegetables and other crops sold regularly to urban wholesalers and retailers rotted. Rural producers are having to think of their own solutions, including the drying and processing of vegetables for later sale, when urban production is lower. However, others are leaving land fallow and reducing agricultural output as it’s impossible to sell surpluses, returning to a more subsistence pattern of self-provisioning.

Will this be a permanent change, or is this only a temporary shift responding to particular circumstances? It’s difficult to tell. The prospects for economic renewal in Zimbabwe look bleak, even if the pandemic restrictions have gone for now. The connections between rural and urban in changing patterns of food production – and associated issues of water and land use – will be themes to watch in the coming years. And this nexus definitely must become a key focus of future efforts to assess food insecurity and address vulnerability across the country.

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

Thanks to Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi for their contributions and to Felix Murimbarimba for both researching and coordinating.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

  1. E. Harineki

    The shift of food system to urban areas will remain as urban populations continue to grow and a positive a move as this will reduce urban food poverty. Its a challenge to town planners like me to consider removing the by-law that prohibits urban agriculture.

    • Rethinking urban areas to match livelihood needs is a priority. Town planning and inherited by-laws were shaped by colonialism but must face new realities. Town planners today need to challenge outmoded thinking. Good luck, and I hope the blogs help!

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