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Confronting uncertainties: towards convivial development in Africa?

Some readers may be heading to the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) this week in Cologne, Germany, whether physically or online. The conference’s focus is ‘African futures’ and there is a fantastic set of panels planned, with a bewildering 1900 papers accepted! As the description of the conference theme states, “The future is ambiguous because it is uncertain, unknown, and open; but the future is not completely contingent, as it emerges out of specific pathways, past and present. While some futures appear to be more likely than others, alternative futures compete to shape the present.”

Sadly, I will miss the conference, but a few years ago, in advance of when the conference was supposed to be held but was cancelled due to the pandemic, I contributed a chapter to an excellent book on the conference theme. It is now available open access from Brill, and was edited by Clemens Greiner, Steven Van Wolputte and Michael Bollig, who are all involved with the conference. There are sections on re/thinking, living, confronting, imagining, relating and concluding, with a lot of chapters on many themes. Mine is in the second section and is called, A New Politics of Uncertainty: Towards Convivial Development in Africa, which draws on thinking developed in the PASTRES Programme, supported by a European Research Council Advanced Grant. This blog is an extract from the chapter, removing the cases and the references. I hope it gives you a taste and encourages you to read the book!

Rethinking African development

Africa continues to face multiple uncertainties: climate chaos, food insecurity, migration flows, economic volatility, conflict, epidemic disease outbreaks, fragile governance, and more. Indeed, it is these issues that dominate popular academic and media coverage of Africa. It’s all doom and gloom, disaster and catastrophe. The solution, so the narrative goes, is economic and governance ‘reform’, aiming to ‘stabilise’ economies and societies and so control uncertainty. Such interventions are, in turn, combined with ‘emergency’ humanitarian interventions to deal with the worst. Aid and investment packages therefore aim to control, to manage uncertainties, to reinstate a stable status quo, while emergency responses override normal routines, imposing an often-securitised solution, blotting out local initiative and agency. 

This short essay asks if there are alternatives to this dominant approach to aid and development in Africa that foster what I call ‘convivial development’; one that fulsomely embraces uncertainty, ambiguity and even ignorance. Following Ivan Illich, I take convivial development to mean an approach that engages with context, facilitates inclusion of multiple knowledges and skills, fosters a caring approach to people and environments centred on social justice and, as a result, necessarily embraces complexity and uncertainty.

This essay makes the case that, in many respects, Africa is ahead of the game in constructing such alternatives from the margins, and that the global North, also confronting the multiple uncertainties of a turbulent world – most recently and dramatically the COVID-19 pandemic – should start learning from Africa, reversing the flow of development thinking and practice.

Development as control: the failures of ‘progressive neoliberalism’

The dominant control-oriented narrative of development for Africa has resulted in numerous projects and programmes, most of which fail. Whether this was the disastrous ‘structural adjustment’ reforms imposed by the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s and 1990s, or the more modulated ‘good governance’ interventions that followed, these were all premised on an assumption of control, and the creation of stable, liberal economies and democracies in the image of the West. While China offers a different model through its brave new Belt and Road Initiative, the story is the same, although the politics are different.

Yet the assumptions are flawed, and the dangerous fallacies of control exposed, perhaps especially in African contexts. Simplistic technocratic impositions fall apart, and the ideal-type models of Western (or Chinese) development fail, even when ameliorative additions, such as ‘participation’ are bolted on. The colonisation project of aid-led development, whether emanating from the North or the South, despite the power, influence and the resources, has been shown to be seriously lacking. 

And, even in the global North, the old order, constructed around various forms of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ and pushed through aid programmes to Africa, is being challenged. Climate change, for example, means that economic systems, and a commitment to growth at all costs, have to be overhauled. The financial crash has meant that approaches to financialisation have to be fundamentally re-thought. The COVID-19 pandemic requires a radical rethinking of disease preparedness and response. And the rise of authoritarian populist movements, and the sustained attack on liberal values, is resulting in a refashioning of once democratic regimes and liberal economies.

Facing up to uncertainty is at the heart of all these challenges. One response is to reinforce the technocratic order, finding ever-more elaborate technological and governance responses that aim to keep control in the face of rising uncertainty. Whether this is geo-engineering or climate-smart cities to confront climate chaos, or tighter regulation of banks and finance houses to offset a future economic meltdown, such approaches all rely on a politics of control, which frequently resorts to securitised, sometimes even militarised, responses in the face of unfolding ‘crises’ and ‘emergencies.’

The increasingly apocalyptic language of threat, breakdown and collapse fuels anxiety, fear and isolationism. This also creates space for regressive forces, which, in the absence of alternatives, feed off a sense of helplessness, offering order and control through increasing authoritarianism. A populist politics of blame emerges – accusing ‘foreigners’ and ‘migrants’ and attacking a remote ‘elite’ on behalf of ‘the people’. Regressive, nationalist versions of authoritarian populism create a powerful imaginary of a past when uncertainty and fear did not impinge. And such narratives can have a religious inflection, one that deploys religious beliefs to generate certainties, whether evangelical Christianity, Hindu nationalism or fundamentalist Islam.

The failures of neoliberal styles of development are littered across Africa. The ‘Africa rising’ slogan was short-lived, as the fragilities and dependencies of economies and polities were exposed. The flood of investment that was to follow the post-crash ‘land rush’ never materialised, and the painful struggles against corporate violence continue across the region, whether around biofuel plantations in Ghana or geothermal plants and oil fields in Kenya. And, at the same time, the in-roads made by extremism of all sorts is undermining whole regions, alongside the fabric of emerging democracies. Whether this is violent insurgency in the Sahel, Somalia or northern Mozambique or the attack on gay rights in Uganda, for example, the same attempts at control, and creating an imagined, regulated order are seen.  

Embracing uncertainty: what are the alternatives?

So, what are the alternatives? How can embracing uncertainty generate emancipatory futures, and alternative imaginaries of development in Africa? As the multiple failures of neoliberal capitalism are tormenting the West (at the same time as even China’s seemingly endless growth path is faltering), can Africa lead the way in prefiguring a future where a different approach is realised; one that does not fall into the fallacy of control, but encourages a more adaptive, responsive, reflexive approach, redefining what we mean by development, progress and modernity?

While arguing against the idea that somehow eliminating uncertainty provides the magic bullet for development, I want to make the case that alternatives that genuinely embrace uncertainty are already happening, but they have been suppressed by standardised, regimented, control-oriented development approaches. Where can we find such alternative development approaches? Certainly, not in most of the aid agencies, NGOs, foundations, technical departments and government offices that have presided over failed development over the last half-century or so. In various ways, dressed up in diverse buzzwords, these have all become trapped in the expert-led, control paradigm of the past, which has fostered the failed neoliberal development project and ignored or supressed uncertainty.

But alternatives can be found, usually on the margins, perhaps amongst the wreckage of a failed aid project or investment programme. Here, in highly dynamic, informal settings, improvisation, practised performance, experimentation and continuous reflexive adaptation are a necessity, often in parallel ‘twilight’ institutions. For, this is what daily life is like, and has to be. Uncertainty is necessarily embedded in the everyday practices on the margins, of those living in precarity. It is therefore these vernacular understandings, rooted in long-standing collaborative practices, deep and diverse knowledge and cultures, which fully embrace responses to uncertainty.

This is not a call to reify and recapture a static form of ‘indigenous’ knowledge and culture, as such settings are always changing, always uncertain; nor to suggest that simplistic versions of ‘participation’ are the solution. Local knowledges and cultures are deployed not for timeless rituals, but to cope with and respond to change. This generates innovation, sometimes social, sometimes technical; but this is always co-produced in context, not as some form instrumental ‘participatory development’. These are the places of ‘real economies’, created and practised through social investments, and rooted in place. These are also the sites where new forms of politics emerge, necessarily linked to collective action, mutual support and community solidarity; because, in order to respond to radical everyday uncertainties, people must work together.

These flexible, informal, collective and rooted responses I argue cumulatively result in the remaking of the economy, the state and society from below through new forms of conviviality, and so require a radical rethinking of development. 

Principles of convivial development

Across the examples explored in the chapter (on food security and seeds, on pastoralism and grazing and disease responses), a number of principles can be identified. Responding to uncertainties usually requires flexible, adaptive responses, not fixed, standardised packages. Experiences of uncertainty will differ depending on who or where you are, making situated perspectives and diverse knowledges essential. Differentiated actions always need to be responsive to social difference, cultural beliefs and lived experiences. Building the solidarities necessary for collective responses is vital, and this requires strong, rooted institutions, effective local leadership and the autonomy to create new solutions. Innovation, improvisation and creativity are key, and these emerge through flexible performances involving multiple actors, and no pre-defined script. Therefore, sharing, extending and multiplying such innovations as responses to uncertainty are centrally what development needs to be about, suggesting new roles for experts, state agencies and development projects.

This in turn means rejecting the ‘we know best’ stance of mainstream development, decolonising the process, and encouraging emergent, grounded, creative solutions. These principles, learned from those at the margins – in these cases from southern African farmers, from mobile east African pastoralists and west African villagers confronting Ebola – make up, in the words of Ivan Illich, the varied ‘tools for conviviality’. Thus convivial development – one that is responsible, social, shared and led by a political community, not experts or managers – is an approach that truly embraces uncertainty: outside the mainstream, in the margins and already being practised across Africa.

This positive vision eschews the hype of ‘Africa rising’ but focuses on the real solutions being generated for the current, universal dilemmas of development, North and South. Rather than repeating the failures of technocratic development, perhaps we all should turn our gaze elsewhere, and seek out the principles of convivial development on the ground, ones that genuinely embrace uncertainty, and generate a refashioned version of modernity and progress for Africa and the world.   

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


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Drought and resilience: some lessons from Kenya

I recently wrote an article for The Conversation together with Tahira Mohamed on the drought situation in Kenya. We’d spent a few weeks in Isiolo and Marsabit counties exploring ‘resilience projects’ alongside local responses by pastoralists. The disconnect was extreme and many people running projects admitted that there was a problem.

Perhaps not to the same extent, but Zimbabwe faces some of the same issues, with projects designed in good faith having very little impact on the ground. We identified three recurrent issues- misplaced narratives, poor project design and ignoring the social context. Sound familiar?

The article is reproduced below, and for more you can also check out a series of three blogs on the PASTRES website (here, here and here) where some of the themes are expanded upon.

I think there are some important lessons from northern Kenya for addressing ‘drought’ responses in Zimbabwe, as there were many parallels with what we find in our study sites (see the blog series from last year). Although it has been a relatively good season in Zimbabwe this year, this does not mean that drought won’t strike again soon and resilience in rural communities is always needed.

Kenya drought: Pastoralists suffer despite millions of dollars used to protect them – what went wrong?

A young herder grazes cattle on dwindling pasture in the drylands of Kenya. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

Across the arid landscape of northern Kenya, roadside signs proclaim projects aimed at creating “resilience” among pastoralist communities. This is a region where frequent droughts, animal disease, insecurity and structural exclusion all affect pastoral livelihoods.

Resilience – the capacity to transform or to recover quickly from challenges – is the idea behind the many externally funded projects and hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past few decades.

Resilience projects across the drylands often encourage pastoralists – usually working together in groups – to “modernise” their production or get out of livestock keeping completely. Projects include livestock breed improvement, reseeding pastures, creating fodder banks, upgrading market facilities or offering livestock insurance. Such projects are combined with investments in water resources and roads, as well as an array of “alternative livelihoods” projects.

The value of this approach is under scrutiny amid one of the most severe droughts of the past century in northern Kenya. Over 2.5 million livestock have already perished for lack of food and water, and human lives are threatened. At least 4.5 million people are in need of external assistance. Decades of investment in “resilience” clearly hasn’t been working. The question now is whether there are different ways of supporting pastoralists’ ability to prepare for and respond to droughts and other shocks.

Over the past four years, we have been studying how Borana pastoralists in Isiolo county in northern Kenya manage drought, conflict and other uncertainties. In recent years, the area has suffered recurrent droughts, alongside locust and animal disease outbreaks.

Pastoralist livelihoods are increasingly vulnerable. Land is being encroached from all sides by neighbouring groups and conservation areas expanded. Building resilience has become increasingly essential.

Our research has pointed to the importance of local networks of mutual support, solidarity and redistribution that enable pastoralists to adapt to changing circumstances. These types of “moral economy” practices could be the basis for drought preparedness and response.

We have concluded from our research that, instead of the deluge of external interventions, ways must be found to build resilience from below, drawing on local practices and networks.

Why top-down projects haven’t worked

Our research has found that there are three main reasons that existing project interventions are failing to protect populations from recurrent drought and other shocks.

Misplaced narratives: Behind these interventions is the idea that pastoralism is outdated and that alternatives to livestock keeping must be found. Since the colonial era, controlling livestock movements and settling pastoralists have been central to policy prescriptions. Calls to encourage pastoralists to change their ways are always accentuated during and after major droughts.

Pastoralists, the argument goes, would do better if they settled in one place and farmed. The biases against pastoralism are very evident in education programmes, water investments for irrigated farming and livelihood diversification projects outside the pastoral economy.

Yet, despite the drought and the loss of animals, pastoralism can make the best use of highly variable dryland environments, where alternative ways to make a living are extremely limited. Supporting rather than abandoning pastoral systems makes much more sense.

Poor project design: All too often, development projects don’t fit the local context. Fancy new livestock markets promoted by donors are frequently in the wrong place, while dispersed “bush markets” are more accessible and cheaper to use. Many boreholes function for a while, but the cost of repairs is often high and so they fall into disrepair. The roads may go to the wrong places, diverting trade and transport from places that matter.

Not all development efforts are wasted. Take the new A2 highway built by the Chinese from Isiolo to the Ethiopia border town of Moyale and beyond. This has reduced travel times dramatically, allowing hay to be transported for hungry livestock across the region. Also, maintained government boreholes, now often with solar pump facilities, have been essential for keeping animals alive during the drought.

But the idea that resilience can be generated through a technical or financial fix is prevalent. In so many cases the same interventions that failed a few decades before are just being repeated with new branding.

Ignoring the social context: Since devolution in Kenya in 2010, there has been emphasis on decentralised activities led by county governments. Many groups and committees have been established by a plethora of projects. Too often these are focused on implementing an externally designed activity or feeding information upwards. This creates a lot of confusion.

Such projects seldom engage with the social context, involving local networks or mobilising local expertise and experience. Frequently the projects fold as soon as the funds dry up.

Towards resilience from below

In the drylands, drought is part of normal life in a highly variable environment. Climate change is making matters worse, as droughts are more prolonged and the pattern of rainfall changes. And shrinking access to land and water due to encroachment of other land uses make drought impacts harsher.

Yet, as our research has shown, herders have a long-established repertoire of drought responses. This is not just passive “coping”, but is well planned.

Pastoralists’ practices combine livestock movement, sharing and distribution of animals through loans, splitting herds and flocks, supplementary feeding and watering, careful herding, negotiating access to farmland or conservation areas, shifting species compositions, selective marketing of animals, and diversification to other income sources to support the herd or flock.

Rather than creating new resilience projects, separate from local practices, why not build on these responses?

Pastoralism, as described by researcher Emery Roe, can be seen as a “critical infrastructure”, where “high reliability professionals” ensure that the system doesn’t collapse. Such professionals are central to pastoral systems. They connect herders through diverse social networks; for example with motorbike transporters, those who offer credit, and local specialists such as healers and forecasters.

Our work in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia is exploring more deeply who these “high reliability professionals” are and what they do to transform very uncertain conditions into a more stable, reliable supply of goods and services, so helping to avert disasters.

Tahira Shariff Mohamed, PhD candidate, Institute of Development Studies and Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The maize value web in Zimbabwe: new business opportunities

Last week, the ‘hidden middle’ around maize production and sale was introduced. From across our sites in Chikombedzi, Triangle, Matobo, Wondedzo, Chatsworth and Mvurwi, in this blog we offer a few case studies of the diversity of players in these business networks.

The scale of operations vary from someone buying and selling a few buckets to those dealing in tonnes of maize. What is common across these cases is that these are all people embedded in the farming community. The businesses rely in particular on production from the new land reform areas, both A1 and A2, where many also farm.

Connections between producers, those who can process (such as owners of grinding mills), transporters and retailers are essential. Some combine these operations, but many are linked through personal, sometimes kin-based, networks. Social relations of trust are crucial, as many of the cases highlight, as this allows people to link, connect and trade. With many of the businesses based on barter exchange (in part because of the currency situation, with the local currency fast losing value and dollars or rands being scarce), negotiation of the exchange value is continuous.

Markets are highly varied, and in different sites there are different opportunities. For example, in Chikombedzi and Chatsworth there are large church gatherings and these provide important opportunities for selling maize, often processes (roasted mealies, sadza etc.). In Wondedzo it was the gold rush of 2020 that attracted thousands to the area and offered a ready market for maize grain, meal or cooked foods.

Across our cases, we see a large number of business operations. These are very rarely subsidised or supported by government or ‘aid’ projects, nearly all are independent and often starting out with a very low capital base. Building up from a farm operation on the resettlement farms has been crucial for many as they have this as a starting point, and with maize being produced on-farm to fuel the business. When asked to rank the source of finance for their businesses, people put ‘own resources’ consistently first and nearly every time this was farming. Other sources such as bank loans, government support, NGOs and churches came way down the rankings. While people recognised the importance of the pfumvudza programme from government as helping boost maize production, it was this production that was the source of finance. In Zimbabwe’s constrained economy, you have to go it alone to generate business, as formal systems for finance and state support (beyond limited channels of patronage to a few) is inadequate.  

Added together, all these activities surrounding the maize value web (our preferred term compared to ‘chain’ given it spreads so far and is far from linear) generate significant economic activity, providing employment for many. Those being employed or running businesses may include the next generation of land reform area residents, often without significant land (maybe a subdivided portion only), and so providing the basis for intergenerational support linked to agriculture.

Even the smallest operation seems to be employing people, mixing both permanent and casual labour. Add this up across many, many operations, this is a large, but again hidden, workforce contributing to the local economies across the country. It may not fit the standard narrative of ‘formal’ development – nor even the arguments for ‘small and medium enterprises’ – but it has to be recognised if we are to understand the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe.


The following sections offer some glimpses of how this hidden middle operates, focusing in turn on vendors, transporters, processors, equipment repair and hire outfits, retailers and financiers, many providing several roles in complex, but socially connected, networks that make up the maize value web.


Mr C is a maize vendor from Chikombedzi. As he explained, “I am a retired teacher and I own a grinding mill, bought originally through my salary. I didn’t expect to become a vendor, but it is what arrived…. I used to source maize locally but there is not enough supply here. Now I operate between Chikobedzi and Chinoyi (in the far north of the country). I have a number of buying points, and pay for transport from there to the highway. From there to Rutenga I use cross-border trucks and so pay less per tonne. Getting it to Chikombedzi is the big problem, as transport is expensive. Here I have seven selling points around the township, and there is demand especially from those coming to the prophets. I buy maize at USD3 in Chinoyi and bucket and sell it here at 150 Rand a bucket. I make a profit but not much. I only take forex, absolutely no RTGS! I employ two workers, one temporary and one permanent for the grinding mill”.

Mai S is an experienced maize vendor from Chikombedzi. She explains, “Over time, I have made good profits. With my husband, we have now built houses in the township with space for barbers, a hairdresser, and tuckshops. Maize vending was very smooth when Muraba and Malikango irrigations were working, but now I have to rely on dryland farmers. This is a drought prone place, so supply is not always good. I now have to cast the net wider. I now source from Gutu. It costs USD5 per bucket then we transport by scotch cart to the nearest highway at USD10 per cart load, then to town on a bus at USD1 per bag containing three buckets. I have an agent in Gutu who does this with money I send by instant cash transfer on the phone. I manage the selling points from my home, and from the tuckshops in our building, as well as at surrounding grinding mills. Also to relatives/neighbours. I have WhatsApp platform for advertising. I have happy customers, as the grain is much cheaper than the shops and I get a profit too!”

PM from Chatsworth started vending in 2017 when her husband passed away. She took up cross-border trading and vending locally as she had to look after her children. She got some capital via the Women’s Affairs coordinator. With $200, she went to Mozambique and bought T-shirts. A bale gives a tonne of maize in exchange with people in the local area. She then sells on to the GMB or to drought-prone areas like Chivi or Buhera, where she can get 10 US per bucket. There’s limited competition – we know our customers and the farmers trust us. She works with a transporter and they share profits. She comments, “I am happy because my kids are all doing well; one at teachers college at Bondolfi now.” 

Mai E comes from Triangle and she works with her sister who lives in Chinoyi. She buys from local farmers there. As she explains, “We transport on trucks who collect sugar from Triangle. I give the truck drivers some money, and then I sell locally here in Triangle. I employ people to load and offload and pack the grain for sale. It’s a good business. I am a single mother, but I have built a house in Chiredzi and I have sent my three kids to school with the profits”.


Mr TR is a transporter, from Chikombedzi. He recalls, “I started transporting across the border in 2018. It’s lucrative business at the border point as there are many people, and it’s possible to sell maize as well as transport people. I employ touts to raise business, but there are passengers all the time. Now is the time for mopani worm harvesting. This really promotes my business. I buy up the caterpillars, and exchange them for maize, goats, groceries, fuel or fertiliser. Barter trade is big business, and always needs a transporter. The maize I get, I then sell on, either here or across the border. I can always get by, my truck never gets impounded; you learn how to manage the system.

MC comes from Mvurwi and owns a lorry. He also farms, but his transport business is crucial. He explains, “I buy up maize grain here and transport it to Dande. I exchange for goats, sheep, chickens and vegetables. I also get cheap inputs from Dande where farmers get fertilisers and seeds from various schemes. I sell these to other farmers here in Mvurwi, and sell on to local agrodealers who move around the area. For this business, I employ three permanent workers and five casuals.”

MZ is from Chatsworth and started out with a grinding mill in 2000, but has been transporting since 2015. He bought a 30-tonne truck from mill’s profits. He observes, “From 2019 business really took off, as demand for transport was very high here. At the beginning of the season, grain from the wetlands can be transported to the GMB. Later, the GMB opens a sub-depot at Chatsworth, and so I have stiff competition. I offer different deals for payment, and this attracts customers. My best clients give maize grain at the end of the harvesting season, then from August to October I transport the grain to drought areas such as eastern Gutu to sell. Sometimes I exchange for pearl millet, which I sell to the GMB or to those who raise chickens. I also crush maize and sell to those rearing pigs. In 2022, I bought a second lorry and also a diesel grinding mill. My first born is using the second truck. During the off season the lorries are hired for piece jobs, transporting bricks, gravel, water and so on, even transporting livestock to Masvingo. I have two permanent workers, plus my son W who is the transport manager. I can also employ four casuals for loading at peak times.”


MM from Mvrurwi has a grinding mill. He produces maize on his farm and grinds this for sale as meal or for stock feed. “In this area”, he explains “there’s always maize and ! buys this up for grinding and selling on the processed grain. Many people own chickens, pigs and so on and need grain for feed”. He also gets maize from other customers, who can pay 5kg of grain for every 20kg that is ground. He now employs five people and the business is booming and he has built two houses in town with thep proceeds.

DM buys up maize locally and makes ‘maputi’ (popcorn), which is then sold in a number of places. He has a selling spot in the town and pays the municipal authority for the stand. He has invested in a ‘maputi gun’ (a contraption for making the popcorn), and he now employs five people for the maize processing and sale. At only 26, he has become a successful entrepreneur, even if he doesn’t have land.

Equipment hire and repair

NM is a successful A1 farmer in Mvurwi. In order to improve his production he hires various types of equipment from suppliers in town. Although he has a tractor and plenty of cattle for draft power, he hires a planter for planting maize and also knapsack sprayer. He also hires a truck for transporting crops from field to home. Since he must process a lot of grain, he also hires a maize sheller – he pays with 50kg bag of grain per tonne, plus buys the fuel. His operation has intensified considerably, and he usually gets about 30 tonnes of grain from 6 hectares. Equipment hire is so much easier these days, he explains. This has allowed him to expand his farm business. From the profits he has invested in two houses in Mvurwi, which are now rental properties.

EN is from Wondedzo, where he lives with his parents who have allocated him a plot on their 30ha self-contained A1 farm. His main business is tractor hiring. His father who got the land during the fast-track period in 2001 bought a tractor in 2020 from the proceeds from selling crops. EN explains, “I hire the tractor to farmers around here. The tractor is equipped with a harrow, disc plough ripper and a maize sheller. I am hired to plough, plant maize, shell maize and transport maize to homes and markets. I also do lots of transporting of building materials, such as timber, bricks, river sand and so on. For tillage work I charged US$100/ha while for trailer work it’s US$40 per load. This business allows me to pay schools fees, buy groceries and purchase inputs for farming”.

Across our sites, there is a big demand for transport – from wheelbarrows to scotch carts to small pickups. This is the way grain is transported from farms to homes to grinding mills to sales points. With such a volume of grain being moved, but usually in small amounts on many occasions, the old system of dropping at a decentralised collection depot is no longer functioning. As a result many have invested in new ways of moving grain in recent years, with markets in hiring evolving due to the demand. Such forms of transport also need to be repaired and small businesses for welding and repair have sprung up.

For example, in Chikombedzi, JM has a repair shop in the township. He has a basic welding equipment and can make scotch carts from scratch. Most of his work is repair though and he and his worker will quickly mend (and sometimes customise) existing equipment, meaning that maize can continue to move. In Wondedzo, DM who is 29 years old with a family of three, now runs a welding shop in the township together with his father and young brother. As he explains “People used to travel to Masvingo urban to buy things, but now they come here and it’s cheaper. I make wheelbarrows, scotch carts and repair all types of equipment. My father came here in 2001 during jambanja time and has a large plot. He allocated me 3ha. He was a welder before and he taught me all the skills. I finished O Level in 2009 and have been employed doing this since. It is a good business. I hire assistants to help me and I hope to have my own shop soon.”


MM works on the Triangle sugar estate and stays at a company house. Because the salaries are not good, he has managed to establish a retail business in parallel. This has allowed significant investment at his rural home, including building a cattle herd and paying for school fees. He has a stand at the Zaka turn-off market, where he sells green mealies produced by workers on their small plots on the estate. He also sells maize grain later in the season both from his stand, but also directly to estate schools and the hospital.

Mrs S owns a medium-scale A2 farm, where she grows maize. She specialises in livestock feed sales. She transports grain in a truck from the farm and sells in Chiredzi. These are mostly direct sales to those with chickens, pigs, cattle and so on. She employs three people to manage sales and transport. She has now invested in a grinding mill from the profits and has added selling meal to her business. All this has allowed her to invest in the farm, including improving the house. She also has two houses that she has purchased in Chiredzi. On the farm, she has pigs and cattle and the maize-based livestock feed is an important supplement, boosting productivity and profits.

PM owns a shop in Chatsworth, where he buys and sells agricultural goods, along with groceries. He has a number of independent stockists supplying everything from seeds to farm chemicals and veterinary medicines. He is happy to exchange products with maize. He explains the system, “I take the maize and mix it with other feeds for my pigs. I am now establishing a pork butchery in one of the warehouses. We just negotiate a price with the farmer. Unlike the GMB, I take no RTGS. There is immediate payment and -no complex grain inspections.”  Since buying the shop in 2016, his business is expanding. He explains, “I have four permanent workers: two at the shop and two at the farm for the pigs. I also sometimes employ seasonal workers for slaughtering and packing.”. Even the pork, which sells at US$5/kg for a pack is exchanged for maize – one bucket and a half for one kg of pork. As he observes, “I am planning big, and I’m looking at other premises to expand”.


Finance for farming is highly constrained, as bank loans and other formal sources of finance are difficult to access, with only those with larger operations and collateral being able to gain bank finance. For example, Mr CP from Mvurwi managed (one of very few) as he is a large-scale operator on an A2 farm with properties and equipment as collateral. He secured an AFC loan and was financed for 50 ha of maize to the tune of USD$1100 per hectare. He delivered the maize to the GMB and paid back the loan with interest.

Within our study areas a few A2 farmers have been able to get ‘command agriculture’ contract finance, but many complain about the system arguing that payments and deliveries of inputs are slow and that it requires good political contacts to get the full package. Some have therefore withdrawn preferring their own financing derived from crop farming or other businesses (increasingly rentals from real estate purchases, originally bought from the proceeds of good harvests, see above).

Maize contracting by private businesses operate in the high-potential Mvurwi area. They offer finance, inputs and guaranteed sales. They include business people with transport based in Harare, and they sell the maize at a profit either to GMB or to Harare markets and traders or seed companies wanting farmers to grow hybrid seed. Mr TM, an A2 farmer with a large, well-capitalised farmers (with mobile centre pivots etc.), for example, has 40 ha contracted by Seedco, all under seed maize growing the variety SC719.

For those operating at smaller scales, they must seek finance from local lenders. They offer loans at very high interest with short repayment times. Many dismiss these people as ‘loan sharks’ (chimbadzo), but they offer a useful service providing money (in forex) immediately for urgent needs (say buying fertiliser at a crucial period for the maize). Such informal money lenders may operate independently or be linked to vending operations or be part of retail shops, such as agrodealers (see above).

In recent times in Mvurwi, finance has become available from syndicates of civil servants who pool cash (US$100-$125 each) from their meagre salaries and offer it on a loan basis with interest (US$10 per $100 loaned per month). They undercut other operators by offering better interest terms, but they also require fast repayment. Two groups are operating in Mvurwi – one of seven civil servants, the other of eight agricultural extension workers – they both have good connections and trust relations in their areas, as they are also farmers and the extension workers in particular have a wide client base given their extension work and contacts.

This is the third in our blog series on the ‘hidden middle’ (see also the first and second). The next blogs will focus on poultry and horticulture. Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog, along with all the photos.

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

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Maize markets in Zimbabwe: a complex web of hidden activity

This year looks like it will be a bumper harvest, with the recently published crop assessment expecting a massive 2.3 million tonnes of maize, up 58% from last year. Maize is central to a complex web of small-scale businesses supporting production, transport, processing and marketing. These generate employment and income in the local economy, but are often missed in standard assessments of the rural economy. This is the ‘hidden middle’ discussed in the previous blog, and maize is key.

The diagrams below sketch the relationships around maize from Chikombedzi in Chiredzi district, Wondedzo in Masvingo district and Mvurwi in Mazowe district.

Maize: the political crop

All this is a far-cry from how maize was thought about in the past. In the colonial era, the notorious Maize Control Acts forced small-scale Africa producers to sell their crops to the marketing authority and prices were fixed. The aim was to control African production and allow European farmers to gain a foothold. This pattern of control continued through the colonial era and persisted after Independence.

In the 1980s, the focus on national ‘food security’ meant heavy investment in centralised grain procurement and storage, with a big focus on boosting production in the communal areas. By this time, white farmers on the large-scale farms had increasingly moved out of maize (or only produced it for feed) and so the imperative was to boost small-scale production. This had some successes in the period following Independence, and a new ‘green revolution’ was hailed. This relied on heavy state support with hybrid seeds and subsidised fertilisers being central to the strategy.

Maize production did indeed increase until droughts struck as most was dryland maize. However the costs of production, including the heavy state subsidies did not stack up. It would have been cheaper to import maize from elsewhere, as increasingly became the case. In the structural adjustment era, subsidies declined but there were always opportunities for various schemes usually associated with election periods, where seed and fertiliser distribution were central. Maize as the key food crop has always gained attention, and in the more recent period the many schemes associated with agricultural support have always been centred on maize.

So, in the past, a centralised marketing system was built up – centred on the Grain Marketing Board – with surplus maize grown on farms was largely sold to GMB depots. This was compulsory at times, and made for a very rigid, if well-ordered, marketing system. Today the GMB remains important, and those with government loans remain obliged to sell there, but many complain it is inefficient, pays late, requires expensive transport arrangements and sales are subject to complex regulations, with payment only coming in local currency. As a result, many prefer to sell elsewhere, and here the ‘hidden middle’ has emerged as a major player.

A more diverse marketing system: the ‘hidden middle in maize marketing

In our study sites in Chikombedzi in Chiredzi district, for example, most maize is sold to local dealers (mukorokoza). Although they offer lower prices than the GMB, they do pay immediately and in South Africa Rand. Farmers also cash in on local demand that has increased with the flood of people attending madzibaba’ apostolic shrines. Followers of the prophets may offer their labour in exchange for payments in grain, as well as buy up milled grain for cooking at their temporary settlements.

Transport has become essential for these new markets, and a number of entrepreneurs have invested in trucks to transport grain. Smaller operations use local hires and then transport grain on buses or lorries moving with other goods. In the rural areas, the need to move grain from farms to selling points has meant that everything from scotch carts to wheelbarrows are at a premium, as well as pickup trucks and tractors. Welding and repair operations have sprung up to service, customise or build local forms of transport.

The net effect is that grain moves around far more than it did in the past, and through much more diverse routes. Restrictions on grain movement exist, but there are ways to ‘facilitate’ the process, if the right money is paid to the right people. Others accept the regulations and so move maize in small quantities more frequently or process it as meal, package it and sell it on in different ways. Today entrepreneurs can move grain or processed meal quickly, fixing food deficits in drought hit areas while shifting surplus for elsewhere. As the case studies that will be shared in the next blog show, many different players are involved, with a huge range of different business operations.

Input markets have been informalised too, with many dealers offering seeds, fertiliser, farm equipment and tools and other products, both in regional towns, but also travelling to local townships and occasional markets. Local vendors are crucial in making the link between the customers and the larger retailer or wholesaler, and credit is offered down the chain to allow the commerce to take place. Negotiating prices locally, offering credit and trading with known local vendors who come to your farm makes such markets more accessible and convenient for many, offering confidence in the exchange.  

While informal input markets can deliver products to the farms, reducing the costs of transport and ensuring regular supply, unlike in formal shops, there are concerns with quality. ‘Fake’ products – whether seeds, chemicals or veterinary medicines – are common, and products may be sold without packaging and with no clear proof of authenticity. For this reason, many prefer to exchange local inputs – such as open-pollinated seed varieties saved from previous seasons, or local treatments for animal diseases that they know are efficacious. Some get involved in trading such products, but many are simply exchanged locally.

Formal markets still exist, but these have been heavily distorted by politicised ‘schemes’ – such as command agriculture or the presidential inputs scheme. Here there is increasing political and security service involvement (both the police force and army), making such schemes highly exclusionary, and often dependent on patronage relationships. These schemes as well as the GMB were extensively critiqued in our interviews. High costs of transport to depots; distrust of those grading products; the constraints of regulation around grain quality, meaning products get rejected; the need to be registered to sell and poor administration resulting in late payment were all factors that people mentioned.

Dynamic innovation in the hidden, informal economy

With maize being such a central crop for the agricultural and food economy, it is no surprise that it has become central to the emergence of a ‘hidden middle’. Like the research reporting on the experience elsewhere in Africa discussed last week, the Zimbabwean experience shows a growth in a whole array of non-farm activity, all generating employment and income for a diverse group of people.

This ranges from processing of maize (from basic shelling and grinding to selling pop-corn or cooked sadza), to transport operations (from scotch cart hire to large 30-tonne trucks), to storage (allowing people to trade around price differentials), to a whole array of marketing arrangements (from point sales in markets to mobile vendors to brokerage to new forms of wholesale and retail), to financing (from small scale loans to contracting), to equipment hire, manufacture and repair (for all stages from production to sale), to supplying water/irrigation equipment to boost production, and many more. All these activities are generating new business, mostly informal, nearly all ‘hidden’ from view and therefore not counted, appreciated or supported.

All these activities have also resulted in much innovation, both technical and social. Whether it is packaging for adding value to the product or machines for processing or making popcorn, or the whole array of equipment for transporting maize from fields to homes to markets, there are people involved in manufacture, repair and adaptation of different technologies. This is a source of employment and business, and generates a lot of ‘hidden middle’ activity, both in rural areas, but most particularly in the small towns nearby.

Innovation is social too, as there must be new ways of doing business in Zimbabwe’s difficult economy. This involves new forms of financing, barter exchange and vending that allow goods to be bought, sold and transported. Much of this is facilitated by mobile phone technologies, both for communicating and moving cash. Social media – notably the array of WhatsApp and Facebook groups – are also useful for advertising, exchanging skills and connecting people within networks. The new hidden middle economy is therefore an important site of innovation, keeping the economy moving.

Those involved are not necessarily big business operators, but are usually smaller business people, often with farms themselves, but breaking out to make use of business opportunities, facilitated by connections and networks. Taking many risks in the new agrarian economy, they employ people, generate profits and investment both in expanding their businesses but also in new activities, notably the building of houses and shops in small towns. The gains of such activity in the ‘hidden middle’ is spread much further than the old formalised system, which was captured by a few with big resources and capital and, while still ‘informal’ and with businesses always finely balanced, the benefits are significant and remain local.

To illustrate all this in more depth, next week, we will share some case studies of those involved in the ‘hidden middle’ of the maize value web from our field sites across Zimbabwe.

This is the second blog in the series on the ‘hidden middle’ around maize production and marketing.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog.

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

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The ‘hidden middle’: the transformation of agri-food systems in Africa

There is an unrecognised but vast ‘hidden middle’ of private sector businesses operating in Africa between agricultural producers and food consumers. This is made up of a range of private actors providing transport, trading, brokerage, finance, storage, warehousing, processing and so on. This is neither ‘traditional’ (small, village based) nor ‘modern’ (organised, large-scale). These players facilitate medium-length value chains across a range of commodities that are in demand by (mostly) urban consumers, both in relation to inputs and marketed outputs of farm production. Studies show that this sector is under-recognised, but large and vibrant, and increasingly transforming agricultural value chains, generating value and employment across Africa.

Tom Reardon, lead author of the AGRA and IFAD reports that have highlighted this phenomenon so effectively, argued at a launch event:

The African food system is constrained…but we’ve found a quiet revolution at the grassroots level in African supply chains…. That is, in the segments that are closest to the farmer, made up of agro-dealers, truckers, processors, wholesalers and street vendors, among others. And it’s here, in the hidden middle, that rapid advancements are being made, with huge potential for growth.”

As the reports argue, “About 40% of non-farm employment is in “agri-food system” work, such as wholesale, logistics, processing, and retail. This means that about 25% of overall rural employment is in this work, making it crucial for rural families. It is especially important in peri-urban areas and in areas just beyond the peri-urban, the intermediate rural area, to women and youth.”

The role of ‘hidden middle’ entrepreneurs, connected in complex usually informal networks, is also vital for food security since around 80% of Africa’s food consumption is marketed and handled mostly through private operators. With the massive flow of often processed food to towns and cities (rising by 800% in 25 years across Africa) from diverse small-scale rural producers, there are many people involved. Unlike the assumptions of many policy proclamations, these reports argue that this is not a ‘broken’ value chain and there is no ‘missing middle’ to be filled by new interventions. Instead there is a vast, vibrant hidden middle, fostering a major transformation in food and farming systems across Africa.

While I am not convinced that the evolutionary schema offered by these reports – from traditional to transitional to modern – is useful, as there are many pathways of change, the recognition of this area of activity and calls for its support are important. Much of this is informal, improvised and constantly adapting to changing circumstances. Although the reports parse these arrangements as ‘SMEs’ – small and medium sized enterprises – I am again not sure about this nomenclature, as the ‘hidden middle’ is more complex and not easily categorised as a ‘sector’. While anathema to economic development planners, the multitude of small, networked, informal businesses linked to agriculture are the reality across most of Africa, and in many ways more suited to current conditions than the costly ‘modern’ alternatives favoured by many.

Transformations in Zimbabwe following land reform

Although in particular ways, this is also happening in Zimbabwe. The transformation is driven by increased (localised) production from land reform and new connections to growing urban centres. In the past, Zimbabwe’s dualist agricultural sector meant that value chains were either short and very local (‘traditional’) or long and export oriented (‘modern’), linked respectively to communal areas and large-scale commercial farms.

Today, with a tripartite agrarian structure (small, medium and large-scale farms) and 175,000 new land reform farms, there has been an explosion of economic activity that has responded to the new land ownership and agricultural production scenario. This is the hidden middle, which is driving (as elsewhere in Africa) a ‘quiet’ revolution, involving many mostly private players connecting farm production to markets.

We have been investigating this phenomenon across our sites (Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Chikombedzi, Triangle, Matobo) across three different commodities (maize, horticulture and poultry). We have been tracing actors along value webs/networks/chains, assessing profit margins, looking at the collaborations and competition, evaluating employment generation across activities, tracing rural to urban links, especially to small towns in our study areas, as well as discussing the constraints faced. As the blogs in this short series show, these new value networks are generating profit, providing employment, increasing efficiency, and through investment generated by this growing activity, are (slowly) upgrading.

Technologies (notably IT), infrastructure (notably roads) and finance (credit, mobile payments) facilitate this business activity, but lack of these (due to government policy neglect, macro-economic instability and so on – all big problems in Zimbabwe) can severely hamper progress amongst the multiple ‘hidden middle’ actors.

Another factor that explains the emergence of the ‘hidden middle’ is the new economic geography following the land reform after 2000. No longer are resettlement areas hidden away, often not connected to infrastructure and markets, as was the case with many resettlements following the 1980s land reform. Today land reform areas are central to the rural economy, connected to growing small towns and a range of businesses, commodity contracting and so on. Even those resettlements in far-flung parts of the country are also vibrant places of diverse activity as they may link to border exchange, profiting from trade and smuggling. Although investment in core infrastructure has been minimal in the past 20 years, these areas have had the opportunity for wider economic linkages, with growth being spurred in a huge array of non-farm activities, which are nevertheless linked to agricultural production.

Crucially, as the blog series will show, the functioning of these value networks is facilitated/constrained by social and political relations. In other words, we argue that it is vital to understand market relations as socially embedded, influenced by the social nature of networks and the degree of trust between actors. These are in other words ‘real markets’ operating not just by the laws of demand and supply, and so price incentives, but through social and institutional processes, governed by family social relations, church networks, political party affiliations and so on.

While a focus on the economics of these new arrangements is essential (as in most of the current literature), attention to these social and political elements is as important to understanding the ‘hidden middle’. As we discuss, this has major policy implications for fostering such activity in Zimbabwe.

This is the first blog in a short series on ‘hidden markets’. Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog.

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

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Zimbabwe’s resettlement experience from 1980 to 2000

My recent blog on ‘phases of land reform’ focused on the post-2000 land reform period, but of course there was resettlement before 2000 as part of the post-Independence land reform efforts from 1980 to 2000. This too had phases, again affected by the wider political economy, especially via the legal framework for land appropriation and redistribution by the state.

Bill Kinsey who, together with colleagues, examined post-Independence resettlement in great detail through an important longitudinal study, commented on the earlier blog, asking what about the post-1980 resettlement experience? A good point. So, over this last week I have spent some (limited) time going back over the literature on this period – including important work from Bill and team (reflections back and links to the post-2000 land reform are here and here), and of course Sam Moyo (see also here, here, here and here, amongst many others), as well as the vital paper by Robin Palmer mentioned last week. Apologies for the length of this blog, but I hope Bill and others will use the comments to correct me and add to the information!

Phases of land reform post 1980

A basic story emerges, again in phases set in this case by changing legislative provisions over land. After Independence, the new government was committed to resettlement but was constrained by the Lancaster House Agreement that stipulated only ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ arrangements with large-scale commercial farmers. This meant that only certain land came onto the market, often not good quality and far from services and infrastructure making resettlement challenging. For example, by 1983 only 4% of land allocated for resettlement was in Region II (a high potential area) and none in Region I, with most medium-low potential areas in Regions III and IV. Following an initial phase of enthusiasm for resettlement this waned as the state focused more on investing in the communal areas as part of its wider political pacts with the people.

With the end of the strictures imposed by Lancaster House Agreement in 1990, it was possible for the state to acquire land and the Land Acquisition Act was passed in 1992. However, this was the period of the economic structural adjustment programme (the dreaded ESAP, which started in 1991), and in order to comply with the conditions set by the International Finance Institutions the government was reluctant to rock the boat, and anyway it didn’t have any money as the state contracted. This was the period when private transactions in land increased, but not for resettlement, as it was black business and political elites who acquired farms through the market.

By the end of the 1990s another period emerged, marked by a famous dispute with the new UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his development secretary Clare Short. In 1997 they made it quite clear that the British were not going to pay for land for resettlement and that the UK claimed it did not have an obligation towards its former economy. This of course infuriated President Mugabe and a more radical stance on land ensued. This was particularly prompted by the rise of the war veterans as a political force once more, and their demands on the state for compensation for their war efforts. A huge payout was agreed also in 1997, which created turmoil in the economy. Around this time, a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, became a significant force especially in urban areas, signalling discontent with the ruling party. In the period that followed various land invasions occurred that were the prequel to the major invasions that happened after 2000.   

Welfare outcomes: it takes time!

What were the outcomes of land reform over these periods? The research tells an interesting story, with many parallels now becoming clear with the post-2000 period. A key point made by Bill Kinsey and others, based on wider experience of land reform, is that it takes time for the results of redistribution to show.  In a 2003 piece, Kinsey comments:

Experience shows that welfare levels are almost universally lower following resettlement than before. The period following resettlement is one of stress and adjustment from which most—but not all—households will recover. There is then an upturn as farmers complete the post-relocation adjustment process and begin to reap benefits from their enhanced resource base. As experience accumulates and collaborative efforts begin, benefits continue to grow— often quite rapidly. At some point, as the potential of the resource base and the technologies employed are more fully realised, the rate of growth of benefits slows”.

He offered a simple graph to illustrate the point (explained in terms of ‘stages’ in this later paper). In other words, it takes a decade to find out if resettlement has had a positive impact, and longer-term impacts will largely depend on the wider economy, and the way technologies, markets and so on become available, as with standard patterns of agriculture-led growth (see also other chapters in the book, and the earlier LTC offering from 1994).

Let’s now look at the different ‘phases’, starting with the post-Independence period.

Post-Independence resettlement: big ambitions but limited implementation

The newly independent government had big plans for resettlement, and with large areas of land abandoned due to the war and later due to drought in 1982-84 there was land to acquire at reasonable prices. Up from an initial target of only 18,000 for the intensive programme, a larger target of 162,000 households to be settled was set by the accelerated programme. In practice over the following decade only 70,000 households were settled as the programme ran out of steam, but at the beginning there was great enthusiasm.

Initially the targets for resettlement were the poor, landless, refugees and those displaced from the war. After 1984, ‘Master Farmers’ were included, intended to offer a demonstration of ‘good farming’ to the settlers, and later the programme shifted much more towards ‘qualified’ farmers with the aim of boosting productivity. The overall aim was to provide adequate levels of agricultural income on ‘viable’ holdings, specified in dollar and hectare terms in the initial programme documents.

At the outset there were four different ‘models’ – the Model A schemes, which were villagized settlement of smallholders, comparable to A1 schemes; Model B schemes, which were collective, cooperative schemes where a socialist form of production was to be carried out, involving particularly demobbed war veterans; Model C schemes, which were ‘commercial farm settlement schemes’ linked to core ARDA estates and Model D schemes, designed for extending grazing areas for livestock, particularly in Matabeleland. These were technical schemes under direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Lands and Agriculture, problematically putting resettlement areas outside the new administrative structures of independent Zimbabwe.

In the end, it was Model A smallholder schemes that became the dominant approach (93% of 71,000 settled by 1999), with Model B and C schemes being quickly abandoned and converted into more individualised, village-based arrangements, while Model D schemes did occur but had mixed success. Bill Kinsey and team studied three Model A schemes across three agroecological zones (II-IV), collecting data from 400 resettlement households from 1983 and 100 comparator communal area households since 1997. It is an impressive data set, building on a strong tradition of rural household studies in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 90s, and we used the questionnaire as a template for our studies in the 2000s (although a much shorter version!).

In the early years, the studies highlighted the struggles of establishment. Unlike the ‘fast-track’ schemes of the post-2000s these were supposed to be planned schemes with services supplied. As Kinsey noted in 1982: “Settlement schemes are currently being designed and implemented under great time pressure and with a unidimensional emphasis on short-term technical aspects rather than longer-social and economic issues”. Settlers complained about lack of safe drinking water (and so poor health), poor transport networks and food shortages. In a short paper from 1984, Kinsey explains the enthusiasm of the new settlers, noting that despite being in the midst of a major drought, the word ‘happy’ mostly described settlers’ outlook, with most saying that “they have come to feel at home on their schemes despite early difficulties”. Nevertheless, in this early establishment phase, “settlers faced a host of problems, including clearing of land, moving onto their land late and having to build houses–in the rains–while trying to get a crop planted, building new schools, wild animals’ eating crops, lack of infrastructure and finally drought–the one theme that dominates any discussion with settlers. They had come from many different parts of the country and had to form communities and collaborate.

At this stage (the mid-1980s), there was other spontaneous resettlement (aka ‘squatting’) going on around the country, most notably to the frontier lands of Gokwe and Hurungwe. As a result of state-supported efforts to reduce tsetse fly infestation and so trypanosomiasis, huge areas became available for farming using draft power as cattle did not die. This resulted in the cotton boom in these areas and a massive expansion of agricultural activity and increasing wealth for the new settlers. In contrast to the resettlement areas, which were few and far between, these were patterns that I was more familiar with whilst doing my PhD research in Zvishavane district.  

In both cases, but through different routes, there was a growth in income for settlers, set in a context of agricultural ‘success’ in the smallholder sector more broadly. For the formal resettlement areas, this was well documented by Kinsey and team in a series of influential papers. From a rather pessimistic tone struck in his papers of 1982 and 1983 where questions were raised about government capacity for implementation and the overall economic returns of resettlement, a much more positive perspective (with qualifications) emerged over time. This was reinforced by an evaluation carried out for the British aid agency, published in 1988. This showed returns of 20%, prompting The Economist to comment that this must be “one of the most successful aid schemes in Africa”.

In an important paper published in 1999, Kinsey showed that household production and income was superior to communal area comparators, with asset accumulation of cattle being notable. However, nutritional indicators were much more similar suggesting that the gains of land reform were not translating into individual nutritional wellbeing. As a follow up paper surmises this was in particular because of larger household sizes and lower incomes from remittances, consumption levels of resettlement households were found not to be higher than communal areas. This 2001 paper corrected for the agroecological bias in the sample and found similar if less dramatic results. The paper nevertheless shows that “Land reform beneficiaries cultivate nearly 50 percent more land than non-beneficiaries, obtain four times as much in crop revenues, own substantially more livestock, and have expenditures that are higher by 50 percent”. A paper from 2004 looked at returns to land and a more detailed comparison of land reform beneficiaries and communal area comparators (using propensity score matching). This again showed positive returns to land reform ranging from 5% to 15% per annum, but these estimates are dependant on assumptions about the opportunity cost of land and the economic role of the additional household members attracted to land reform areas.

This work challenged the assumption that resettlement was a waste of time, more a political sop to liberation war rhetoric than anything that could achieve ‘growth with equity’ (as the slogan for the first national plan proclaimed). Instead, resettlement was driving growth and increases in welfare, something that the team working on land in the World Bank (notably Klaus Deininger and Hans Binswanger) was interested in, especially in the context of post-1994 South Africa. This growth of production, assets and income on the resettlements became a magnet for others, and many household sizes grew as relatives and others moved to the resettlement areas. Household sizes by the 1990s were significantly higher in resettlement areas compared to communal areas, a big change from the early 1980s. Patterns of productivity however were highly uneven both within and across schemes, reflecting processes of social differentiation as well as different production systems (with some irrigated schemes being the star performers).

Structural adjustment: redistribution takes a back seat

Enthusiasm for the resettlement programme had tailed off before the initiation of ESAP in 1991, but the lack of government funds and a lack of enthusiasm from international donors for resettlement meant that the programme effectively ground to a halt, despite the fact that from 1992 the Land Acquisition Act meant that land could be acquired by the state.

Even though the ambitious targets for expanding the programme were not reached there were still around half a million people living on the resettlements. With the decline in government interest, the planning requirements of the early phases were relaxed. Resettlement officers no longer insisted on every regulation, including requirements for cropping patterns, carrying capacities for livestock and so on. The restriction on taking external employment was also released (or ignored) after 1992, as this was really limited opportunities. The idea that farming in Zimbabwe had to be ‘full-time’ and could not migrate was absurd – not even the large-scale commercial farmers were restricted to their farms as the only source of income. However, as resettlement households diversified there were tensions between ‘survival’ and ‘growth’.

By 1997, the government had acquired 3,498,444 ha and resettled about 71,000 families. In this phase, the farmers were able to invest and expand. The graph of increasing welfare was being followed. The studies showed how both agricultural production and income as well as assets increased, notably cattle. While droughts (notably in 1982-84 and 1991-94) affected resettlement households, but as they increased livestock assets they were better able to cope. Generational transfers were a challenge as there were restrictions on subdivision, but a more flexible approach was adopted and the next generation was often accommodated.

The politics of land and resettlement post 1997

The period after 1997 was highly volatile and land became a big issue. The Clare Short letter, the war veterans pay-out and the sporadic land invasions – most famously in Svosve but in 15 other sites too – became a sign that the failure to address resettlement effectively over the previous 17 years was a mistake. With a further change in land acquisition legislation and the increasingly vociferous demands to address the land question, the donors and the government, together with the commercial farmers, came together to discuss in 1998. The land conference was an attempt to map out an orderly way forward – with two models proposed (A1 and A2, small-scale and medium-scale) and a plan to transfer 1471 farms that were deemed ‘underutilised’. However the Inception Phase of the Land Reform and Resettlement Programme Phase II (LRRP II) that followed only managed to allocate a further 168,264 hectares to 4697 families, way below the target of 1 million ha and 118,000 families settled envisaged at the land conference.

In this period – and indeed for much of the 1990s – the ‘old resettlements’ were barely part of the debate. The work of Bill Kinsey and colleagues helped make the case that land reform could have welfare benefits and that it was not such a disaster as many feared (far from it), but the key question became how to gain access to sufficient land through compulsory acquisition with compensation so that a significant land reform could be realised. The late 1990s plan never came to be as the donors, the government and the large-scale farmers failed to come up with a realistic deal. The rest, as they say, is history.

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

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Robin Palmer – the original land campaigner and scholar activist

Robin Palmer sadly died on February 19th. Historian, lecturer, land campaigner, NGO worker and consultant, he was the original scholar activist. The large numbers of tributes that have been shared on many platforms (see here and here) are witness to his influence on many over several decades.

I first encountered Robin via his academic work and his brilliant book Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia, alongside the collection edited with Neil Parsons, Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa. Both books came out in 1977 at the encouragement of James Currey and I read them as I started working in Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s. I did not meet Robin physically until some years later when he was working with Oxfam on the southern Africa desk. With Peter Baka Nyoni who was working with Oxfam in Zimbabwe (and of course Sithembiso Nyoni at ORAP), he was very supportive of the establishment of Zvishavane Water Projects by my great friend and colleague, the late Zephaniah Phiri.

Robin travelled to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1960 to pursue an undergraduate degree at University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, then an affiliate of the University of London. His experience of life in Southern Rhodesia exposed him to the violence and injustice of racial segregation. He was keen on sport and, as he recalls in an essay on his life and work experience prepared for the symposium celebrating Lionel Cliffe’s life in 2014, he played football with blacks in the ‘African’ areas and cricket with whites in the ‘European’ areas. After his undergraduate degree he continued with a PhD. His academic work delved into the history of land in the country. Land and Racial Domination was originally his PhD thesis, awarded in 1968 after he was expelled from the country following UDI.

Now out of print, it is an amazing book. Full of detail (as any good history text the footnotes are a book in themselves), it tells the story of how Rhodesia was settled and how land was expropriated. Packed with well-researched facts and dispassionately presented, it is devastating. Along with Terry Ranger’s Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War in Zimbabwe, it was one of the books that really influenced me early on in my career working in Zimbabwe.

Everyone should read it – and someone, somewhere must digitise it and make it available for free! It is incredible how few people – including in Zimbabwe and despite all the political rhetoric about land – know the full story. It is not just a dry history, as so much remains relevant today with debates from nearly a century ago being repeated. Just as now, the government of the day complained that white settler commercial farmers were underutilising the land, that peasant agriculture was causing land degradation and so on.  

After finishing his thesis in London, Robin had the choice of jobs – go to the US and teach history at California State University or take up a post at the University of Malawi. You can guess where he chose. After three years at the University of Malawi, in 1971 he moved to the University of Zambia where he stayed until 1977. After a brief attempt to retrain as a schoolteacher in the UK, he landed a job at Oxfam in 1986 and joined its southern Africa desk. In the coming years he would spend a lot of time in the region, working with many different partners.

A particular insight comes from his book, A House in Zambia, Recollections of the ANC and Oxfam at 250 Zambezi Road, Lusaka, 1967-97 (Lusaka, Bookworld Publishers, 2008), which offers a fascinating reflection on the interactions between ANC exiles and ‘development’ professionals. In southern Africa, the politics of struggle and national liberation had a huge influence on development thinking at that time, and Robin’s historical insights into colonialism’s impacts were crucial.

In 1995, Oxfam GB created a new post – land rights adviser – and Robin took up the role. This was an inspired move and represented an important era for Oxfam. With a wider campaign mandate, Robin used this opportunity to network and build. His activist sensibilities were put to great use, with significant impact. A number of important conferences and meetings followed. He worked with Kaori Izumi (who sadly passed away too early in 2013) at FAO, with Julian Quan at NRI and Camilla Toulmin at IIED, among many others on land rights and tenure in Africa. A particular focus was on women’s land rights, and the collaborations with Liz Daley and Birgit Englert were significant, not least around the book/special issue on women’s land rights in eastern Africa. Following an invitation by Peter Nyoni to review the land debate in Zimbabwe, Robin produced a report – which later became an enormously influential paper in African Affairs, Land reform in Zimbabwe, 1980-1990.

In 2000, Robin started the Land Rights in Africa website. Increased access to the internet and the ability to store and share materials allowed his skills as an historian archivist to be used for wider activist purposes. The website was a carefully curated collection and has proved invaluable for many, whether land scholars, practitioners or activists. He managed this resource for over 20 years first at Oxfam and then at Mokoro, before handing it over to Chris Tanner in 2022.

That Robin was an avid collector and passionate archivist was illustrated in an exchange we had a few years ago when he shared some documents from 1984 when he went to the archives in Zomba, Malawi and found a set of colonial era films in disarray. He made a list – including a list of those that were on the floor in a certain corridor, listing them from left to right! A treasure trove was documented, and I do hope that someone in Zomba took note and that they remain safe and useable today.

The Mokoro consultancy company was Robin’s last base. He moved there in early 2007 on what he describes as a ‘free transfer’ as Oxfam restructured once again and in its great wisdom got rid of the land campaign (and much more besides, including crucial work on pastoralism that was also hugely influential in East Africa in particular). Such was Robin’s magnanimous diplomacy, he barely commented on all this. Institutions were less important than ideas and networks – and he continued his work with typical energy and enthusiasm. This was a moment when land issues were again rising up the agenda, not least in Zimbabwe.

With support from NOVIB in 2003 he was able to initiate support for research on the ‘fast track’ land reform. Working with Prosper Matondi and team and facilitating the emergence of the very effective Ruzivo Trust, work on land in different parts of the country was started. This complemented the work by Sam Moyo and team at the African Institute of Agrarian Studies and our work with PLAAS, initially in Masvingo. Robin was central to supporting younger (and some older) Zimbabwean researchers across these research groups, bringing them together, for example at the UK African Studies Association held in Oxford in 2010.

His deep knowledge, openness and generosity were amazing. When they met him, colleagues were astonished that he was the Robin Palmer. On his passing my long-time collaborator, Felix Murimbarimba, wrote he was “such a jovial, accessible and influential researcher”. Prosper also wrote an impassioned tribute to Robin, noting how he was “truly a Zimbabwean and a hero for identifying land tenure as a basis for Zimbabwe’s inequalities that had strong racial undertones that he never liked.” 

Coming back to Zimbabwe and investing in a new generation of land researchers at a crucial moment was important to Robin – and we all benefitted massively from his kind, unassuming support over years. When our book – Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities (which I later discovered he was one of the reviewers for) – came out, there was much controversy and lots of backlash. Having Robin around as one of the advisers to the Livelihoods after Land Reform project to support and assure us was important when the flak became vicious. He attended many meetings and came to the field with us to learn more about what we were finding, always asking helpful probing questions.

Following the financial, food and energy crises of 2007-08, ‘land grabbing’ became a major global issue. Robin was of course central to the debate. When we formed the Land Deals Politics Initiative around 2010, he was enormously encouraging. In 2011 we held an amazing event at IDS at Sussex, when over 150 people came from 70 countries and presenting 120 papers on the emerging phenomena of land, green and water grabbing. Robin shared his paper, typically linking historical insight with contemporary issues – ‘Would Cecil Rhodes have signed a code of conduct?’. As he reported in a piece for the Mokoro newsletter – mischievously titled ‘Land grabbing in Brighton’ – it was a ‘hugely energising event’.

Since then I saw Robin regularly at meetings and events. Always offering important comments, never imposing or arrogant; always modest, self-effacing and supportive. So unlike many elderly white men of his stature and reputation. He was an avid reader of this blog, frequently sending me an email when he found something exciting and interesting. When the blog celebrated its 10th anniversary he sent an encouraging email, subtly pointing out that he had passed the 20th anniversary of the land rights website and that (by implication) I should carry on!

So, when I heard that he had died, as for many it was a terrible shock. His legacy is enormous and I hope that the Land Rights in Africa website will continue to inform, inspire and encourage others as he did to so many. Thank you, Robin.

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

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Phases of Zimbabwe’s land reform: a shifting political economy

When many people make grand proclamations about Zimbabwe’s land reform, there is often very little specificity – both of where and when they are talking about. For the post-2000 land reform is not an event, but a process – with both a prehistory going back to the colonial era and a future that remains uncertain. Being definitive about outcomes and consequences is impossible. Yes, there are patterns and our research has highlighted some of these as discussed in the previous blog. However, specifying where and when is vital. This blog focuses on the temporal dimension and suggests we should think of Zimbabwe’s land reform in terms of a number of phases, unfolding unevenly in different places over time.

The first phase I call invasion and establishment. This is the phase that most people refer to when they talk about Zimbabwe’s land reform, even though it started more than 20 years ago. This was the jambanja’ period when people from nearby communal areas and towns, sometimes joined by farm workers from the farms, and supported by war veterans, invaded (mostly) white-owned farms, evicting the former owners sometimes violently. This was then followed by an allocation process that formalised these new farms. At the same time larger A2 farms were established, part of the wider political bargain with elites, offering medium scale properties of subdivided farms. The scale of the process was far larger than imagined, but people especially on the smallholder A1 farms quickly moved to a phase of farm establishment. In part this was the direct contestation of property rights, but it was also about survival as they set about clearing land, establishing homesteads and getting going with cultivation. Our earlier work concentrated on this period, showing the remarkable process of establishment and its value.

The second phase I call accumulation and differentiation and coincides approximately with the period from 2006 to 2013. Once fields were cleared, homes built and equipment and livestock acquired, production was starting in earnest. But this was uneven and some did much better than others. This was clear by the time we published our book in 2010 but became even more stark in the coming years. There was much movement of people at this time. Some left, while others took on new roles as labourers, including former farm workers. The economy was in turmoil up to 2009 when dollarisation occurred and for much of this time, production and marketing was localised and inward looking. For A1 farmers this did not matter terribly, but for the more ambitious commercial farmers of the A2 areas, this was disastrous. No-one could establish a business under such economic conditions of hyperinflation, parallel currencies and extreme shortages, let alone a farming business where there were no credit and loan facilities. After 2009, which for some might actually be another phase during which a government of national unity was formed, there was more stability and the potential to invest. This saw the stabilisation of A2 farms, the emergence of more commercial networks, the growth of marketing outside local areas and the rise in contract farming, and so was the prelude to the next phase.

The third, current phase, what I call economic integration and linkage, starts in the build up to the ‘coup’, when Mnangagwa took over, full of rhetoric about how business-minded development would triumph. This was preceded by a greater accommodation to elite business interests connected to the party as ZANU-PF morphed into the political arm of a military-business elite, with a myriad of ever-changing, competing factions. Gone was the populist language about smallholders of the past. Especially after Mnangagwa took over, some large-scale capital interests – domestic and international, and often combinations – started to invest (although not at the scale that the ‘open for business’ rhetoric had hoped). Some continued the corrupt deals of before, but others genuinely showed the potential to invest in the agricultural sector. There were many such enterprises, facilitating the marketing of a huge diversity of products. Until inflation began to return with a vengeance in the last year or two, this investment has had a number of effects.

The increase in joint ventures on A2 farmers ushered in new sources of capital to boost productivity and invest on farms. For some this was seen as a reversal of the progressive gains of land reform, and in some case such investments resulted in land grabs of farms that had been occupied but officially registered, as new investors took on defunct state farms. For others such joint ventures were just the fillip that the ailing A2 sector needed. Without commercial finance – the banks were still refusing to lend to farmers due to uncertainties over land ownership and the continued lack of a compensation deal with former owners – such sources of finance through partnership arrangements were essential. As capital – of different types and origins, and with different political connections – engages with land reform areas new dynamics of accumulation -and so differentiation – emerge.

The changing political economy of land

Each phase is of course co-constituted with the wider politics of the time. The invasion and establishment phase emerged of course in part as a consequence of the Constitutional referendum of 2000 and the rise of the opposition party under Morgan Tsvangirai, with the ruling party feeling under genuine threat perhaps for the first time since independence. This was an unruly period, with few constraints on actions by many, including the war veterans, as the ruling party and President Mugabe was running scared. The rhetoric of ‘liberation’ and the language of war was used alongside the standard populist positioning of Mugabe in relation to the rural population: he was on the poor rural person’s side as they were his big vote bank, and he would deliver, now not just in terms of food and fertiliser hand outs in drought, but the big promise from the liberation struggle, land. The land invasions however by all accounts took the leadership by surprise and, although attempt to formalise the process were instituted under the ‘fast-track’ programme, it had its own dynamic outside centralised political control.  

The local differentiation and accumulation period coincided with economic turmoil, particularly the period of hyperinflation, peaking dramatically in 2008 and then leading up to the dollarisation of the economy and the Government of National Unity from 2009. The hyperinflation period was one where money became meaningless and formal market exchange impossible, but it was also a time when unscrupulous politicians and business people were able to exploit this chaos through huge, corrupt scams, often involving government money. The relative stability of the GNU and early dollarisation was a dramatic contrast; this was perhaps the only period when a reasonable stable market and wider polity allowed a more conventional pattern of investment. Farming livelihoods can only be understood in terms of this rollercoaster of both economics and politics in this period, which of course began to change as the political pact dissolved following the 2013 elections, and ‘sanctions’ combined with economic mismanagement combined to cause problems again.

The most recent phase – what I have called an economic integration and linkage phase – starts in the build-up to the ‘coup’ and the ousting of President Robert Mugabe by Emerson Mnangagwa and his military allies and foreign supporters. The opening up of the economy, the attraction of investment from national and international investors and the massive growth of contracting arrangements and joint ventures reflects a new engagement with capital. Rather than the disconnected, subsistence and barter exchange economy that existed in previous phases, in the recent phase big capital has returned. It is not quite what was hoped for following the slogan ‘open for business’, due to continuing sanctions, rising debt obligations and the failure of the Mnangagwa government to address the requirements for new loans and donor finance. However, despite the constraining conditions, certainly there is money around in Zimbabwe’s weird parallel economy: just look at all the new cars, the massive amount of building and the growth of new enterprises in many towns and cities. This may come from shady sources, including the recycling of public funds for private gain, but it also comes from investors with money to spare, including from South Africa, where Zimbabwe is seen by some as a place for rich pickings from speculative investments, even if the risks are high.

What happens next will depend on the political economy of the bargain between the ruling elite, farmers (operating at different scales) across the resettlements and diverse fractions of capital. As before, how this will play out will much depend on the political landscape. With little prospect of major changes following the elections of 2023, it will be the fragile balance between interests amongst the ruling political-business-military elite that will greatly influence outcomes. And, as everyone knows, this all remains very contested and uncertain.

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


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Conversations on Zimbabwe’s land reform: “well, it’s a bit more complex than that….”

I am often involved in conversations with people who are intrigued that I work on land issues in Zimbabwe. Such conversations frequently lead off with something along the lines ‘Oh it was such a terrible thing, wasn’t it?’. Their assumptions and biases are clear from the start and the lack of knowledge is disconcerting. I take a deep breath (having been doing this for over 20 years it takes some control). ‘Well’, I say, ‘it’s a bit more complex than that; there are positive and negative outcomes, and things have changed over time.’ Usually at this point, people’s eyes glaze over and an easier subject is tackled or they wander off. Sometimes, however, people are genuinely interested, and (yes still) surprised.

Over the years we have produced a vast amount of research that challenges the myths surrounding land reform through solid empirical research, documented now in many journal articles and several books. If you add the huge body of work by others, then the evidence base is substantial and growing; and across this a (largely) similar story is told. There are few contrarians with other axes to grind and some outlier cases that tell an interesting but not generalisable story, but overall there is a growing consensus around the more complex, more ambiguous and much more interesting story of Zimbabwe’s land reform. This is important, as the Zimbabwe story is one that is looked at more widely (too often with biased perceptions) and the lessons learned have important things to say for others struggling with land redistribution.

Overarching findings

When I was putting together our compilation of 20 articles in the monster book Researching Zimbabwe’s Land Reform that we released last year and have since distributed around universities and resource centres across Zimbabwe (you can buy it here and here and download for free here), I wrote a new introduction. In addition to reflecting on the process of the research and the challenges we have faced, I wanted to lay out what the overarching conclusions were from this now huge this body of work. They proved difficult to summarise as there are differences across sites, between people and over time (the temporal dimension is what I pick up next week), but nevertheless, the listing below offers some headlines, which are taken from the book.

  • Farmers on the new resettlement areas are producing and accumulating from investments in agriculture. Patterns vary widely between farms and across years, but a distinct pattern of ‘accumulation from below’, particularly in the A1 smallholder land reform sites, is seen. However, political and economic conditions over the past 20 years have seriously limited opportunities for most.
  • Farmers who gained access to land during the land reform came from many different backgrounds. In the A1 smallholder areas, the majority were previously poor, small-scale farmers from the communal areas or were un(der)employed in nearby towns. In the A2 areas, there was a mix of those who applied through the formal route (mostly civil servants, including teachers and agricultural ministry staff) and those who gained access to land through patronage arrangements, drawing on close connections with the party and security services. Outside this latter group, which is a small minority, the beneficiaries were not ‘cronies’, nor even necessarily ruling party supporters.
  • Many of the new farmers are investing in their farms. First this was focused on land clearance and building new homes, but since this has extended to investing in new technology (notably irrigation pumps), as well as tractors and diverse forms of transport for marketing. Some are able to invest off-farm and there has been a growth in investment in real estate in nearby towns, especially in the tobacco-growing areas.
  • Over time, there has been a distinct process of social differentiation, within both smallholder (A1) and medium-scale (A2) farms, with some accumulating, while others struggle. This results in new social relations between farms and between sites, as those who are not surviving from farm-based income must seek employment on other farms or develop off-farm income earning options.
  • There are major contrasts between A1 and A2 farms in all of our sites. A1 smallholder farms have performed relatively well, often producing surpluses, with investment flowing back to the farms or supporting relatives in other areas, including the communal areas and towns. A2 farms have by contrast struggled. As larger medium-scale operations, they require finance and capital investment, and this has been difficult to secure due to lack of bank finance or government support. Beyond a few years when the economy stabilised, the economic conditions over 20 years have not been conducive to successful farm business investment. That said, some have managed, and again there is substantial differentiation among A2 farms.
  • The spatial restructuring of rural economies through land reform has resulted in new patterns of economic activity, with the sharing of labour, equipment and other resources across A1, A2 and communal areas. The concentration of locally-based economic growth driven by agriculture has had important effects on small towns, and many of these have grown significantly.
  • During the land reform, resident farm labour on farms especially in the high-potential areas largely lost out on the allocation of new land. Farm labour has had to reincorporate in a new agricultural economy and has faced many challenges. Gaining access to even small pieces of land is crucial for survival, as the demand for labour varies and the working conditions are poor.
  • Twenty years on from land reform, there is a next generation of young people who are seeking out agriculture-based opportunities. They may benefit from subdivision of their parents’ land, but many must survive on small patches. Investment in small-scale irrigation through the purchase of small pumps, linked to horticulture production, is a favoured activity.
  • Finance for agriculture is extremely limited, constraining opportunities for small- and medium-scale resettlement farmers alike. Banks have so far rejected either permits to occupy in the A1 areas and leases in the A2 areas as a basis for lending. State investments have been limited, and are often misdirected and subject to corruption. Western donors have not supported land reform areas as these are deemed ‘contested areas’ and are subject to ‘sanctions’.
  • The dynamics of agriculture is highly dependent on the type of crop. Some crops, such as tobacco and sugar, are linked to contract finance arrangements, supported by private companies. This allows farmers to invest in their production and some have been highly successful, although the terms of the contracts are not always favourable. Other crops, including grain crops and most horticulture, require self-financing or reliance on very selective government schemes, and so are more challenging business propositions; although again there are important successes, notably around small-scale irrigated horticulture.
  • The contrasts between A1 and A2 areas and the differentiation of farmers within each mean that there is a highly heterogeneous farming population. There are different classes of farmer emerging, ranging from emergent rural capitalists to petty commodity producers to diverse classes of labour, only partly reliant on agriculture. This results in a new politics of the countryside, with quite volatile political affiliations; not necessarily as often assumed with everyone in the land reform areas allied to the ruling party.
  • The new agrarian structure, centred on a smallholder-based agriculture and complemented by medium-scale farms, requires a very different policy approach to agriculture, with new forms of support, including a revamped and revived agricultural administration system to encourage investment. Economic and political instability, combined with wider sanctions, has massively restricted the potential of land reform farmer to drive rural economic growth, but the potentials are clearly apparent, along with many, on-going challenges.

For long-time readers of this blog these will not be new or startling, but they offer one encapsulation of where we are in our still-emerging understanding. You will have to read the 20 chapters of the book to get a sense of where the evidence comes from and how these ideas emerged. Of course, others would come up with a different summary from their own work, but I suspect that there is a convergence, even if not a complete consensus.

New questions

This summary of course suggests important new questions to tackle, meaning new research is vital. For example, how will farmers negotiate with capital in the form of joint ventures, contracting companies and so on? Will the A2 farms finally take off and how will they ally with smallholders, practically and politically? What will the long-term outcomes of differentiation within resettlements be, especially for new entrants, such as younger people wanting land and women? Will there continue to be a turnover of land or will resettlements become increasingly congested with the productive benefits of larger land areas eroded? And so on.

These themes (and many others) will continue to energise research on land and rural dynamics in Zimbabwe into the future, and I hope that the conversations I have on our work will continue to offer insights – and that fewer people will glaze over and run away!

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

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Livelihoods analysis and agrarian political economy: a new podcast

At the end of last year, I had a great week at PLAAS (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies) at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town discussing with a great cohort of post-grad students working on agrarian change issues in the region. The question of how ‘livelihoods approaches’ – including the ‘sustainable livelihoods framework’ – fitted into such studies and whether it could be integrated with an agrarian political economy perspective came up again and again.

Emerging from these discussions, I recorded a podcast with Ruth Hall and Boa Monjane, now out in the Agrarian Politics series. You can listen to it via the link below. This blog offers some context.

The continuing relevance of livelihoods approaches

From classic studies of seasonality, livelihood change and vulnerability in the 1980s and 90s, to the presentation of more synthetic frameworks, first in Robert Chambers’ and Gordon Conway’s classic IDS discussion paper of 1991, which was followed by my 1998 paper (now 25 years old!) that proposed a Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, based on work on-going at the time with colleagues in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali, and led by Jeremy Swift.

These perspectives contributed to a major change in aid programming and funding approaches, and many agencies adopted various forms of a ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’. There followed multiple responses: huge numbers of studies, consultancies, trainings and communications efforts, as the interest in livelihoods approaches took hold.

But what has happened since? ‘Livelihoods’ is no longer the buzzword. The fickle faddism of development has been taken over by others since. Even at IDS, where much of the thinking that led to the approach originated, ‘sustainable livelihoods’ barely appears in the curriculum. Most of our students have never even heard of the approach and not read the papers and books associated with it. This may not matter as the same ideas are being invented in new guises, but sometimes genealogies of ideas are important and we can all learn from past debates.

In my view, the underlying arguments of livelihoods analyses still have relevance, perhaps more so as the interconnections between different ways of making a living are increasingly important, as I discussed in a 2009 paper and reinforced in an excellent new edited collection Livelihoods in the Global South.

The message of the ‘small book’ – Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development (now available open access in English, and also translated into multiple languages, see below) – is clear: livelihoods approaches are an essential lens on questions of rural development, poverty and wellbeing, but these need to be situated in a better understanding of the political economy of agrarian change.

Power and political economy: extending the livelihoods approach

Some of the very legitimate critiques of the early versions of the sustainable livelihoods framework – and particularly the versions that were adapted for use by development agencies – focused on the lack of attention to politics, power and political economy. Some argued that the approach was too deterministic and too technocratic and contestation, dispute and patterns of winners and losers were not made clear. Politics of course appeared in discussions of the ‘institutions and organisations’ acting as mediating between resources and activities, and so affecting outcomes; but in many of the more operational applications, this element became side-lined in favour of a rather mechanistic institutional or policy design focus, rather than attention to the contestations around access and control, as originally intended.

The ‘small book’ therefore aimed to link the original framework with a wider concern with agrarian political economy, making politics, power and control central. The result was an extended framework diagram, articulating key questions in agrarian political economy. Following Henry Bernstein (and his superb book in the same ‘small books for big ideas’ series – Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change), four core questions are asked:

  • Who owns what (or who has access to what)? This relates to questions of property and ownership of livelihood assets and resources.
  • Who does what? This relates to the social divisions of labour, the distinctions between those employing and employed, as well as to divisions based on gender and age.
  • Who gets what? This relates to questions of income and assets, and patterns of accumulation over time, and so to processes of social and economic differentiation.
  • What do they do with it? This relates to the array of livelihood strategies and their consequences as reflected in patterns of consumption, social reproduction, savings and investment.

In addition to these four, we can add two more, both focused on the social and ecological challenges that characterise contemporary societies:

  • How do social classes and groups in society and within the State interact with each other? This focuses on the social relations, institutions and forms of domination in society and between citizens and the State as they affect livelihoods.
  • How are changes in politics shaped by dynamic ecologies and vice versa? This relates to questions of political ecology, and to how environmental dynamics influence livelihoods. These in turn are shaped by livelihood activities through patterns of resource access and entitlement.

Taken together, these six questions – all central to critical agrarian and environmental studies – provide an excellent starting point for any analysis when seeking to link rural livelihoods with the political economy of agrarian change in any setting. The ‘extended livelihoods framework’ offers a way into such an analysis.

Long-term, historical patterns of structurally-defined relations of power between social groups are central, as are processes of economic and political control by the state and other powerful actors, together with differential patterns of production, accumulation, investment and reproduction across society. Such an analysis allows analysis to move beyond mere empirical description of multiple cases to explanations rooted in understandings of wider structural relations, patterns and processes.

A differentiated and longitudinal approach

Taking a differentiated view of rural livelihoods in any context, we see that rural dwellers may be farmers, workers, traders, brokers, transporters, carers and others, with links spread across the urban–rural divide. Classes are not unitary, naturalised or static. Given this diversity of hybrid livelihood strategies and class identities, accumulation—and, therefore, social differentiation and class formation—takes place through a complex, relational dynamic over time.

Indeed, only with a longitudinal perspective, rooted in an understanding of the political economy of agrarian change, can longer-term trajectories of livelihoods be discerned. Rural livelihoods are not isolated and independent, amenable to narrow development interventions, but tied to what is happening elsewhere, both locally and more broadly.

As we discuss in the podcast, a wider political economy perspective is therefore essential for any effective livelihoods analysis, and indeed for any development intervention. And it’s for this reason that I think livelihoods analysis – allied and integrated with other perspectives – remains important today.

You can read the short book in different languages, which are available via the following links (a Chinese version is coming soon…):

English: (including OPEN ACCESS)






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

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