Tag Archives: Africa Research Institute

Land, livelihoods and small towns

In early June, I was invited by the Africa Research Institute in London to a panel discussion held to launch a new ARI Counterpoints piece by Beacon Mbiba on ‘missing urbanisation’ in Zimbabwe. Beacon’s piece raised some important questions about how urban areas are defined, and how many urban people there are. As part of a wider debate about the dynamics of urbanisation in Africa – which Debbie Potts has provocatively contributed in a number of articles, including another ARI Counterpoints issue – the question of numbers and geographic boundaries is important – and has significant implications for planning and politics.

In my talk, I focused instead on the underlying processes of livelihood change that might reveal rather different numbers – if they could be counted accurately. I argued that the conception and the role of ‘the urban’ in people’s lives is changing following land reform, especially in rural areas.

The session was chaired by Edward Paice, and involved Beacon Mbiba (Oxford Brookes), Jo McGregor (Sussex) and myself. An audio version is available online if you want to have a listen. This is my presentation – slightly elaborated from my notes – picking up from the earlier Zimbabweland blog series on small towns in particular.

Land reform and small towns

Following land reform in 2000, there were major changes in production, economic activity and settlement – and with these largely rural changes there have been big changes in urban centres – very often small towns – near new resettlements. This I would argue has gone largely unresearched and unnoticed – partly because of the ways urban areas and people are demarcated, classified and counted.

Over last few years, we have been studying three such small towns (all featured in earlier blogs):

  • Mvurwi (in Mazowe district, formerly servicing large-scale white farming, a farm labour settlement, now at the centre of a booming smallholder led tobacco growing area),
  • Chatsworth (in Gutu, a railway siding, and again in the centre of what was large-scale farms, now surrounding by land reform areas producing maize, vegetables and other ag commodities) and
  • Maphisa (in Matabeleland South, Matobo district, again in a reconfigured rural area, including resettlements and an ARDA farm with a recent JV investment).

According to very outdated hierarchical urban planning classifications, of these, only Mvurwi is classified as ‘urban’ according to ZIMSTATS. Chatsworth and Maphisa (formerly a TILCOR town) are ‘growth points’.

All these small towns in rural areas have some common features in the 17 years since land reform:

  • Significantly increased resident populations (Mvurwi was up by 6,000 to the 2012 census)
  • A massive increase in stands, a building boom (tripled high and medium density stands in all towns, with many more pegged)
  • A rapid growth in business activity, especially of small enterprises – many linked to agriculture (market vendors, grocery stores, butcheries, hardware stores – as well as grinding mills, carpentry/building, welding, tailoring, hair salons, photocopy shops, phone card vendors, and, and, and….)
  • Many more transport connections and operators (kombis, small trucks)

And, on the negative side, there has been the closing down of some large businesses (some banks and companies formerly servicing large-scale farms, for example), and a serious decline in public services and state investment in urban infrastructure in all three cases.

Big changes in small towns: four themes

Noting these changes, and the links to land reform resettlement areas, we have asked, what shifts are important in understanding the changing role of rural small towns? I want to highlight four themes:

    1. Business opportunities. There is now money in the rural economy from agriculture on land reform farms (mostly A1). This includes cash from sales of tobacco (Mvurwi), horticulture (Chatsworth), and livestock (Maphisa). The dynamism of many local economies linked to A1 resettlements is there for anyone to see. Many of these flows of cash are seasonal – and today seriously affected by cash crisis, although the shift to e-commerce has been swift – but the overall volumes are significant. The result is what economists call linkage and multiplier effects: demand for services, inputs etc., especially agriculture related business, including transport, equipment, seed, fertiliser and so on.
    2. New people in town. In the past such commercial activity in such towns was dominated by large businesses. They were places where you might get a job or they were residential areas for farm workers or civil servants. Workers on farms would come to shop after being paid. Today, there are multiple small businesses. These are especially important for youth and women, and those who didn’t get land through land reform. Such activities are fragile, informal and risky, but offering a livelihood, and employing one or two others, generating overall considerable economic activity. For example: across our three cases, since land reform in 2000 up to 2016, there are five times as many hardware stores, 4 x grocery stores, 4 x food outlets, 3 x butcheries, 2 x bottle stores, 5 x numbers of market vendors and so on. And there are also new outside investors, including ‘black’ capital, as well as Indian, Chinese, and other investors, not seen in these towns before.
    3. Housing. There has been a massive expansion of low and medium density housing. There’s been a huge building boom (and yes, with this, opportunities for corruption and patronage, but not quite like Harare peripheries described by Jo McGregor’s research). In Mvurwi, 2000 low density and 750 medium density stands have been established since 2000. Many investors are land reform farmers and traders in agricultural commodities. Those linked to land reform sites are the new landlords, putting up the teachers, nurses and other civil servants. The period therefore has seen shifts in economic and class relations, and patterns of accumulation, as people invest in real estate from farming.
    4.  Infrastructure and planning. Basic services, infrastructure and planning is not keeping up with this rapid pace of change. Lack of state capacity and investment really shows in all our sites. Sewage, electrical supply and roads, for example, are all in a poor state. Local government is in a mess, but there is a new rural-urban politics emerging, as people demand that the state responds.

Rethinking rural-urban relations

Overall, I see a changing role of ‘town’. In the past, the classic pattern of southern African circular migration existed. Men went to work, usually somewhere distant; they remitted funds home, and then later retired to the rural communal home. This no longer happens, at least not in the same way.

Now ‘town’ is closer to the rural (small towns are where the action is, with better transport costs driving down local prices), people shuttle between houses in town and on the farms and families are split and mobile (seasonally, but also even daily – there are always full kombis coming to and from the farms).

To my mind, this makes the question of residence on a snapshot census almost meaningless! In my view, then, instead of worrying about the numbers or the classification of what is and isn’t a town, it’s better to invest in understanding the changing spatial dynamics of livelihoods – patterns of settlement, production, investment, accumulation – and so the changing relationships between urban and rural.

This requires a radical rethink of local government, service provision, infrastructure investment and economic and spatial planning. Throw out old colonial planning models, and redesign statistical data collection to fit new contexts.

I have long argued for a more regional spatial perspective to planning and development, incorporating the reconfigured rural areas and linking to urban areas, of all types. Local economic development is happening, but is not coordinated, supported and made the most of, due to the fragmented, dysfunctional nature of state (and private, NGO, and donor) support. Making this happen will of course require a functioning bureaucratic state, along with economic and political stability. This sadly still seems far off.

In the meantime, people will get on with their lives, refashioning urban and rural spaces, and the relationships between in ways that the planning textbooks and the census data just simply do not reveal.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Reviving indigenous crops: the return of millet in Gutu

A new report is just out making the case for the revival of indigenous crops – notably finger millet – as a way of tackling food security. The author, Chidara Muchineripi, is a management consultant in Harare, but also the son of a chief in Gutu. Since 2005, he has encouraged the revival in millet growing across Gutu as a response to drought and economic crisis.

This has all been done without external support and finance, and demonstrates what’s possible when the motivation is right. According to the report the growing of a core crop of millet has resulted in the accumulation of some 20,000 tonnes of stored grain, across 40,000 households. This provides a source of resilience against future shocks, improving the sustainability of livelihoods in the district.

It all sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately I missed the launch of the report in London, and I have not been able to visit the areas in Gutu (clearly the effort is focused outside the new resettlement areas, as the farmers in our sample in Gutu are sticking solidly to maize), but the data is impressive, and the testimony passionate.

But there are questions about the indigenous grain strategy being advocated. I speak from experience, as in the 1980s, together with an NGO ENDA Zimbabwe, I was involved in a project that promoted small grains – finger and pearl millet, and sorghum – in Zvishavane district. The project supplied seeds, and supported the processing of the grains with the provision of ‘dehullers’. While it did make some in-roads, by and large the project failed. The dehullers are now archaeological relics and most farmers in the area plant maize.

Why was this? There are a number of complex intersecting reasons. First, growing millet is hard work. Finger millet is a difficult crop and pearl millet is subject to massive bird damage, from flocks of Quelea who descend in large numbers on any field. This is a big turn-off, as bird scaring is labour consuming and troublesome. Older farmers used to tell us that the problem is worse because millet fileds are now few. Being a first mover growing millet is brave. Second, millets take a lot of processing. The hard outer layer has to be removed to get the flour – hence the dehullers. Without these, it’s tough pounding, and much more difficult to prepare than women. In discussions around the ENDA project, women always used to object. They didn’t want the hassle of going to the fields early and staying late – they had other caring work to do too – to scare the birds, and pounding for hours to get a few kilogrammes of millet flour was not worth the effort in their view. Finger millet in particular was not liked by women, as it encouraged beer drinking. While men would get quite motivated about millets in the discussions, it was women who often dominated the planting decisions, and it was striking that there was always much less millet planted than was discussed. In intrahousehold decision-making, women’s agency can be quite powerful. Third, is taste. Finger millet is good for beer, but many find the ‘sadza’ porridge of pearl or finger millet less a delicacy as is suggested in the new Harare ‘African’ restaurants. With the colour and consistency of concrete, pearl millet sadza is not my favourite food either! Several generations of people accustomed to easting white maize means that sadza from millet is difficult to sell (although it’s quite nice with soured milk I must admit!).

So there are reasons why adoption of millet is constrained. But the advantages of secure storage, as documented in Gutu, are potentially substantial. Millet stores well – for years. Unlike maize that needs to be consumed within a year, you can keep a granary full of millet over a full drought cycle. In the past, rainfall was patterned by cycles of a few years, with droughts coming more or less predictably. Having millet stores for the times when rain was less was essential for food security, and the store could be replenished when the rains returned. It was a perfect system for local level resilience. But with the move to maize, and the advent of food aid and relief programmes, these cycles have been disrupted. Climate change too has had an impact, as droughts are much more unpredictable these days, even if average rainfall has not shifted much.

In the areas I have worked in Masvingo and Midlands provinces, a key moment in this transition in the food crop mix and local food security system, was the devastating drought of 1991-92. This had a catastrophic impact on many fronts, and many were reliant on food aid through imports. Perhaps the most dramatic impact for the long-term was the disappearance of local varieties and land races, particularly of small grains. People had to plant their last seed stores, and when they didn’t grow, that meant the local extinction of a huge array of genetic variety, and with it the knowledge of what grows well where. A number of research and NGO projects – most notably the Community Technology Development Trust, whose head Andrew Mushita is a veteran of the ENDA experience – have tried to document and revive this genetic biodiversity, but with it lost from the farming and livelihood system, it is difficult to reincorporate.

Around that time, as part of a wider project on risk and farming systems, we did some modelling of risk responses under different conditions. Like all models it was only an interpretation of reality, but the approach used tried to simulate the type of stochastic variability seen in an increasingly volatile climate. The results were surprising. Despite the greater vulnerability to low rainfall episodes, a maize dominated strategy came out better than one focused on small grains in the model. This was because of the costs of production, and the value of maize. As long as this value (in the form of grain or cash) could be carried over to the following year, opting for risky maize made sense especially for the poor.

Farmers didn’t need a model to show them this – and especially women, for the reasons described – but it highlighted how complex decision-making under conditions of high variability is. As the model showed, mixed strategies made the most sense, with a smaller amount of millet as part of a mix. As the maize economy came under stress in the 2000s with the failure of markets, and government support through the Grain Marketing Board, new incentives to secure food locally emerged. In this period, for the first time in decades, the political and economic support for maize had disappeared. And without state support and the absence of a cash market because of hyperinflation, the maize reliance strategy became much riskier, and a local production system became preferable.

I suspect it’s a combination of these factors have pushed farmers in Gutu to take up millet again at the peak of the economic crisis. These were very different conditions to those in the late 1980s, when the earlier millet focused strategies foundered. Context matters a lot, and it is a combination of factors – markets, taste preferences, labour requirements and the wider political economy of crop support – that combine to make one technology more or less favourable. Maybe the experiences from Gutu suggest that the age of millets are returning, and we will have to get used to a different type of sadza.

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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