Tag Archives: agriculture

The future of medium-scale commercial farms in Africa: lessons from Zimbabwe


Important changes are afoot in the size structure of farms in Africa. The rise of ‘medium-scale’ farms is often pointed to. From studies in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and elsewhere, carried out by Michigan State University, a pattern of consolidation of land holdings is observed, with an increasing proportion held in medium-sized farms, owned often by ‘outsiders’ to local peasant farming communities – including retirees, local investors and urbanites wanting a foothold in the countryside.

These people are investing in this new farmland, and sometimes (but far from always) making it more productive, and commercially-oriented. In Ghana and Zambia, for example, such medium-scale farms now account for more land area than small-scale (under 5 ha) farms (see new work by Thom Jayne and colleagues, for example here, here,  here and here). Land concentration in such farms, under new ownership and land tenure arrangements, occurs through different routes – either through accumulation of land by those who earlier had smaller plots via local land markets, or acquisition of land by ‘outsiders’ through political and other connections.

Patterns vary across countries and locations within them, and the MSU studies are rather crude relying as they do on existing datasets, taking a huge range (from 5 to 100 ha) to constitute ‘medium-scale’. Farm size survey data too can only tell us so much. While such data indicate an important shift in overall pattern, the implications for the dynamics of rural class formation, labour regimes, gender relations patterns of dispossession and displacement, markets in land and agricultural commodities, for example, are not revealed. This is why complementary in-depth analysis is required, that probes the implications further.

In our studies in Zimbabwe, we are examining the fate of A2 farms, where allocations of land following the 2000 land reform ranged from 20 ha to upwards of 500 ha in drier parts of the country, with an average of around 70 ha. As discussed in previous blogs, this has resulted in a major restructuring of farm sizes and overall agrarian structure in the country, with this category of ‘medium-scale’ farm being significant, and by comparison to the old dualism of the large-scale and small-scale communal sector a new phenomenon. Although as the previous weeks have discussed, while not on the scale of A2 farming areas (representing now nearly 2 million ha or about 6 percent of the country’s land area), former ‘purchase areas’ or small-scale commercial farm areas (around 1.4 m ha or 4.4 percent of total land area) offer some hints as to some of the future challenges of broadly-defined ‘medium-scale’ commercial farming.

In our studies, highlighted in the case studies covered last week, we found four possible outcomes emerging over time in the former Purchase Areas, highlighted to varying degrees in the case studies presented in the last blog in this series.

  • The ‘villagised farm’. Here the land is seen as belonging to a family, across generations. Children can establish homes, often across several families, and a village area is created. Sometimes these family units operate independently and have their own patches within the farm where they cultivated; in other cases they contribute collectively to what is usually the fathers’ farm. His brothers, sons, and their wives and children, all provide a collective labour force. Some members of these families may not be resident, and may work elsewhere, but they regard the farm as ‘home’ and do not have other residences in the communal areas (although some joined land invasions and gained land through land reform). These villages – formerly seen as ‘squatter’ settlements – may include others, incorporated into the farm over time, such as labourers, or other relatives and their families. Over years, numbers can increase significantly. In our study areas in Mushagashe, we estimated that on one farm of this type there were perhaps nearly 50 living there, including at least 8 ‘households’, and several families of workers. Some sons without jobs stay on the farm with their families, while others who are working away have homes where sometime wives and children stay.
  • The commercial farm. This is the imagined ideal, and sometimes occurs. But often only in certain time periods, linked to generational changes. As mentioned in a previous blog, in the late 50s and early 60s, some Purchase Area farms operated as serious commercial enterprises. Their owners were resident, often retired, but not too old to run and manage a farm. In subsequent years, the commercial orientation died off, as older parents no longer could manage the farms, and sons and other relatives were not around to reinvest. However a generation on, these sons are now moving back to these farms. The economic crisis of the 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s meant that abandoning jobs in town, such as poorly paid civil service employment, and taking up farming was attractive, even if the family farm was remote and often by this stage run down. Limited retrenchment packages may have assisted, but after a period in the doldrums some farms are seeing a revival. Commercial farming in this scenario is not a life-long investment, but something that happens at a certain life stage, and is intimately linked to fortunes in the world of urban work, or patterns of income from remittances, now spread across an increasingly global diaspora.
  • Subdivision. Rather than reinvesting and scaling up, some choose to subdivide and sell off. This may prevent the possibilities of villagisation, and the often troublesome reliance of potentially endless relatives, sometimes with remote connections seeking out a ‘family’ farm as a place of refuge and support – and a place to farm. If sons (usually, rarely daughters in our case studies) are not able to come ‘home’ and farm commercially, then raising income through the land market can provide a source of income. This mirrors the period in the 1950s when fragmentation of farms occurred and squatters were evicted. This also happens today and, although there are often family disputes over whether the farm can be sold (either completely or in part), the use of title deeds (very often not touched for decades, and often formally invalid because not updated in the registry) can provide a route to realise the value of the family asset. Disputes emerge among family members especially if there are some siblings who are resident at the farm, and do not have jobs. Many Purchase Area farmers’ children however are well-educated, and part of the increasingly international Zimbabwean middle class. Like their parents, they were educated in the elite schools of the late colonial/early Independence area, which were as good as any in the region. With such qualifications, access to skilled job markets were plentiful and they ended up comfortably in jobs in Harare, but also Johannesburg, Cape Town, Gabarone, London and Birmingham (with not a few academics amongst their number). While the family farm has an emotional appeal, the idea of going to farm there like their parents did is not on the radar; and their children ion turn may have visited for a few Christmases as kids but have no intention of starting a rural life.
  • Projectising the farm. For those who are absent, and with parents still alive and living on the farm, there is one common option that emerges, as we have seen in the case studies profiled last week. This is to ‘projectise’ the farm. Discrete projects are envisaged, and invested in. These commonly involve livestock, with dairy, piggeries and poultry projects common in our study areas. Sometimes these projects are financed by NGOs and aid projects, as part of ‘development’ activities; more commonly they are self-financed, with funds coming via Western Union from the UK or elsewhere. These remittance investments need some management and if the parents are not up to it, local people are employed as resident farm managers. Some are able to raise external loans and finance by virtue of their jobs, and in a few cases joint venture/partnership arrangements are brokered with external investors. The trouble with most Purchase Areas is that road and market infrastructure is poor, and the costs of marketing is high, making commercial agriculture tough going. The projects that we have seen break even just, but are backstopped by external finance if the going gets tough. This allows sons, but in this case also daughters, to have a stake in the family farm, but without committing to run it. The areas used and the scale of operations invested in are often very small. They provide a small supplement to keep their now ageing parents in groceries and allows for the paying of school fees of some poorer relatives who may be resident at the farm. Most importantly such projects keep a psychological link with ‘home’, and a sense of commitment and belonging, however limited. This is far from the image of the commercial farm, merely a collection of projects, with focused investments, on a farm that otherwise has limited activity – with some mixed farming and some gardens, but little else. Similar in many ways to the Purchase Area farms of the past that were accused of not being the images of modernity that were planned.

There may be other patterns and trajectories that we have not yet picked up, but these four are repeated in varying combinations across the study areas where we have been working in Masvingo Province. Are these potential scenarios for the A2 farms, and for the much touted medium scale farming more broadly across Africa? In many ways, I suspect they offer important glimpses of potential futures. As the diagram below, at least four different scenarios could be envisaged, depending on patterns of financing and farm productivity.


Only one of these is ‘proper’ commercial farming, as envisaged by planners and policymakers. The others respond to changing life cycles and demographic shifts, as well as the inevitable shift to urban and even diaspora life as people become educated, and gain opportunities elsewhere. In many ways these are more realistic, and represent accommodations between farming, life cycles and livelihoods. The Zimbabwe case is of course peculiar as the economic hardships over several decades – from structural adjustment (ESAP) in the 1990s to the economic crisis of the 2000s, returning again today – have meant that urban employment as a focus for accumulation and social reproduction is often not feasible. Many flee the country in search of a better life, but this does not always turn out well. So perhaps unusually the attraction of a farm – a place to live, to call home, to invest in and be part of – is more prominent for Zimbabweans today.

Although the A2 farms have failed to take off in ways that were hoped for, maybe this is because of false expectations and misplaced assumptions about what land is for and what farming entails. Farming has always been part of diversified urban-rural livelihoods, now increasingly internationalised. Of course this applied to so-called ‘white’ farming too, but in different ways. The imagined ideal of the sole owner-operator of an individual farm, always resident and doing nothing but farming was very rare indeed.

My guess is that, if like the SSCFAs, the A2 farms are neglected in policymaking and not made the focus of local and regional economic growth strategies, with secure tenure, finance and basic public good investment (which currently seems likely given the lack of policy imagination in government, the failure of donors to grasp the challenge and so a complete lack of finance), then in 20 years, these scenarios seen today in the former Purchase Areas are quite likely in the A2 areas. If you go to visit the farms in a former Purchase Area today, you could be seeing the future of the A2 farms in a generation’s time.

Indeed, nearly 17 years after land reform, we see many of these patterns already – with small villages of relatives, large under-used areas complemented with small, intensive projects, and informal subdivisions, rentals, and joint ventures/partnerships emerging attempting to get things moving. Perhaps by reversing the policy neglect, and getting the A2 farms moving (and this will require a shake out with a politically-contentious audit process), more vibrant, productive commercial trajectories will be possible, but these too will have to accommodate changing demographics, diverse livelihoods, and shifting aspirations.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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“No condition is permanent”: small-scale commercial farming in Zimbabwe


In this week’s blog, I want to present two cross-generational case studies of Purchase Area (now small-scale farming area) farms, based on interviews carried out earlier this year in Mushagashe and Dewure SSCFAs in Masvingo Province. They are not in any way representative, but they do show in particular the generational shifts in patterns of production and accumulation, and the shifting relationship between land, as somewhere to produce and somewhere to live and call home. Questions of identity – and what it means to be a ‘farmer’ – are raised, as are issues around both gender and generation in commercial agriculture. Overall, the lack of a linear process of evolutionary change, and the complex social dynamics of agrarian relations are highlighted.

Case 1: Interview with Mr MM, Mushagashe SSFCA, Masvingo Province

“My father bought the land in 1932. He was working as a cook at Gokomere mission. He had no land in the reserves. He came with some relatives. He used cattle to buy the 132 ha farm from the commercial farm – equivalent to £90. There were three commercial farms subdivided for the Purchase Areas, all owned by whites. I was born here in 1939. We got title deeds later, but they are no use. There was a deed transfer to my older brother when my father passed away.

My father sold crops to European traders. There was a Greek based at Zimuto, and he moved in a huge ox wagon, buying grain, exchanging for sugar. We sold cattle to the whites who had farms near here. Our education came from farming. I was boarded at Gokomere to standard 6 aged 17. I then worked as a policeman in Zambia during the federation. I came back in 72, and worked at Triangle sugar estates in security/loss control.

My father died in 1975. He had two wives, and they all farmed together. My three brothers all stayed here, with their wives and families. I set up home here after I returned, while living in Triangle. I bought cattle then, which were herded with the others’ animals.

Today we grow maize, wheat, groundnuts and have about 20 cattle. One person is employed as a herder. These days we only farm about 3 ha; before it was more like 8 ha. We have a garden area for groundnuts and some vegetables, some of which are sold locally. The rest of the farm is grazing. We sometimes have relatives who leave their animals here, but we also have a lot of problems with neigbours’ cattle and those coming from the research station. We have a boundary fence but no paddocks, but the fence is not well repaired. We have one borehole but there’s limited supply, just enough for drinking water. These days, people are no longer interested in farming. You sell things but get no cash. I sold two tonnes last year, but nothing. We get no loans, and there is no irrigation. We survive off El Nino!

I have 8 kids, and all the sons have land here. All my kids went to Gokomere after going to local primary near here. Some are working away, but they have homes here, and their wives and younger kids are around. It is a large extended family and my wife and my sons’ wives work together. My eldest has a separate homestead and fields as part of the farm, but it is all part of the same community. We all work together. As you see there are many houses in this compound. One of my sons got resettlement land long back as part of the government programme, but it’s nearby and we seem them here too. Around here, people didn’t join the recent land reform (jambanja, land invasions). We are not involved as they are in the communal. There is supposed to be no politics here. They used to ban sabhukus (headmen) in this area. We have to say that government is just not interested in us here; they don’t even come and repair the road. There are no loans, no help. The nearest clinics are at Makoholi and Gokomere, and the schools are far too. We are on our own.”

Case 2: Interview with Mr FM, Dewure East SSCFA, Masvingo Province

“My father and mother acquired the 90 ha farm in 1957. They came from Bikita communal area. Both were teachers and both were successful Master Farmers. My father resigned from teaching soon after getting the farm, and went into building contracting. He later left that business to concentrate on farming. My mother also resigned as a teacher to commit to farming. They worked very closely together; they were both excellent farmers.

In 1957, they came with 3 kids, including myself, aged one. They had a total of 8 children: 2 boys and 6 girls. My eldest sister is married in the farm area, and lives locally; others are teachers (one a lecturer at Masvingo Teachers’ College, another a headmaster in the UK), and two worked on their own businesses (one now late). My late sister and I worked with government in agriculture (extension and research), and we had agricultural diplomas. We were all well-educated at boarding schools. My parents were totally committed to education.

In the past, my father kept a lot of livestock: about 40 cattle and 30-40 goats. There were also donkeys for transport, pigs and lots of poultry. We sold lots of milk, eggs, chickens, pig meat and so on. We used to have around 10 milking cows at any time. Soured milk was prepared, and sold to mission schools. We also had a programme of pen fattening of cattle, and sold 3-4 at a time too. This income from livestock was the big contribution to the education of all of us kids. We all went to boarding schools.

Manure from the cattle on the poor sandy soils in this area was crucial. In the 1960s about 20 ha was cropped, but today it’s only 6 ha. We used to do commercial horticulture, selling far and wide, but now there’s just some gardens around the home. We used to have three permanent employees, and hired lots of people for piece work. We are just by the communal areas, and Bikita is about 20-30 kms away. Yes we have problems from the communal areas, but they are our neighbours, and the source of farm labour.

Back then, we grew a lot of pearl millet. Maybe 15 tonnes in a year. We would spend three weeks threshing and then brewing. The beer would pay for labour. We had lots of humwes (work parties) on the farm, with up to 12 spans rotating between farms. People would come from as far as Chivi for the pearl millet. Rapoko (finger millet) was sold locally. Maize was also grown, and my father won prizes as a maize grower. Later, he moved into cotton growing, selling to Kadoma, until prices dropped. Groundnuts were focused on by my mother. They had a market, and there were approved buyers who came from the townships. This was good cash income for the family.

In those days, we never had a tractor, but had 3-4 ploughs. Because of having plenty of draft animals and collective work parties, a tractor wasn’t needed. We had scotch carts, planters, water carts and so on. My father also never had a car – but we had a donkey cart that went as far as Nyika!

But as time went on, the kids left home and went and did their own thing. My parents became old and could not manage the farm as they did before. The hectarage declined, and my parents relied more and more on cash we sent back. We visited but we all rather forgot the farm. There was no cash reinjected into the farm. People were all over, and had other things to focus on. My elder brother was in the UK; kids had to have university fees paid and so on.

My father is now late, and my mother very old and frail. My older brother has no interest in the farm, but I now want to come back and do something commercial here. I have got a sugar plot in Hippo Valley and a house in Masvingo urban, but I no longer work for government, so can be flexible. I have been looking around for water. We have to move from dryland farming. Irrigation projects are the only solution. But I have not had luck with the boreholes that have been sunk; in all cases the yields have been poor. I now have a decent deep well, and I will put a borehole near the river for a small irrigation plot and watering of livestock.

We now have 10 cattle, and the herd is growing again. I have another three at my sister’s place nearby. Earlier this year, I sold four to buy a kombi. I have employed two permanent workers, who look after the place when I am not here. One works in the fields and one oversees the grinding mill. I want to focus on commercial horticulture, not maize for sale. Nyika is 27 km away on a poor road, so it has to be worth it. Currently we sell groundnuts and nyimo.

Yes, I have plans. But water and markets are key – plus money to invest. But I am hoping to come and live here and make things happen!”


These two cases show the changing fortunes of commercial agriculture. As Sara Berry commented in the wonderful book, ‘No Condition is Permanent:

“Agricultural intensification has been neither inevitable nor continuous in African farming systems. In some areas, intensification was halted or reversed by changing environmental or political and economic conditions; in others, it has occurred not as an adaptive response to population growth or commercialisation, but in the face of growing labour shortages and declining commercial activity. Such cases underscore the importance of studying farming as a dynamic social process. As farmers contend with social as well as environmental conditions, changes occur not only in what is produced and how much, but also in when work is done and by whom. Thus changes in cropping patters and methods of cultivation are influenced by social factors which govern the timing as well as the mounts of labour devoted to farming, as well as the control of effort and output….Variations in the pace and/or direction of agricultural intensification are occasioned not only be exogenous events, such as war and peace, drought or flood, but also by changes in the production dynamics of particular crops” (Berry 1993: 189, 186).

She was talking about the agricultural histories of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia, but she could as well have been talking about Zimbabwe’s Purchase Areas. No condition is ever permanent, but understanding the social dynamics of agrarian change is essential. As I discuss next week, these longitudinal insights from the Purchase Areas may reveal something about how policy addresses the A2 medium-scale commercial farms created through land reform, offering notes of risk and caution, as well as hints at new opportunities.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Medium-scale farming for Africans: The ‘Native Purchase Areas’ in Zimbabwe


The Native Purchase Areas were established as a result of the 1930 Land Apportionment Act, following the recommendations of the 1925 Morris Carter Commission. They were designed as compensation for the fact that Africans were not allowed to purchase land elsewhere. These were areas that had mostly been farmed by early settlers before the colony’s land was carved up into racial designations. Africans were given the option of buying newly demarcated properties, but the land was often in remote areas and of poor quality.

The Purchase Areas were slow to become established, as these were often in remote areas, without infrastructure. At Independence around 10,000 households had settled on around 1.4 m hectares, falling far short of the earlier promises of 50,000 Africans with freehold title. The vast majority of the acquisitions were by men, although some women did manage to buy independently, despite many obstacles. Initially, those living in the ‘native reserves’ were reluctant to shift, as the successful “reserve entrepreneurs” (as Terry Ranger called them for Makoni) had land, labour and markets where they already lived. Urban-based Africans, such as government clerks or messengers, were also encouraged to sign up, but again many sensed the leap into the unknown was too risky, as they after all already had rural homes in the ‘reserves’. The depression of the 1930s, put the squeeze on incomes, and few had the income or cattle to purchase land.

By the 1940s, the Purchase Areas were often criticised for being poor, backward, wasteful and inefficient. Rather than intensified production, extensification of low productivity mixed farms, opportunistic use of wetland ‘patches’ and resource extraction (of wood for timber and fuel) were the main trends, as described for Marirangwe by Allison Shutt. Many Purchase Area land owners were ‘absentee farmers’, and according to officials, were not taking care of their properties. They accumulated, but not in ways that the planners hoped. The commentary on both production efficiency and environmental degradation, peaking with the 1942 Natural Resources Board Inquiry, was damning. These were not the envisaged modern, commercial farming areas. Instead they were second homes of often urban employed Africans, where farming was a side-line. A few relatives and often a lot of cattle from the reserves, and as a source of saving from urban wages, were deposited there, and homes were used during vacations rather than as a permanent base for a farming operation. Today, the ‘cell phone farmers’ of the A2 resettlements are cast in a similar light.

Again – as with the A2 farms today – there were exceptions, including Purchase Area farm owners in Mshagashe near Masvingo hiring labour contractors and engaging in destocking auctions, as Allison Shutt describes. Some farmers later became members of Intensive Conservation Areas, presenting themselves as guardians of the land and conservationists, like white farmers. But the general narrative at the time (very similar to today) was that allocating medium-scale farms to inexperienced, unqualified, often absent, urban-based Africans was not a good move, if agricultural modernisation and production was the aim, and attempts at eviction and control were common (see for example cases from Marirangwe).

After the Second World War, more families acquired farms. The earlier reticence changed to an enthusiasm for social and economic transformation, realised by access to a farm – just like white farmers (although of course not as big, or in such favourable areas). As described by Michael West, this was part of a pattern of (highly selective) “racial uplift” – some educated Africans were favoured by the colonial authorities and given such benefits. Terry Ranger’s fascinating biography of the Samkange family is a case in point, with the purchase of the Mzengezi farm a key moment in the family’s history. Gaining access to purchase area land was a critical aspect of shifting identities of an educated African middle class, straddling urban and rural areas.

As Allison Shutt puts it: “the Purchase Areas offered privacy, a measure of respect from the colonial government, and a symbolic separateness from African cultivators in the reserves and from lower-paid workers”. This was reinforced in the 1950s when, following the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951, freehold title was offered. Again in the discourse of the time (persisting today in all sorts of unhelpful ways), freehold was the ultimate form of ownership, linked to a certain ideology and pattern of accumulation, as Angela Cheater describes. This was the pinnacle of modernity, otherwise only available to whites; and something allowing independence and autonomy, not feasible in the reserves, or even in most urban settings.

From the mid-1950s, those who acquired farms a few decades before retired to their farms. This was a moment when more commercialisation took place. The areas were now occupied and land extensification and high stocking rates were no longer as feasible. Tobacco and cotton became favoured crops, linked to new commercial value chains. For the first time the freehold titles acquired more than symbolic benefit, and loans were offered against the title as collateral for the first time. Farms were more assertively demarcated, with fences put up to keep out the neighbours from the reserves. The state invested more attention to these areas, improving infrastructure, providing finance and offering technical support. Realising the threats of growing nationalism, perhaps especially among the educated African elite who had been initially attracted to the Purchase Areas, these became a focus for political and administrative attention, after years of neglect.

With title deeds came a period of land sales and fragmentation of farms, as plots were sold off. This provided important revenues for some, securing retirement on their smaller farms. Also, with increasing intensification of production, there came the need for labour. Those designated as ‘squatters’ were crucial. As Angela Cheater describes for Msengezi, these included a wide range of people, including extended family members, peasants from the reserves, migrant labourers and others. Subdivision of land also meant that relatives – usually sons – could be passed on land, and a new generation took ownership. Land rentals also increased, as demand for land – including from ‘squatters’ – grew. The growing population of people and continued land rental and subdivision in the Purchase Areas was however frowned on. These areas were not becoming medium-scale commercial farms, but just ‘like the reserves’, officials complained. Again with echoes of the discourse today around resettlement land, the push was for a modernised vision of agriculture dominated. However, despite the admonishments, the mid-late 1950s and early 1960s, saw a brief period of prosperity in the Purchase Areas. Land sales and rentals, some cash crop production, continued resource extraction, and plentiful cheap labour (from ‘squatters’), ensured farming generated decent returns for the now resident, retired owners of these farms.

By the mid-60s, and especially with the declaration of UDI, this changed again. Shifts in the political climate, intensifying during the liberation war, saw the decline in state support to these areas. They were often seen with suspicion by security forces and intelligence agents, as places of nationalist organising and dissent. With Independence, nothing much changed. The SSCFAs as they were now called were seen as an anomaly of the colonial era, and the state’s efforts were focused on the former reserves, now communal areas, where the majority of poor people lived. Apart from some resettlement the ‘commercial’ farm areas were large-scale and predominantly white-owned, at least until the major land reform of the 2000s.

As mentioned last week, there has been virtually no recent research and very limited policy commentary on the contemporary SSCFAs, but these areas offer some interesting insights into what happens to medium-scale farms, now over multiple generations. The impacts were less in terms of revolutionising African production – production was low and marketing challenging for most – but more in the political and ideological transformation that a particular type of land ownership offered to an emergent rural-urban middle class.

The A2 farms allocated following land reform in the 2000s share many similarities, both in terms of agricultural challenges, as well as their political salience, as discussed last week. They operate at similar scales, are occupied by a similar class of people, they are presented as ‘commercial’ farms, but in many cases accumulation occurs not through intensification but extensification and extraction, and, although on a much larger scale, and in more high potential, prominent areas, they offer the potential for a new class of ‘emergent’, medium-scale farmer, farming private (in the case of A2 farms, leasehold) land.

Next week, through a couple of case studies, I will discuss some of the patterns of change observed in former Purchase Area farms, and ask whether these provide glimpses of the future of A2 farms.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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How persistent myths distort policy debate on land in Zimbabwe


In 2010 we published the book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities. In the book, we chose 5 recurrent ‘myths’ often relayed about the post-2000 land reform, both in academic and popular commentary. We interrogated them with very detailed data based on a sample of 400 households across 16 sites in Masvingo province. All were found seriously wanting – although as with all ‘myths’, there were grains of truth, complexities and grey areas in each.

Some argued that our argument was contrived; that the myths were just ‘straw men’, easy to shoot down. We begged to differ, and pointed to the repeated articulation of such arguments. This blog was established in 2011 in order to continue the debate, as the myths persisted to colour sensible discussion, and indeed became more entrenched. In 2017 myths about land reform sadly still dominate much discourse, and policy debate (and unfortunately much ‘academic’ work) is sadly mired in ideological positions rather than grounded in field-level, evidence-based realities.

This is why we continue the research work, and I continue with the blog. Our work has now expanded to multiple sites, both in the Highveld (Mvurwi area of Mazowe district) and in Matabeleland (Matobo district), and complemented by many, many other studies (see the map above from a few years back – I am planning to update this, so please send me links to your studies, and the precise location). This other work continues to challenge the standard myths, but extends, expands and nuances the debate in important ways. Research is led by such organisations as the African Institute for Agrarian Studies and the Ruziwo Trust, and the subject of many theses from students registered across Zimbabwe’s universities and indeed the world, and adds up to a substantial corpus of evidence.

But despite the evidence, there remains much misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Zimbabwe’s land reform. I could take many examples but a section on land in what was otherwise quite a good report by a Harare-based campaign NGO, the Research and Advocacy Unit, is a good example. I choose it not because it is especially problematic (there are many much worse), but it comes from a respectable organisation, is purportedly based on research and was highlighted by the press (and in turn sent to me a dozen or more times).

Under the headline ‘Land reform crippled the economy’, The Zimbabwe Independent, reproduced an excerpt. This stated for example that “The transformations brought about by the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP), led directly to the collapse of commercial farming and the manufacturing sector and the consequent displacement of millions of workers and a man-made humanitarian crisis.” It continued: through “violations of property rights”.. “the land invasions signaled contempt for the most fundamental basis for any investment”. The report claims that the reform distributed “multiple holdings to a small political elite, who for the most part have not used them productively. Many of these new farmers have allowed viable farms to become derelict”. In relation to land reform farmers more generally, the report argues that in 2016 “It is certainly doubtful that these farmers will produce any food surplus during the worst drought in 35 years”. It states that “millions of Zimbabweans, both rural and urban, [are] at risk of extreme hunger and even starvation” and that “informalising of the economy has resulted in deepening poverty and with Zimbabweans now existing on greatly reduced income”. You get the picture: lots of bold statements, big figures (millions) and superlatives (many/extreme/greatly) and emotive language (contempt, violating), and plenty of assumptions (such as understandings of viability, informality), yet limited data, qualifications, case material and so on. And as I say this is a mild offender, and there is much in this particular report with which I agree!

Saying that there is a more complex story, and that this sort of ‘research’ analysis does not add up, does not imply (as some continuously argue on social media, in aggressive emails to me, and in newspaper and blog comment strings) that you are necessarily a lackey of the ruling party, complicit in everything that the regime has done. No, it simply urges everyone to look at the facts, and make a rather more balanced assessment.

Four myths that distort policy debate

Seven years on what myths seem to drive and distort policy debate? Here I choose four – all have featured prominently on this blog, and because there are so many the choice was tough. In different guises all feature in the RAU report mentioned earlier, and many, many news reports, research articles, donor consultancies and other commentaries (just google, and you will see!). Some basic interrogation though suggests some new questions, and in what follows and before signing off, I identify some of the debates that I think would be more productive, and highlight some of the issues we are working on and will feature on the blog this year.

Property rights and investment. This one won’t go away, and remains central to the rhetoric of many, across the political spectrum. The argument is simple: without secure (read: private property, freehold title) tenure, land is ‘dead capital’, and so has no or little value. Without title, the argument continues, it lacks collateral value and so it is impossible to raise finance. The model of ‘success’ is the commercial farm sector pre-2000, which had freehold title, and good relationships with the banking sector. The argument is that this needs to be either returned to or replicated now, and that the ‘failure’ of land reform can be explained in these terms. You’ve all heard it – from the likes of Eddie Cross, Ben Freeth, Craig Richardson, and many others. So what’s wrong with the argument, surely secure tenure is important. Yes, absolutely! But there are many routes to tenure security, and elaborate titling is not often the best; a fact widely substantiated by research across the world, notably, perhaps surprisingly, by the World Bank. Permit and leasehold systems may be just as good, and when the institutional and governance arrangements are right, security emerges from communal tenure too, as Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom and others have showed. The ‘dead capital’ argument pushed by Hernando De Soto, and adopted by many free market ideologues has been found wanting. As we have shown, there is much investment going on in some parts of the new resettlement areas, but also a lack of it in others. The variable explaining the differences is not titling or legal form of tenure, but other factors to do with a range of social, political and institutional factors. The relationship between land, collateral and finance is a complex one too. There are many ways of assuring finance institutions that lending money is a safe bet. Land titles are only one route, but there are other forms of collateral, state guarantee schemes, group lending and so on that have all worked well in other places, including in Zimbabwe. There were undoubtedly issues with the original wording of the 99 year leases in Zimbabwe, but there was also intransigence by the finance sector that preferred to lend to larger enterprises and outside agriculture when money was short. Some headway has been made on this, and we must look forward to some innovations in the financing of agriculture into the future. The old model of large-scale commercial agriculture finance is simply not replicable in a more variegated agricultural sector.

Cronyism, patronage and capture. Most land acquired through fast track land reform was under the A1 ‘smallholder’ scheme, where by far the majority of beneficiaries were formerly land and income poor communal area dwellers or those from town with no or precarious jobs. The land occupations certainly involved those with political connections, notably war veterans, but this was not universally the case. As our and other work showed, farm by farm the process was different. Generalisations that the whole land reform was subject to cronyism, patronage and political capture are simply untenable. While some admit that the beneficiaries were often relatively poor, the next argument is that they were necessarily ZANU-PF members. While resettlement areas are unquestionably ZANU-PF strongholds, and the opposition parties have found it difficult to operate there, especially around election times, the electoral picture shows something more mixed. There are many who will ‘perform ZANU-PF’ but have other allegiances, so it is difficult to assess empirically how party affiliation and control affected land access, and subsequent outcomes. Again across our study areas it is extraordinarily variable, and volatile. The A2 resettlement areas show a different story, however. Here there was much more patronage politics at play, and this remains the case, with faction fights playing out in land access disputes. But again, while land was ‘grabbed’ by party and security officials, both at land reform and at subsequent elections, these were high profile and well publicised cases which while significant politically did not necessarily dominate. Again, it depends where you are talking about – for obvious reasons such political dynamics played out more strongly in Mazowe than in Masvingo and Matobo, where other dynamics, sometimes related to long-running chieftaincy allegiances or church affiliations, played a role. Land is always political, no question, but we do need to be more sophisticated in our assessments. As I have argued, we need to look beyond the links to party (or factional) politics to questions of class positions in order to understand the shifting politics of the Zimbabwean countryside. The successful A1 farmers, ‘accumulating from below’, allied with emerging A2 farmers, and successful communal area entrepreneurs are a political force to be reckoned with. They have diverse political commitments, and no clear position (many who I speak to are crying out for an alternative political leadership from whatever source), but no party – whether ZANU-PF or the MDC and now other opposition parties – has a political and policy stance that in any way speaks to their needs, aspirations and motivations, despite the substantial electoral weight that they can apply. ZANU-PF persists with a tired nationalist rhetoric and assumes that resettlement farmers will follow them as they are the rightful leaders of the land revolution, and if they keep them sweet with subsidies. Meanwhile the opposition seems to have no ideas on land and rural policy, beyond a litany of tired rhetoric about investment and entrepreneurship, which could come from a generic World Bank document from the 1990s. I went to a very disappointing speech by Joice Mujuru in London last year – just look at the transcript for a taste – but all the others are the same I am afraid. As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, the political landscape is crying out for a new stance on land, agriculture and rural development, and there is a ready constituency there to respond.

Agricultural production and food security. As I have discussed in a number of blogs over the last years blaming ‘land reform’ for food insecurity is very problematic, as there are so many variables in play. That said, there is no doubt that the restructuring of the agrarian sector has resulted in major changes. While the former commercial farms did not produce as much food in the 1990s as they did in the previous decades, the associated infrastructure, and the capacity to irrigate was important. Recorded maize production declined dramatically after 2000, resulting in increasingly frequent imports. Add to this the impacts of climate change/El Nino, and the picture is mixed, varying by location, type of land use and crop mix (the growth tobacco and the displacement of maize in some of the high potential areas is part of the story of course). Despite dire prognoses though there has not been widespread famine conditions in Zimbabwe, even if there have been areas of severe food insecurity. The standard line of ‘breadbasket to basket case’ is just so much more complex. Today the food economy is totally different to the 1980s and 90s, with many more producers selling through many more market channels, most of which are not regulated and recorded. The fact is we just don’t know how much is being produced and sold where, despite the attempts of the ZimVac and other assessments. I have a persistent worry that we are not getting it right, and that the politics of food, whether driven by the government, the UN agencies or the relief NGOs, is grossly distorting the picture. Our data, now collected over 16 years from many households across the country, does not match the aggregate picture emerging from the national assessments. There is a disconnect that poses important empirical questions about what is going on. I have not yet been able to persuade anyone to commission work to find out, and to engage properly with the new food economy in the post land reform setting, but this seems an urgent priority. This would be an important precursor to a more effective national statistical system for assessing agricultural production, marketing and food security; a prerequisite for any sensible food and agriculture policy, as well as economic policy more generally.

Land reform and economic collapse. Again suggesting a tight causal link to a complex relationship is misguided. There are of course many factors contributing to Zimbabwe’s economic woes. They include massive financial mismanagement (especially in the mid-2000s), rampant corruption (continuing), ‘sanctions’ (aka restrictive measures), withdrawal of international finance and credit lines, lack of business and investment confidence due to poorly articulated policy positions (notably around ‘indigenisation’), the collapse of commodity prices (for mineral exports), drought/climate change/El Nino, the strength of the US dollar, and of course the major restructuring of a core sector through land reform, with knock-on effects in employment and upstream and downstream industries. Choosing one or other these factors is clearly inadequate, and a more sophisticated analysis is needed. Of course the economy as whole hasn’t collapsed, and in some areas it’s booming. This is where, again, the new realities of a more diverse, informal economy need to be taken account of. This is simply not measured in the formal assessments of GDP, for example, yet represents at least 90% of the economy. Untaxed, unregulated and often based on limited returns and opportunities for accumulation, we should avoid glorifying the informal economy, but we should equally not ignore it – and it’s not all bad. For it is from such small-scale entrepreneurial activities – in agriculture and beyond – that many livelihoods are generated, and from which the wider more formalised economy can be revitalised. With a major restructuring expecting the future to be a replica of the past is the continuous mistake of too many commentators. As our work has shown there are huge potentials of new multiplier effects of a vibrant small-scale agriculture sector centred in the (mostly) A1 resettlement areas, linking to small towns across the country which are becoming new centres for economic activity and employment. The spatial pattern of the new economy is different, as are the actors and networks that drive it. Yet policy engagement remains limited. Due to ongoing ‘restrictive measures’, the western donors continue to focus efforts only on the communal areas, where the prospects of growth – and so wider economic linkages – are limited, as we have known for years. And no-one seems to be thinking about how to make the most of the complementarities of small, medium and large-scale agriculture (don’t forget there still is large-scale agriculture, including very substantial estates – such as sugar in the lowveld), and how agriculture across scales is linked to urban centres and market networks, at a district/regional level, as part of new planning and investment.

Land tenure security, class and patronage politics, food insecurity and linking agriculture to economic growth are all massively important policy priorities. I am the first to admit that there are major challenges. But we must ask the right questions if we are to seek a way forward, and this requires solid, research-based empirical information and a balanced assessment that is not distorted by ideological positions, anger and distress, wishful thinking or attempts to recreate pasts that probably never existed. I am often asked, whether I think land reform was good or bad; whether I am for against it. This is impossible to answer, and journalists get furious by the response (and so often misreport). It’s of course more complex. Land reform was undoubtedly necessary, a long overdue response to the violence and inequality of colonialism, but that does not mean it was implemented well, and with all the ideal outcomes. Our research shows this is not the case – far from it. 17 years on though, we do need a more mature, informed debate on policy options, and I hope this blog provides the forum for some of this.

Second generation challenges: some blog themes for 2017

In the coming weeks and months, many of these issues will continue to be debated in depth, with new data, reflections and commentary on news stories. There are emerging, second-generation challenges that our research is throwing up, and these will in particular be subject to more analysis and comment on the blog. Last year, I posted a series on farm labour and the struggles for livelihoods of former farm workers. The relationship between labour and capital is of course a central theme in any study of agrarian change, and I will return to this theme with more results from the field, exploring how the new class of petty commodity producers on the resettlements interact with classes of labour. ‘Accumulation from below’ results in investment on farms, and the building of assets in the rural areas, but it also results in social differentiation and new relations with labouring classes. This dynamic is perhaps especially important as we see the emergence of next generation of ‘youth’, without land but interested in agriculture-related livelihoods in a depressed economy. Generational conflicts, inflected with important gender dynamics, is a theme that we must understand as we envisage what happens post land reform over the next 20 or more years. A key aspect of this of course is the relationship between rural and urban livelihoods, never as separate as many studies suggest. New forms of migration, remittance flows, on- and off-farm investment and employment are emerging that allow us to imagine a new form of economy, not based on the old, dualist ‘settler’ model, but with new interactions and dynamics, requiring radical new thinking in development policy and planning. As we have documented in the past 17 years, the next period will see changing political configurations, as some win and some lose out from these changes, with impacts on the wider political landscapes as rural politics shift with new forms of production and accumulation.

Debating this endlessly fascinating but still poorly understood agrarian transition following Zimbabwe’s land reform will continue to the focus of this blog. So do come back each Monday, and sign up to get your email or Twitter alerts now! Next week though we must contemplate the momentous events in Washington and the implications of the Trump inauguration.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Zimbabwe’s bond notes: the birth of a new currency?


The bond notes have arrived! Well at least a $2 one and a $1 coin. Subject to street protests, court cases, beatings and arrests, and the object of both ridicule and fear, never has a new form of exchange been subject to such intense – and prolonged – debate.

I got my first note in a bar in Mvurwi on the day they were released, and they have been circulating widely since. While, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) didn’t follow my advice for the design and instead opted for the famous Epworth balancing rocks on one side and a picture of parliament and the Heroes Acre flame on the other, they certainly look like ‘real’ money.

But exchange is all about trust and confidence, and that has been in short supply. The RBZ’s endless TV adverts and the full page spreads in the newspapers, along with the calming words of a string of ministers, will not satisfy everyone. The bond notes are supposed to provide an incentive for those who export, and aimed to preventing the massive expatriation of US dollars. Zimbabwe has become the ‘bureau de change’ of the region, with foreigners joining local elites in removing valuable currency reserves. The result has been a massive liquidity crunch, with less and less physical cash circulating.

Yet the spectre of a return to the Zimbabwe dollar, and a return to money printing and hyperinflation is ever present. The trauma of 2008 is very recent, and memories last. Of course Zimbabweans have had bond coins for a while, and they appeared without any fuss. In the absence of small change, and as an alternative to endless supplies of boiled sweets and lollipops as change in supermarkets, the small denomination bond coins were widely welcomed.

The government has assured the population that the new bond notes are backed by a US$200m bank loan and only that amount will be issued, although the details of the deal with Afrexim bank remain opaque. With such backing, it is argued, the new notes are ‘real’, exchangeable one to one with the US dollar. In most transactions this seems to be the case and over two weeks I have not had a bond note refused, although parallel trading to secure US dollars has inevitably started with the exchange apparently currently at 1:0.7. The fear certainly exists that with new control on monetary policy, there will be a temptation to print more, with or without security, and this will get out of hand once again, with local accounts filled with useless bond notes, as was the case with the ill-fated Zimbabwe dollar.

Some claim that there was under a million US dollars of physical cash circulating in the economy, although Finance Minister Chinamasa is more optimistic. Much of this is not in the banks, as many prefer to store it themselves, and significant amounts may have already left the country, so it’s difficult to know. But bank queues and limits on withdrawals (down at one stage to $50 a day) were witness to the troubles being faced. The liquidity crunch is severely hampering business and constraining investment, so boosting cash supply must be a good thing.

However many fear the gradual conversion to a local currency, while hard-earned US dollars are siphoned off from bank accounts to service the government’s massive debts. It is no surprise that many commentators remain sceptical. While the present RBZ governor, John Mangudya, is no Gideon Gono with is wild ‘casino economy’ of the mid-2000s, the severe economic crisis, combined with huge corruption, suggest desperate moves are possible, especially if pushed by political circumstances.

It is also worth reflecting on some of the potential benefits of this controversial move. While many have moved to cashless exchange – just as Greece did during the euro crisis and India is trying to do now – the lack of hard cash in circulation can affect exchange. I was in a resettlement area the other day, and one of my colleagues bought two buckets of sugar beans for $40 using an ecocash transfer there and then, thanks to both parties having accounts and there being 3G network.

But not everyone has a mobile ecocash account, an electronic ‘wallet’ on a smart phone or a swipe card linked to a bank account, although in a very short space of time out of necessity increasing numbers do. As we enter the farming season, having small dollar denominations that are valid sources of exchange is vital for buying inputs, marketing crops and for day-to-day supplies. Going to the grinding mill, buying a cup of beans, securing a bag of fresh termites or purchasing a bowl of maize flour cannot be done without.

You can already see the changes happening as cash circulates again, particularly in rural areas where such exchanges are so vital. Keeping the bond note introduction to small denominations, up to $5 (although we haven’t seen this one yet – apparently with giraffes on the note), seems to make much sense, particularly for those outside the electronic exchange economy. We will however fear the worst if denominations creep up, and hugely divergent parallel markets emerge. We all remember how notes and bearer cheques increased in the 2000s, with so many zeros that cash machines couldn’t cope.

While the introduction of the US dollar in 2009 put an end to the hyperinflationary period at a stroke, it also limited options for economic policy making, hiked prices, reduced liquidity, as the dollar is so strong, and domestic growth and productivity is so low. The Rand as an alternative currency in a multicurrency environment soon got squeezed, and the US dollar dominated. US dollars in a region of weak currencies proved a honey pot for those wanting to exchange into a harder currency, and often illegally moved funds offshore, reducing cash availability yet further. Returning to a more diverse currency arrangement, with US dollars focused on international transactions, and bond notes, and perhaps the Rand making a comeback, being more for local exchange, has some logic.

Radical and inventive solutions are certainly needed, as Zimbabwe’s economy is in dire straits. Injection of cash to relieve some liquidity problems must be combined with new investment, and increased export earnings. Whether gaining access to bond notes will incentivise this waits to be seen, and more structural macro-economic measures, combined with improved political relations with investor countries, will have to take place in tandem.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Integrated water resource management: panacea or problem?


Integrated water resource management (IWRM) became the buzzword for water resources policy gurus in the 1990s. The donors poured millions into projects, plans, programmes and many, many workshops and consultancy exercises. The idea was seemingly neat and simple. Water resources had to be managed locally at catchment level through an inclusive process involving all water users. Water as a scarce commodity should in turn be priced and paid for through tariffs charged on level of use. This would pay for the management systems, and also for improvements, as well as investments in environmental sustainability. The ‘Dublin principles’ – a worthy list developed at a big conference in 1992 – guided the approach, and included all the buzzwords of the time: participation, gender, decentralisation, good governance market efficiency, and more.

Zimbabwe became one of the test cases. In the 1990s it too had its share of consultancies and workshops, and eventually an Act of Parliament – the 1992 Water Act. This overturned the old colonial legislation that was based on ‘riparian rights’, or the ability to draw water depending on the location of your land. Water and land were thus separated – different ministries, legislation, administrative units and governance arrangements. The aim was to rid the country of the inequitable distribution of the past, now with all water users potentially having access if they could pay. For those who could not pay or access a permit, such as communal area farmers and small-scale irrigators, allocations of water in government dams were made. A new independent, quasi private authority – the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) was established to oversee all water issues, including the market basis of the new regime. The authority was supposed to be funded from the revenues. Catchment councils, as the new forum for managing water, were planned for seven catchments. Different donors became involved, each supporting a different area. It seemed like a dream solution, perfectly suited to the neoliberal age, but with participation, decentralisation and women’s empowerment thrown into the mix.

And then land reform happened. The rapid, largely unplanned unfolding of the land reform from 2000 quickly unravelled the carefully laid plans for the IWRM revolution in Zimbabwe. The donors who were funding the whole operation all withdrew, and the catchment councils mostly ceased to operate. The mismatch between the original design and the new agrarian reality was stark, requiring some major rethinking. Three new papers in the open access journal Water Alternatives document this story, and examine the consequences for IWRM after land reform. These come from a major Norwegian-funded project on IWRM in Southern Africa. The papers by long-term observers of the water scene in Zimbabwe, including Emmanuel Manzungu and Bill Derman, offer some fascinating insights into the history and some of the contemporary challenges of IWRM in Zimbabwe, echoing earlier findings by Sobona Mtisi, Alan Nicol and others.

Changing land use, changing water use

Only one of the papers offers data for the post-land reform period, and this focuses on some A2 farms in the Middle Manyame sub-catchment area near Harare. This is an area where there were previously massive large-scale commercial tobacco and wheat farms (including irrigated winter wheat). They had impressive infrastructure, with large scale water abstraction and irrigation systems, including massive centre pivots that irrigated the huge fields throughout the year. This was really water-intensive farming, despite efforts at improving irrigation efficiencies in the last few decades.

Following land reform, these farms, with a few exceptions, no longer operate, and nearly all have been subdivided into both A1 and A2 plots of varying sizes. All these are much, much smaller than the original properties. The consequence is that the previous irrigation infrastructure is largely redundant; it is mostly inappropriate for the current land sizes or too expensive to run. Much irrigation equipment was removed or vandalised during the tumultuous land reform period too.

Most ‘new farmers’ on the resettlements have also switched their cropping mix. Summer white maize and soy beans are now common, and tobacco is also grown in increasingly large quantities, through contract farming arrangements. Most of this is not irrigated and the only intensive irrigation tends to be on relatively small horticulture plots, reflecting a growth in small-scale market gardening.   In their study of 18 A2 farms near Mazvikadei dam, Hove and colleagues found that although about 60% were irrigating, the new farmers were reluctant to pay the fees for water use to ZINWA. Many claimed that they were not doing irrigation, or if they were did their own abstraction through boreholes or small-scale river pumps. The result has been a massive decline in officially-recorded water use, especially from ZINWA controlled dams, making the market-based response to water scarcity that IWRM offered largely meaningless.

Ignoring politics: IWRM as a technical-market fix

IWRM was a technical-market fix and (especially in Zimbabwe) explicitly ‘apolitical’. It therefore failed to address the underlying political economy of water use and control. While the Water Act abandoned the riparian rights approach in favour of an open market approach, this made little difference in practice. For access to markets for irrigated agricultural water was directly correlated with ownership of land, and the capital invested in it, especially irrigation equipment. And guess who had the land and the capital before 2000? Just the people who had benefited from the colonial legislation – the (mostly) white large-scale farmers and the commercial estates. The result was that catchment councils were dominated by this group as they had a vested interest in maintaining their access to water, and preventing reallocations elsewhere. Through the assessments that they commissioned, they could also influence water pricing, crucial to the overall commercial viability of their farming operations. Derman and Manzungu document in detail the membership of the Mupfure, Mazowe and Manyame catchment councils and the participation in the meetings in the period 1993-2001. The councils were not inclusive, participatory, decentralised and democratic, but were captured by elite interests, making use of their existing assets to leverage further resources at relatively low cost under a new mechanism, backed substantially by (international) public money. Earlier studies have shown this pattern elsewhere, for example in the Save Catchment. Rather than a model of good development, in many ways it was a scandal. Inequalities of power and control over water, reproduced by a neoliberal technical-market fix, were however overturned by land reform, creating a new rural politics of water.

Reviving the catchment councils or a more radical rethink of water resource governance?

So what is happening today? With some funds trickling back through various routes there are attempts to revive the catchment council system and institute payment systems for the new farmers, as suggested by the World Bank backed 2013 Water Policy. But, as already mentioned, there is resistance. The rhetoric of the land reform that ‘land is for the people’ (and so free) is replicated for water. Why should we pay for water? This is the government’s, or indeed God’s, resource, and part of the heritage that has been reclaimed through the land reform.

With a shift in crop mix, a change in irrigation systems towards small-scale gardening operations, and lack of capital to rehabilitate defunct water supply and irrigation systems on larger farms, the demand for water has dropped, or at least shifted to different sources (see last week’s blog). The consequence is that the incentives to invest in water management are just not there. It is not appropriate to berate the land reform for this outcome. A return to water intensive large-scale agriculture, and with this the IWRM catchment approaches, is not appropriate. With a restructured agricultural sector in terms of farm size, cropping pattern and level of capital investment, a radical rethink of water resource issues is required. This cannot take its cue from the past. The challenges are many, but they are different to the past, and so require new institutional and governance solutions.

Certainly, water resource issues have been largely ignored during land reform – in part due to the organisational, legislative and administrative separation that the 1990s IWRM system instituted. But this is not to say that they are not very significant. In fact, water provisioning for agriculture is one of the most important priorities for investment in the new resettlements, as I have argued many times on this blog. New investments should not be large-scale dams nor centre-pivot irrigation installations, but more of a focus on water harvesting, small dams/tanks, and micro-irrigation and pumping – the farmer-led irrigation systems described last week. This is revolutionising how irrigation is practised on the ground. Unfortunately, this thinking by farmers has yet to permeate through to the planners, consultants and donors.

In our work in Masvingo on new horticulture supply chains, we have observed some new water management challenges emerging. These are of two sorts. The first is the competition for pumped irrigation water from perennial and seasonal rivers and streams. There has been a massive growth in market gardening especially near Masvingo, but also other growth points and towns. This has been spurred by investment in small-scale pumps, as well as market demand. This has resulted in some severe competition between water users in particular areas. There have been the beginnings of some local initiatives to regulate use, but this has not be institutionalised. Indeed, this has been made more difficult by the existence of ZINWA and the fear of control and water charging. The result has been that the new irrigators have continued under-the-radar, but without the ability and encouragement to develop new institutions to manage the resource sustainability. Rather than an elaborate top-down, market-driven catchment council system, some more local water user associations for such areas are clearly needed, and should be allowed to flourish and assisted in doing so.

Where a larger-scale response is required is across the catchments (both Save and Runde) in the region, and in relation to water destined for the sugar and citrus estates in the lowveld. The use of water from Mtirikwe dam as well as Bangala, and now Tokwe Mukorsi, has long been controversial. The financial and political backing of the estate companies has always been important for the politics of water. This was not a resource that was going to be open to inclusive management of any sort. This remains the case. Yet the demands for water in and around these dams is growing, especially as farms expand and demands to improve productivity increase. Some ask, why should it all go to the lowveld when demands are local too? Why should we rely on an old colonial division of water that backs (white, in this case South African) capital against small-scale black farming? Why can’t water reform follow from land reform and we take back ‘our water’?

Here again an IWRM solution will not deal with these high water politics. Indeed such a solution, as before, will likely simply reinforce existing inequalities, but with a market gloss. Instead, a wider political solution is required to the politics of resource access across areas, relating to land for agriculture of different sorts, urban areas, wildlife zones and so on. This requires more than a technical land-use planning exercise based on notionally ideas of land suitability, or simplistic community management solutions, but a political negotiation about equitable access and sustainable productivity.

Water resource challenges are going to increase with growing agricultural intensification combined with climate change in the coming years. New institutions and mechanisms, and likely new legislation, will be required. Outdated and inappropriate technical-market fixes such as IWRM that simply replicate inequality and fail to deal with emerging challenges in the new agrarian system need to be rejected.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Farmer-led irrigation in Africa: driving a new Green Revolution?


A new open access review paper is just out in the Journal of Peasant Studies on farmer-led irrigation in Africa. The authors, led by Phil Woodhouse, define farmer-led irrigation development as “a process where farmers assume a driving role in improving their water use for agriculture by bringing about changes in knowledge production, technology use, investment patterns and market linkages, and the governance of land and water”. Covering a huge array of literature and many cases (although surprisingly very little from Zimbabwe), the paper offers a fantastically useful overview of the debate about what form of irrigation is most likely to support increases in smallholder production and livelihoods in Africa.

The paper in particular identifies furrow systems in mountainous areas, valley bottom/vlei systems, small-scale pumping from wells/open water, and peri-urban agriculture, as areas where farmer-led irrigation is important. All of these are important in Zimbabwe, whether the famous furrow systems of Inyanga, the ‘wetland in dryland’ vlei or dambo cultivation in the miombo zones, small-scale pump systems everywhere, and the massive growth of cultivation in and around towns and cities. Yet such forms of irrigation are often not acknowledged, nor counted in the statistics or supported by donor investments and government policy. This is of course not a new argument, but it’s one that has become more pertinent given the rise of small-scale, informal irrigation systems, with the decline of state support for formal schemes and the decline in costs of pumps in particular allowing informal systems to expand.

There was one statistic that really struck me in the paper, based on work by Beekman and colleagues in Mozambique. They estimate that over 115,000 ha are irrigated by farmers on a small scale. Accounting for this area, this would nearly double the national total irrigated area. Perhaps not to such an extent, but the total area irrigated in Zimbabwe is surely a gross underestimate too. This is a pattern increasingly seen by more detailed satellite-based estimates of irrigated areas globally. Estimates vary but there are approximately 150,000 hectares of irrigation land in Zimbabwe, mostly in large-scale schemes, including the sugar estates. The irrigation infrastructure in Zimbabwe, however, is in a sorry state, but people are compensating by digging boreholes or pumping from open water bodies directly. Earlier blogs and some of our films profiled ‘irrigation entrepreneurs’ operating small-scale farmer designed and managed irrigation systems, mostly for market-oriented horticultural production.

Our data from Mvurwi area in Mazowe district in 2014-15 showed that 34% of A1 households in our sample of 220 had pumps, with 0.44 on average being bought per household in the five years from 2010. Around 12% of households have irrigated plots on their main fields, while all households have gardens, either at the home or by a nearby river/stream. Even former farm workers living in compounds are buying pumps, as they branch out into farming (see earlier blogs), with 0.2 pumps on average bought per household in the same period. Pumps now cost only around $200 for a cheap Chinese make, and these can irrigate small gardens. Some are upgrading to larger engines, while others are expanding production areas through storage systems, and having a series of pumps. The extent of such irrigated areas is not known, but just taking our study areas in Mazowe, Masvingo and Matobo districts, my estimate is that it’s considerable.

The JPS paper highlights five characteristics of farmers’ investment in irrigation. They all apply in Zimbabwe, and each has important policy implications.

  1. Farmers invest substantially. Whether this is in new pumps or pipes or furrow systems in mountain areas or in vleis, irrigation requires investments of cash and labour. This is significant, and as we saw in our survey data from land reform areas in Zimbabwe, pumps in particular have become a priority investment, across social groups and geographical areas.
  2. Interactions among farmers, external agencies and the rural economy are crucial. Too often studies of irrigation focus just on the technology, but not on the interactions required and generated. In Zimbabwe, most new irrigation is spontaneous, independent of the state, NGOs and projects. But connections with the rural economy are important. There is a whole new set of businesses emerging for selling, maintaining and repairing pumps. And the production generated from new irrigation is transforming markets, as we showed in our earlier work, highlighted in our SMEAD films.
  3. Innovation occurs in broad socio-technical networks and complex agricultural systems. The classic engineering approach to irrigation focuses on flat areas, large water supplies and fixed technology. This is the form of standard irrigation schemes. But farmer-led irrigation manages water in different ways, making use of water within a landscape. Slopes, pits, valley bottoms and so on all become significant in maximising irrigation potential. The late Zephaniah Phiri was perhaps the most famous of Zimbabwe’s farmer irrigators, and was a master of harvesting water in landscapes. Technologies – in Mr Phiri’s case, a combination of pits, check dams, pumps and contour ridges – are constructed in a social context, and must always be seen as ‘socio-technologies’, part of ‘networks’, as the paper suggests.
  4. Formal land tenure is not a prerequisite for irrigation development. As discussed many times on this blog, ‘formal land tenure’ (such as freehold or leasehold) is not a prerequisite for investment in farming, including irrigation. This is especially so with mobile, flexible irrigation. Communal tenure or the permit/offer letter system found in A1 areas is not a constraint, as we have seen. This seems to be the case across Africa too, as the paper shows.
  5. Many benefit, but others are adversely affected. Highlighting the benefits of farmer-led irrigation must be tempered by an assessment of who wins and who loses. As discussed in respect of the new pump based irrigation systems in Masvingo, downstream impacts can be severe, and second-generation challenges of water management are emerging. The investors in these new irrigation systems are usually men (able to buy the pumps) and the losers may be women and other family members, who often have to supply the labour (a theme largely ignored in the review). Gluts of production are common in such systems too, so those surviving along market chains may be affected. As the paper argues, an overall assessment is necessary, but the benefits are significant – and underestimated.

There is a much-repeated narrative about Africa’s agriculture – that it missed out on the ‘Green Revolution’ due to the lack of irrigation. The comparison with Asia is always made, where approximately 20 per cent of land is irrigated, while in Africa it is supposed to be less than 4 per cent. As discussed above, this contrast is probably not accurate, and far more land is already being irrigated in Africa, but through different systems. Because of rainfall, topography, markets and a host of other factors, Africa and Asia are never going to be the same, and such comparisons are often rather futile. But nevertheless, we should learn more about what is happening with water and agriculture on the ground in Africa. This paper identifies farmer-led irrigation as an important trend, and one that may well be driving an unnoticed Green Revolution in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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