Climate change is generating greater variability within and across seasons. This is requiring new responses among farmers in Masvingo province in Zimbabwe. Today, farmers must adapt, be flexible and agile and respond to uncertain seasons as they unfold. This requires new skills and approaches; not just from farmers, but also from development agencies who are hoping to assist rural people cope with drought.
Shifting responses, changing droughts
There are strong memories of drought (or rather ‘nzara’, see previous blog) among farmers in Masvingo. During our visits earlier in the year many recalled past events. The 1991-92 drought was firmly etched on their memories, while older people recalled the droughts of 1982-84. These days the memories of 1947 (associated with the distribution of ‘Kenya’ yellow maize) are disappearing, but drought is a recurrent phenomenon central to how histories are recalled in rural areas, as we explored in our book Hazards and Opportunities over 25 years ago.
But how people have responded over time and how different ‘droughts’ have been experienced is highly contrasting. Some droughts are recalled as ones affecting cattle, but not people; others are the opposite. Some affected everyone all over the area, meaning real shortages of food and dependence on hand-outs, while others were quite localised and food could be purchased in nearby districts. As discussed in last week’s blog, drought is not a singular phenomenon.
One thing people mentioned again and again was that droughts today are so varied. It is not just a simple failure of ‘the rains’, but the problem of increasing variability. Sometimes there’s very heavy rain, then nothing for weeks. In the ‘old days’ rain – if it came – would be steady and continuous, soaking the land, they say. This is much more effective for crops than the rains today, when heavy rains can destroy crops through waterlogging and wind and rain damage.
As many climatologists have argued, it is not the absolute amount of rain that is changing with climate change, but its variability. This is certainly the experience in our Masvingo study areas.
Land reform and resilience
We were discussing with farmers in our A1 resettlement area study sites across Masvingo province, from the very dry south to the relatively wetter northern parts of the area. One of the common narratives that we heard was that today we don’t suffer from drought as much as we did before. This seemed to run counter to the arguments about climate change and the frequency of events that were recalled. Why was this?
The answer of course was that land reform has created a buffer against the effects of drought by providing more land with better soils and the ability to accumulate assets that can be used to improve agriculture and weather a lean period. Land reform was thus an impressive boost to resilience, although of course not usually discussed in those terms. This applies to nearly everyone as even those who have not managed to accumulate from agriculture significantly are able to gain farm employment from others.
However, even with larger areas of land and accumulated farm assets, smallholder farmers in the land reform areas must still learn to cope with the high levels of rainfall variability in order to avoid ‘nzara’. This requires skill and aptitude and some well-honed practices.
From prediction to performance
In the past, rainfall patterns were more predictable, forecasts for the season were sometimes reasonably good. There was a standard movement of the ‘inter-tropical convergence zone’ southwards and the nightly bulletins on TV would document its position. More broadly, historical analysis of climate records show a cyclical pattern of wetter and drier periods over around seven years over many decades that seem to suggest some type of pattern. This is no longer the case.
In our discussions, farmers pointed to their own forms of prediction that had been used in the past: certain types of bird being present, with certain calls; the flowering of particular trees; the formations of certain clouds; or the strength and direction of wind. These would provide short-term predictions of what might happen in the next days, but even these local prediction mechanisms frequently seem to fail these days.
As we sat in one farmer’s compound, the rain was pouring down only a kilometre away, but right there it was completely dry. This variability means a different response. Farmers were unanimous in their rejection of formal predictions, as being useless today – whether from the met department or from prophets or priests. “This is ‘fake news”, someone proclaimed, continuing, “if you follow it, you can make a serious error.”
What’s the alternative to following predictions? The answer nearly everyone gave was ‘planning’, being ready for any contingency. Having your seeds and fertiliser available, making sure you have a fit span of animals for ploughing, working out how you can divert if the rains failed – say from investing lots of effort in the ‘outfield’ to more focused, intensive gardening, where you can manage the soil, irrigate and so on.
During our discussions, lots of examples were given of how, during a highly variable season like the one being experienced, different strategies were pursued. This required flexibility, and of course resources (labour, inputs and so on) to be able to switch between options. This is the farming ‘performance’ that everyone must follow, where there are diverse scripts and different players.
This is very different to the standard packages or the technocratic solutions of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture. Even when these are useful, they must be adapted. The fertiliser recommendations from the extension workers must be changed to fit the season, even the micro-plot. As discussed in a recent blog, the no-till practice Pfumvudza must equally be changed, bigger or smaller pits, more or less mulch, extra ridges to divert water if there’s too much.
In the uncertain world of today, no one size fits all. Coping with drought and avoiding hunger requires much skill, and careful contingency planning.
As I discussed in a recent book chapter, perhaps these practices – centred on embracing uncertainty, living with and from variability – are the future, not the frequently rigid and standardised forms of humanitarian and social protection responses we see offered by the state or aid agencies. development agencies.
This is the second blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first blog here.
There is a huge government and aid machinery to respond to ‘drought’ in Zimbabwe. Humanitarian relief, cash-plus transfer schemes, shock-responsive aid, anticipatory action, insurance products, climate-smart development and much, much more, with millions of dollars spent. But what is ‘drought’, and how are different responses framed?
For some, drought is just a deficit in rainfall across a season – this is a meteorological framing, which mostly drives the formal responses, and assumes that drought is a defined risk, an event that can be easily understood, resulting in particular interventions (usually some combination of the list above).
But for others – including farmers – drought is much more complex, with interacting and highly context-specific causes, with diverse outcomes and impacts on livelihoods. This requires a much more attuned, flexible response, embracing this complexity.
Multiple causes of ‘drought’
A few weeks back, we were visiting our sites across Masvingo province – from Chikombedzi in the far south to Gutu-Chatsworth further north – and asked about ‘drought’. It was a topical conversation as the season (yet again) had been a strange one, with very uneven rainfall even if the totals were relatively high. This has made it very difficult to manage the season, with the stop-start rainfall. Everyone was hoping for some more rains, as the maize was wilting in the fields after a good start. Since then, some have been lucky, others not and there will be no crop to speak of.
Across our field sites everyone was therefore talking of ‘nzara’. This translates from Shona as ‘drought’, but it’s different to a meteorological definition; it’s more about the consequences, ‘hunger’. This is important, as there are many causes to the outcome of nzara, and this is what we ended up discussing.
Yes, lack of rainfall is important – but as people repeatedly emphasised it’s not the seasonal average but when and where rain falls within the season, as well as how effective it is. Does it simply run off from capped soils or does it soak in? Rainfall effectiveness for crop growth is very different on heavy clay soils as against sandy soils, and also different in valleys and on the uplands. The interaction between rainfall and agronomy, soils, topography and management of land is very specific, and one place (even one part of a farm) can be very different from another. This is why farmers universally rejected weather forecasts as being of any use, as conditions are so variable.
But even if rain falls, farmers explained, there are a range of factors that influence crop production. With the same rain, one farmer can succeed, while others fail. Many referred to ‘planning’, being ready for eventualities and being able to adapt. This requires skill, intelligence and, above all, flexible labour and draft power. Others argued (always about others!) that some farmers were simply ‘lazy’, they didn’t care about their fields, were always at beer parties and did not attend to their farms. Some failed because they were old, without help, or ill or infirm. These social, health and psychological factors contribute to what the effects of ‘drought’ might be, they argued.
Material assets are important too. Those with draft power of their own can plough early and catch the rains; those with tractors are even better off especially in the larger land areas of the new resettlements. Those by contrast who had to hire or borrow or worse dig by hand were unable to respond to rainfall events so effectively. The same applies to fertiliser – those able to purchase fertiliser (now ridiculously expensive) or with access to manure, were able to achieve better yields, even with the same land and labour. Access to inputs of different sorts therefore is crucial to confronting ‘drought’.
The pattern of farming makes a difference too. The small-scalePfumvudza plots that many have invested in – and backed by the government and NGOs as part of ‘drought relief’ and ‘climate-smart agriculture’ – have become an important part of the agricultural system of late. In the resettlement areas, these essentially garden plots are farmed intensively by hand and yield well, but provide in total only small amounts, while the extensive outfields need a different type of investment. Only if you have both can you provide enough food for sale and consumption and avoid ‘nzara’, our informants explained.
Adapting to uncertain contexts
As we discussed many years ago in the book, Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa, in the aftermath of the major 1991-92 drought, all of these factors – biophysical, social, material and more – all affect who wins and loses in a drought. In some instances, lack of rainfall wipes out everything for everyone (what some call a co-variate shock), but this is rare, as there’s usually a much more variegated outcome. There are – in the jargon – more idiosyncratic effects, with quite specific outcomes.
This is important, as the simplistic responses from the state and aid machinery often miss their mark, and why they have to be adapted to uncertain contexts, as we explained in a recent paper. This is why understanding how responses are mobilised by different people in different places is essential. This is the focus of the next blog in this short series.
Researching Land Reform in Zimbabwe is a new book compiling 20 articles our team has published over the last 20 years. All the chapters bar one have appeared as peer-reviewed journal articles, with the material covering the period from early land invasions in 2000 to more recent developments. All the articles are available, many as open access, but there was a demand to have these all in one place.
The book is available for free as a pdf, or via Amazon as and e-book (£0.99) or a print copy (£10.68) if you want it for your shelves and with a nice cover! It’s a bit of a bargain as we charge no royalties and this is just printing/hosting costs! It’s a hefty tome, coming in at nearly 600 pages, and weighing more than a kilo. I know this because at least half my baggage allowance on my flight last week to Harare was taken up by books. These are now being distributed around university and institute libraries across the country. Access to literature remains a challenge in Zimbabwe as elsewhere in Africa, and even open access material cannot necessarily be easily downloaded if internet speeds are slow. So, as with previous books of ours, we are trying to make physical copies available in libraries…. Old fashioned I know, but important in my view!
Most of the chapters are co-authored outputs, based on the work of an incredibly dedicated team. The core team started working together in the late 1980s, under the aegis of the then Farming Systems Research Unit of the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Ministry of Agriculture. Under the leadership of the late BZ Mavedzenge, we kept working together on various topics and, following 2000, focused on land reform experiences, starting in Masvingo. Sadly, BZ passed away prematurely in 2017 and Felix Murimbarimba has since led the team, supported by long-standing team member, Jacob Mahenehene. Jacob Chaumba, Easther Chigumira, Nelson Marongwe, Toendepi Shonhe, Chrispen Sukume and William Wolmer among others have also been part of the research team at different points linked to different projects. Over the years, we have also worked with many field assistants, very often agricultural extension workers based in the field sites, and their inputs have been immensely important for the overall research effort. While this book focuses on the research by our team, the work is complemented by that of many others. For it is this wider corpus of work, conducted in the context of a vibrant research community working land and agriculture in Zimbabwe that continues despite the challenges.
There are 20 chapters in the book organised across six themes:
‘Experiences of land reform’ presents our overarching data on what happened to people’s livelihoods in different sites in Masvingo province over time.
‘Political contestations’ highlights the changing political dynamics emerging in our sites, resulting from different trajectories of accumulation and so social differentiation.
‘People and places’ looks at particular groups of people – such as young people and farm labour – and locates their experience in the wider land reform story and certain places, including small towns in farming areas.
‘Production and markets’ examines particular commodities – notably livestock, tobacco and sugar – and investigates changes in production systems, including through farmer-led irrigation.
‘Environmental dynamics’ and touches on the contests over land in wildlife areas and the impacts of foot-and-mouth disease in a new agrarian setting.
‘Land reform in the wider context’, touching on broader questions of long-term rural development and what is the meaning of ‘viability’ in the Zimbabwean farming context.
Much of this work has already appeared as blogs on Zimbabweland, where published papers are shared or the ideas tested out before writing an academic article. But the final papers are a more polished product, situated in wider academic debates about agrarian change.
What are some of the overarching conclusions that emerge from all this work? They are difficult to summarise as there are differences across sites, between people and over time, but the listing below, taken from the newly written introduction to the book, offers some headlines.
• Farmers on the new resettlement areas are producing and accumulating from investments in agriculture. Patterns vary widely between farms and across years, but a distinct pattern of ‘accumulation from below’, particularly in the A1 smallholder land reform sites, is seen. However, political and economic conditions over the past 20 years have seriously limited opportunities for most.
• Farmers who gained access to land during the land reform came from many different backgrounds. In the A1 smallholder areas, the majority were previously poor, small-scale farmers from the communal areas or were un(der)employed in nearby towns. In the A2 areas, there was a mix of those who applied through the formal route (mostly civil servants, including teachers and agricultural ministry staff) and those who gained access to land through patronage arrangements,, drawing on close connections with the party and security services. Outside this latter group, which is a small minority, the beneficiaries were not ‘cronies’, nor even necessarily ruling party supporters.
• Many of the new farmers are investing in their farms. First this was focused on land clearance and building new homes, but since this has extended to investing in new technology (notably irrigation pumps), as well as tractors and diverse forms of transport for marketing. Some are able to invest off-farm and there has been a growth in investment in real estate in nearby towns, especially in the tobacco-growing areas.
• Over time, there has been a distinct process of social differentiation, within both smallholder (A1) and medium-scale (A2) farms, with some accumulating, while others struggle. This results in new social relations between farms and between sites, as those who are not surviving from farm-based income must seek employment on other farms or develop off-farm income- earning options.
• There are major contrasts between A1 and A2 farms in all of our sites. A1 smallholder farms have performed relatively well, often producing surpluses, with investment flowing back to the farms or supporting relatives in other areas, including the communal areas and towns.
• A2 farms have by contrast struggled. As larger medium-scale operations, they require finance and capital investment, and this has been difficult to secure due to lack of bank finance or government support. Beyond a few years when the economy stabilised, the economic conditions over the past 20 years have not been conducive to successful farm business investment. That said, some have managed, and again there is substantial differentiation among A2 farms.
• The spatial restructuring of rural economies through land reform has resulted in new patterns of economic activity, with the sharing of labour, equipment and other resources across A1, A2 and communal areas. The concentration of locally-based economic growth driven by agriculture has had important effects on small towns, and many of these have grown significantly.
• During the land reform, resident farm labour on farms, especially in the high-potential areas, largely lost out on the allocation of new land. Farm labour has had to reincorporate in a new agricultural economy and has faced many challenges. Gaining access to even small pieces of land is crucial for survival, as the demand for labour varies and the working conditions are poor.
• Now over twenty years on from land reform, there is a next generation of young people who are seeking out agriculture-based opportunities. They may benefit from subdivision of their parents’ land, but many must survive on small patches. Investment in small-scale irrigation through the purchase of small pumps and, linked to horticulture production, is a favoured activity.
• Finance for agriculture is extremely limited, constraining opportunities for small- and medium-scale resettlement farmers alike. Banks have so far rejected either permits to occupy in the A1 areas and leases in the A2 areas as a basis for lending. State investments have been limited, and are often misdirected and subject to corruption. Western donors have not supported land reform areas as these are deemed ‘contested areas’ and so are effectively subject to ‘sanctions’.
• The dynamics of agriculture is highly dependent on the type of crop. Some crops, such as tobacco and sugar, are linked to contract finance arrangements, supported by private companies. This allows farmers to invest in their production and some have been highly successful, although the terms of the contracts are not always favourable. Other crops, including grain crops and most horticulture, require self-financing or reliance on very selective government schemes, and so are more challenging business propositions; although again there are important successes, notably around small-scale irrigated horticulture.
• The contrasts between A1 and A2 areas and the differentiation of farmers within each mean that there is a highly heterogeneous farming population. There are different classes of farmer emerging, ranging from emergent rural capitalists to petty commodity producers to diverse classes of labour, only partly reliant on agriculture. This results in a new politics of the countryside, with quite volatile political affiliations.
• The new agrarian structure, centred on a smallholder-based agriculture and complemented by medium-scale farms, requires a very different policy approach to agriculture, with new forms of support, including a revamped and revived agricultural administration system to encourage investment. Economic and political instability, combined with wider sanctions, has massively restricted the potential of land reform farmers to drive rural economic growth, but the potentials are clearly apparent, along with many, on-going challenges.
I hope you enjoying reading the articles – or even reading them again. Do let those who might find the material useful know about where to buy the book or download it.
The following lists the original sources of each of the chapters in the six sections of the book after the introduction. Those articles that are published open access are reproduced under Creative Commons licenses, while others are either author submitted versions or are reproduced with permission.
Experiences of land reform (chapters 2-5)
Scoones, I., N. Marongwe, B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, J. Mahenehene, and C. Sukume. 2011. Zimbabwe’s land reform: challenging the myths. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(5), 967–993.
Scoones, I. 2016. Land reform, livelihoods and the politics of agrarian change in Zimbabwe. In: Pallotti, A., Tornimbeni, C. (eds.), State, Land and Democracy in Southern Africa, 127–149. London: Routledge.
Scoones, I., N. Marongwe, B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, J. Mahenehene, and C. Sukume. 2012. Livelihoods after land reform in Zimbabwe: understanding processes of rural differentiation. Journal of Agrarian Change, 12(4), 503–527.
Shonhe, T., I. Scoones, and F. Murimbarimba. 2020. Medium-scale commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe: The experience of A2 resettlement farms. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 58(4), 601–626.
Political contestations (chapters 6-8)
Chaumba, J., I. Scoones, and W. Wolmer. 2003. From jambanja to planning: the reassertion of technocracy in land reform in south-eastern Zimbabwe? Journal of Modern African Studies, 41(4), 533–554.
Scoones, I. 2015. Zimbabwe’s land reform: new political dynamics in the countryside. Review of African Political Economy, 42(144), 190–205.
Scoones, I., J. Chaumba, B. Mavedzenge, and W. Wolmer. 2012. The new politics of Zimbabwe’s Lowveld: struggles over land at the margins. African Affairs, 111(445), 527–550.
People and places (chapters 9-11)
Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, and C. Sukume. 2019. Labour after land reform: The precarious livelihoods of former farmworkers in Zimbabwe. Development and Change, 50(3), 805–835.
Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, and F. Murimbarimba. 2019. Young people and land in Zimbabwe: livelihood challenges after land reform. Review of African Political Economy, 46(159), 117–134.
Mavedzenge, B.Z., J. Mahenehene, F. Murimbarimba, I. Scoones, and W. Wolmer. 2008. The dynamics of real markets: cattle in southern Zimbabwe following land reform. Development and Change, 39(4), 613–639.
Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, F. Murimbarimba, and C. Sukume. 2018. Tobacco, contract farming, and agrarian change in Zimbabwe. Journal of Agrarian Change, 18(1), 22–42.
Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, and F. Murimbarimba. 2017. Sugar, People and Politics in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld. Journal of Southern African Studies, 43(3), 567–584.
Scoones, I., F. Murimbarimba, and J. Mahenehene. 2019. Irrigating Zimbabwe after land reform: The potential of farmer-led systems. Water Alternatives, 12(1), 88–106.
Environmental dynamics (chapters 16-17)
Wolmer, W., J. Chaumba, and I. Scoones. 2004. Wildlife management and land reform in south-eastern Zimbabwe: a compatible pairing or a contradiction in terms? Geoforum, 35(1), 87–98.
Scoones, I. and W. Wolmer. 2007. Land, landscapes and disease: the case of foot and mouth in southern Zimbabwe. South African Historical Journal, 58(1), 42–64.
Land reform in the wider context (chapters 18-20)
Scoones, I., B. Mavedzenge, and F. Murimbarimba. 2018. Medium-scale commercial farms in Africa: the experience of the ‘native purchase areas’ in Zimbabwe. Africa, 88(3), 597–619.
Mushongah, J. and I. Scoones. 2012. Livelihood change in rural Zimbabwe over 20 years. Journal of Development Studies, 48(9), 1241–1257.
Cousins, B. and I. Scoones. 2010. Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africa. Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(1), 31–66.
It’s (more or less) the tenth anniversary of Zimbabweland. I had no intention of carrying this on for a decade, but by now there are rather amazingly 433 posts, representing nearly half a million words and cumulatively 450,000 views from all over the world.
Not surprisingly, most of the readership is from Zimbabwe and South Africa, but the US and the UK are also spots where there are many regular readers. But, in addition to these four, there are a remarkable number other countries too with Zimbabweland readers, as well as all those who read and share via Twitter and other social media platforms. The blog is also republished on quite a few other media platforms, including The Zimbabwean, The Standard, The Chronicle, The Herald and others.
Across the political spectrum therefore there’s much interest and, as long as the original source is credited, I am more than happy for the blog to be republished (although sometimes it’s odd to be designated a ‘correspondent’ on a government newspaper when I haven’t been in touch with anyone!). I am also pleased that others make use of the material and share it. I noticed recently that the Commercial Farmers’ Union is reposting, and my own institution, the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex always shares to a wider ‘development’ audience.
Usually this time of year, I do a festive top-20 hits of the year, but I thought I would do the top-20 of all time on this occasion. The results are at the end of the blog. Of course biased towards older posts, it’s the ones on livestock and agricultural entrepreneurship that continue to be top hits, reflecting the strong readership from those involved in farming in Zimbabwe.
Looking back, looking forward
Looking back, the blogs have changed quite a bit over time. They are longer these days, with more hyperlinks and now have lots of photos. Over the past few years, I have done a few popular series on themes that we’ve been working on – such as small towns, young people, pfumvudza, irrigation, soils, and agricultural entrepreneurs (among others) – as well as summarising our longitudinal studies across our sites. Most recently, the sequence of blogs on COVID-19 responses (now over 20 since March 2020) has been an important experiment in real-time reflection on an unfolding story. With the Omicron variant sweeping the world and dramatically affecting Zimbabwe already, we will have a further update before Christmas.
Although I mostly pen the blogs, they are more often than not a collective endeavour, emerging out of discussions with the brilliant team, ably led now by Felix Murimbarimba who took over after Blasio Mavedzenge’s untimely death. This sort of research-based writing is very useful as a precursor to more in-depth, elaborated academic pieces. A lighter style and more immediate publishing means that the results of our work get shared and, although there are not many direct comments on the blog, the feedback we get is incredibly useful as we craft other academic publications or define new research directions.
The blog was originally established to provide context and response for our book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, which came out with James Currey and Weaver Press in 2010. By 2011, I was so depressed (and annoyed) about how people seemed to dismiss the findings out of hand, without any engagement with the data. The BBC did what was generally a very good piece in the ‘Crossing Continents’ series reflecting on our work, but had to ‘balance’ it with completely unsupported and misleading commentary, not grounded in research data. Such biases were not confined to the British press, who have been notoriously bad at reporting on Zimbabwe. Sadly, it also included fellow researchers, who seemed not to have read the book and wanted to make political rather than properly researched academic points.
Building on empirical engagements, encouraging debate
The febrile atmosphere of that time has thankfully subsided and there is a more engaged commentary on the good and bad of land reform (as there are of course both). Much more research has emerged since, importantly from Zimbabwean researchers. They had to confront, as had we, how land reform had transformed the agrarian landscape. This body of research is now substantial, and I am pleased to learn that many up-and-coming researchers find the blog and its now extensive archive useful (many blog views are to my surprise of old pieces that come up in searches apparently; the search facility on the blog works pretty well too). I equally try and offer occasional summaries of new published material on the blog, giving profile to this important new empirically grounded work. Researching Zimbabwe’s land and agrarian setting should always be a collective, collaborative effort, and it is one feature of working in Zimbabwe that is immensely rewarding.
I hope that the blog continues to provide insights that are relevant to civil servants, policy makers, NGOs, donors, diplomats, academics, students, as well as farmers in our sites and beyond, offering a different, but more grounded, perspective to the mainstream. I know donors subscribe and discuss it, but often don’t follow through, so ingrained are the biases and prior assumptions about Zimbabwe. The same applies to Zimbabwean government officials, but for different reasons. But at least there’s a more informed debate, and I hope readers will continue to share and discuss the blogs published here, even if they disagree.
I am not sure how long it will carry on as it’s quite a lot of work and not officially part of my day job, but there’s always something new to stay on Zimbabwe’s agrarian challenges – and occasionally other themes impinging on Zimbabwe’s fast-changing context. And, post pandemic (hopefully), we are hoping to re-energise our field research once again during 2022. So expect more results and commentary from the field.
Zimbabweland’s top 20 hits (by number of downloads since 2011)
What are the drivers of land use change and how do they interact over time? Are the changes, uni-directional and linear, or are the dynamics more complex? This is the question we posed for our study site in Mvurwi in northern Zimbabwe for the period 1984 to 2018, now published as an APRA Working Paper.
Using Landsat satellite imagery we looked at land cover change across the area over 34 years, including former large-scale farms (now resettlement farms, both small-scale and medium-scale) and one ward in the nearby Chiweshe communal area. This broad assessment was complemented by an in-depth look at a particular site, focusing on one ward. The satellite analysis was combined with field interviews with those who had lived through these changes, together with a wider analysis of changes in demography, agricultural policy, economic contexts and politics. What emerged was an interesting story.
Open forests: a dynamic environment
Mvurwi is a high potential region receiving on average about 750 mm of rainfall annually. There are sandy loam soils and a diverse miombo savannah woodland. These are open forests, with mixed patches of denser woodland with patches of grassland in between. In the past grassland areas were created and maintained by the actions of elephants and other large herbivores, or exist in places such as wetlands where trees will not grow.
Today, such patches are created through land clearance combined with grazing by domestic animals. As William Bond from UCT explains is in his excellent book – Open Ecosystems: Ecology and Evolution Beyond the Forest Edge – open forest environments are very common across Africa and are the dominant ecosystem in southern Africa’s savannah environments. These are not the classic closed forests of the foresters’ and satellite image analysts’ imagination, but a mixed, variegated environment, maintained by herbivory and human action.
This has implications for how we understand land use change in such environments. It is not a binary forest/not forest choice, perhaps with the intermediate option of ‘scrub’, but a much more dynamic landscape that shifts through different pressures as forest areas increase and decrease and grassland (or cropped) patches change.
Land use change: cyclical not linear
What happens to land use when you redistribute land to multiple new land holders? Well, forest cover declines and a more open landscape emerges with woodlands and farms interspersed. This much is obvious – although the number of papers I see condemning Zimbabwe’s land reform for destruction of trees is amazing, such is the strength of the negative narrative.
However, this is the least interesting part of the story. Our analysis indeed showed that land reform did of course result in a decline in forest cover through clearance of lands on what were large, underutilised large-scale farms, often used for very extensive grazing. This occurred especially between 2000 and 2004, following the land reform of 2000. But this was not a permanent state as so often assumed. After 2004, woodland cover increased again (2004-09), before decreasing in the most recent period (2009-18).
Cyclical patterns were equally repeated in earlier periods when the land was under different ownership. The past was not a presumed ideal of continuous forest cover, undisturbed by the horrors of small-scale farming. Although we did not have satellite imagery earlier and did not look at the old aerial photographs, I am sure that in the earlier periods, when tobacco farming was expanding and profitable on the large-scale farms, there were similar dynamics as seen today as settlers cleared the land.
What explained all these changes? It was not a standard Malthusian story of inexorable rises in population pressure resulting in deforestation – the story told in so many of those doom-and-gloom papers I mentioned earlier. Instead, there were cycles – periods of woodland expansion then retreat, and then repeats, as conditions changed. These cycles were driven by a combination of factors, not just population growth; although this is of course part of the story.
In the early 1980s, both large-scale and communal farming was recovering from the impact of major droughts, with vegetation cover bouncing back. Wider economic and political conditions had a clear effect. For example, the structural adjustment period from the early 1990s saw large-scale farmers contract their operations to small, high value production of horticulture, floriculture and so on, with some switching to wildlife. This resulted in an expansion of woodland as bush expanded to previously farmed fields. In the communal areas, structural adjustment saw the withdrawal of state support and subsidies, and so a contraction of farming activity is seen.
By contrast, in more recent years there has been a decline of forest cover due to agricultural expansion. The 2000 land reform was a key moment, with major land clearing happening in the period after 2000. But after 2004, the trend was temporarily reversed due to the economic consequences of economic chaos and hyperinflation on agriculture, particularly tobacco. This changed again after 2009, when a boom in tobacco production had a big impact, with the expansion of tobacco production (and also demand for wood for curing), resulting in significant declines in woodland area. After 2009, with the Government of National Unity and the dollarisation of the economy, there was a level of stability that saw incentives for agriculture return, and especially tobacco production in this area.
A more sophisticated approach to land use change analysis is needed
The APRA Working Paper gives much more detail of the fascinating twists and turns of a complex tale. It is best read alongside a longer history of agriculture in the area, appearing in another APRA Working Paper in the same series (see an earlier blog). Our study suggests the need for land use analysis to investigate complex patterns through multiple lenses. A simple analysis of satellite images is not enough to unpack the full story, and such patterns seen from space need interpretation from diverse sources, including from those living in the area.
Satellite-based analysis of land use change is all the rage these days, as it’s (relatively) easy, is now cheap and can be subject to multiple quant analyses through widely available software that impress journal editors and reviewers (well often not me!). But it’s not enough. Our satellite analysis was basic (Landsat after all was the earliest of the public satellites and so the imagery is not sophisticated), but it was long term (over 34 years) and so allows changes and cycles to be revealed. And most importantly, we didn’t stop there, but went to the field, studied accounts in the archives and reviewed the policy debates to explore what were the drivers behind the changes.
In the next blog, I look at some of the wider implications of taking such an approach.
How is China helping to transform African economies? There are many different narratives cast around in public and policy debate: China as the new imperial power, China as the radical developmentalist, China as just like any other donor/foreign power. None are very convincing. A report synthesising a number of research projects has been published recently, titled Africa’s economic transformation: the role of Chinese investment, and aims to get beyond the rhetoric and gain a more sophisticated, empirically-based analysis based on substantial UK-funded research efforts over recent years.
Based on detailed studies from Angola to Zambia, the report covers a range of Chinese investments from infrastructure to technology to manufacturing. Agriculture and land-based investments don’t get much attention, but some wider lessons can be drawn. Overall, the report argues that Chinese investments are not exceptional, but have certain patterns. They generally focus on the productive economic sector and that although most efforts are relatively isolated project investments, they result in increased local employment (but usually initially of lower-grade jobs) with positive impacts on local markets. Investments are not by-and-large focused on extraction of goods for export to China, as some narratives suggest. Limited vertical and horizontal linkages with the wider economy are observed with projects seen as rather isolated, and with limited impacts on the large African informal economy. Training of workforces happens, and may result in skill upgrading, although in the establishment phases of business investments, higher-skilled and management jobs largely remaining Chinese.
A few years ago now, together with colleagues from China, Brazil, Mozambique, Ghana, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, we conducted similar research looking at Chinese (and Brazilian) agriculture investments, both commercial projects and state-backed aid funding – all published open access in World Development. Some of these broader trends highlighted in the report are seen, but not all. Through joint ventures and contract farming efforts – accelerating since our earlier studies in Zimbabwe around tobacco – have resulted in much greater integration of agricultural businesses within the economy, even with smallholders. While tobacco is definitely geared to export to China, the spin-off linkage benefits to rural economies have been huge.
Training has been an important feature in Chinese agricultural investments, with large numbers of Africans trained at Chinese universities in a variety of subjects, along with support for technical upgrading. For example, Chinese investment in the Zimbabwean Tobacco Research Institute has been important, supported by exchange visits and investment in equipment. The Chinese Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centres (ATDCs) have had mixed success, and have turned out very differently in different countries. However at a time when state and Western donor investment in agricultural R&D had shrunk to virtually zero in many countries – certainly in Zimbabwe – the establishment of the ATDC at Gwebi was widely welcomed, even if the technologies on offer did not quite fit the new post-land reform setting.
As Carlos Oya and colleagues’ fascinating study of labour practices in Chinese construction and manufacturing sector investments in Angola and Ethiopia shows, there is no single labour regime observed. It very much depends on the wider political-economic context, and the dynamics of accumulation in the national economy, the nature of the state priorities and political commitments to different policies (foreign investment vs labour rights for example). The origin of the investment firm therefore has less of an impact than the investment context. This conditions what labour is available and hired, and how labourers are treated. Indeed, contrary to popular conceptions Chinese investors have no worse labour practices than others, with increasing integration into the local economy, with a localisation and training of the workforce seen over time. There is therefore no one pattern of Chinese investment, no one predictable outcome. This is part of the problem with the report as, in its search for a generalised prognosis, it frames the whole problematic in terms of ‘China’s investment’ and ‘Africa’s transformation’, as if both China and Africa were singular.
We know from the case studies discussed in the report – and reinforced by our multi-country study on agricultural aid and investment – that patterns of Chinese engagement vary massively between different African countries. This depends on historical legacies (particularly from the liberation wars and independence struggles of the 1960s and 70s), political positioning (for example in respect of alignment with US/Western interests, and especially in relation to Taiwan), and the state of the economy (investing in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia or Nigeria, where economies have been booming is a very different prospect to investing in Mozambique or Zimbabwe). Not surprisingly, all these factors impinge on what investments happen and how they pan out.
Equally, ‘Chinese’ investments have to be understood in terms of where they come from. Some emanate from the centre, and are part of the Chines aid-investment strategy. But most, even if via State-Owned Enterprises, emerge from particular provinces. These may get central state backing for ‘going out’, but they take on a very particular provincial character. They are ‘Chinese’ in that they come from the People’s Republic of China, but they are more accurately described as from Guangdong or Yunnan. As research on Chinese economic development shows, there is a huge variety of approaches, with quite different provincial styles of business and investment. This important dimension did not come out in the report, resorting as it did to generic characterisations geared perhaps to a simplistic UK aid debate.
However, repeatedly we see in our work the very different provincial characteristics of the host firms of different ATDCs across countries resulting in contrasting priorities and operations on the ground in Africa (Zimbabwe and Ethiopia for example are massively different). ‘Chinese’ firms that take up tobacco joint ventures in our study sites in Mvurwi in Zimbabwe come from very different parts of China (not necessarily tobacco growing regions, as some are expanding from mining or other businesses), again with different business models, labour practices, investment priorities and sources of finance.
Going beyond the ‘China in Africa’ simplification is long overdue. The individual research studies covered in the report no doubt pick up the particularities and the context (I admit that I haven’t read them all), but these sort of syntheses and associated policy debate too often fail to. We have to understand the particularities of these ‘development encounters’, and nuance the debate. Of course, just as we differentiate between ‘European’ investment from the UK or Sweden, so we must between ‘Chinese’ investment from Hunan or Hubei.
Investment outcomes and development processes are always a complex political negotiation – of knowledge frames, values, cultures, interests and economic priorities – between located firms and particular local political economies. Whether focusing on investments from China, Europe or the Americas, some more sophistication is needed in thinking through the processes, practices and possibilities of such encounters.
There has been a flurry of studies on young people and agriculture in recent years, including in Zimbabwe. The wider critical literature has challenged the standard narratives around youth specific policy measures – such as narratives that youth are innovative, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and so the future of agriculture that we see in report after report. Instead, much of this work makes the case that broad, fairly standard development policies – improved infrastructure, better education, agricultural R and D, labour policies and so on – are what is needed to expand “landscapes of opportunity” for everyone, including younger people.
A recent comparative study using survey data from six African countries showed (rather obviously) that opportunities expanded when people were near markets (for off-farm work) and when agricultural potential was higher (for farming). More interestingly, the patterns were not much different between different age groups, although those in their 20s reported ‘no activity’ most frequently and those in their 30s were more likely to engage in off-farm work.
Large surveys such as this reveal very little however about the relational dynamics of generational change and the ways life courses are adapted. This is an important point made by a paper on youth and food systems, which eschews an age-based categorisation beloved of surveys and argues that youth is a “transitional phase within a life cycle”. It’s this transition (often including considerable periods of ‘waithood’) – of establishing a home, gaining access to land, investing in agriculture or starting up a business – that is crucial. Of course, as the paper argues, such processes of generational change intersect with gender, class, wealth, location and other dimensions.
In this sense, there are particular challenges faced by young people – across a variety of ages depending on their life course. This comes out in the more empirically-grounded, qualitative studies, which are increasingly coming out on this theme with work on Zimbabwe.
For example, a comparative assessment of young people’s experiences in commercial farming ‘hotspots’ in Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe highlights the many challenges people face in first gaining access to land, capital and markets for agriculture as a young person. As the paper highlights, social relations – amongst family and beyond – are crucial, but overall it’s very hard work and challenging, according to the testimonies collected.
Successes can quickly be reversed, as ‘hazards’ strike – both misfortune and mistakes. The paper’s conclusions that it is not land or credit that is needed are slightly contradicted by the data, as it’s clear that in Ghana and Zimbabwe land constraints are very real, and access to finance is a challenge across sites for young people. The paper concludes that what young people need is an insurance or form of protection from sudden, unexpected shocks, adding to the array of policy measures on offer.
More in-depth studies are offered from different parts of Zimbabwe that reinforce some of these themes. For example, based on in-depth life histories from Matabelaland (Lupane and Umguza districts), Vusilizwe Thebe argues that challenges of young people are very contextual. In the A1 resettlement area many young people who occupied land or joined parents who did so are disconnected from the sort of deep networks that provide access to resources and help transitions in life courses as in nearby communal areas. Nevertheless, young, independent, single women have been able to make a go of agriculture in the resettlement areas, whereas patriarchal institutions would have constrained such opportunities elsewhere.
A study from Goromonzi in Mashonaland East by Clement Chipenda and Tom Tom focused on the challenges of social reproduction in the new resettlements, and pointed to the complaints of young people feeling left out of the land distribution. This has resulted in generational conflicts between young people and their parents, as those without land and employment have to resort to highly precarious work, such as gold panning or temporary hired labour. Young people in Henry Bernstein’s terms are a new fragmented class of labour. These class tensions and implications for social reproduction are important themes raised.
“Opportunities for young people following land reform are severely constrained. The precariousness of work, the challenges schooling and getting qualifications, family disputes and illnesses, the lack of land, the poor productivity of dryland farming, and the difficulties of establishing businesses without capital, are all recurrent themes. While a few have found their way into reasonably remunerated jobs, the routes to accumulation, and getting established as independent adults, are limited for others, with very small-scale irrigated farming seemingly by the far the best option.”
The wider politics of young people and land reform is picked up by another recent paper by Fadzai Chipato and colleagues, which focuses on youth struggles. The paper documents the long association between youth, the liberation war and ruling party politics and the particular position of young people in the struggle over land. However, the paper highlights the real problems of the conflation of state and party politics and the use of land as patronage resource. This has resulted in an increasing disenfranchisement of young people, as they next generation does not feel it is being provided for, with land not available and the economy in ruins. However, the cross-generational struggles for livelihoods are being revived, often outside party control, as young people exert their agency and organise to take land through informal invasions as well as upsetting land use laws and claiming land and water for their farming.
‘The land is the economy, the economy is the land’ is a well-known ZANU-PF rallying cry. The centring of land in the politics of the country means that questions are always raised about who gets land and through what means? The land reform undoubtedly benefited a large number of people, many of whom are doing well, but this was a particular generation, and others who were children or even not born in 2000 are now seeking out livelihoods in rural areas. The generational dimensions of the agrarian challenge does not go away through a redistribution; in some ways the conflicts intensify, but between different people.
“Know your epidemic, act on its politics” was a lesson learned in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As Alex De Waal argued back in March, it’s just as important for COVID-19. The pandemic is playing out in very different ways in different places, yet the public health responses tend to be standardised and not adapted to context. What needs to be understood are both local responses and their politics.
Since the end of March (when the lockdown was first imposed in Zimbabwe), we have been tracking the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on diverse rural areas and linked small towns across the country (see our first blog (Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essential) for early reflections from March 27. Since then, and based on reports from colleagues from Chikombedi in Mwenezi district; Matobo district in Matabeleland; Masvingo and Gutu districts and from Mvurwi in Mashonaland Central, we have produced so far four extended blogs based on compilations of field reports.
Through some reflections on the past four blogs (links included below), this piece asks how can we get to ‘know the epidemic’ in Zimbabwe, exploring the implications for the response and wider politics?
April 27 (COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers): Three weeks into the lockdown and the effects on rural livelihoods were already being felt. Movement restrictions and the closing of markets were causing havoc. A heavy-handed response was being led by the police who ‘were everywhere’, stopping people moving. Rumours abounded about the origins of the virus and who it was affecting, and people feared going to health centres. The fear was tangible and the unknown nature of the virus (compared to say HIV) was causing major anxiety. Many had seen on the TV or heard about from relatives the devastating consequences elsewhere, including in the UK and South Africa. The expectation was that this was going to happen in Zimbabwe, in a situation with far fewer resources and an extremely under-resourced health service. The fear galvanised a collective response, and at this stage collaboration between people, the state, churches and others was growing. There was a sense that this was something that had to be addressed together, and for Zimbabwe there was an unusual politics of unity and collaboration.
June 15 (COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’): By mid-June the lockdown had been in place for about 10 weeks, and people were having to find ways to cope. Things were getting very difficult and consumer products and even food was scarce. By this stage transport of imported goods from South Africa was being facilitated (mostly illegally) by truckers. Traders of all sorts had emerged to supply both rural areas and townships; as someone put it, “we are all vendors now”. Agricultural production had spread – “everyone is a gardener” – including in town. Avoiding reliance on wider value chains had become essential and production, trade and consumption links were increasingly localised across our study sites. With the drying up of remittance flows (as diaspora populations were also affected by COVID-19 job losses and economic contraction), a sense of self-reliance emerged. The large number or returnees from South Africa (who had lost jobs and had been denied social assistance) was by this stage putting a strain on local communities. They also brought the virus and it was from this stage that cases were not just imports from outside but began to be based on local community transmission, although still at a very low rate. Community tensions rose in this period, as concerns over livelihoods and infection increased, with new arrivals from South Africa often shunned and stigmatised. Political scandals around procurement of PPE and equipment reinforced the sense that people were on their own.
July 27 (Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe): By the end of July, the informal economy – including a substantial growth of smuggling – had expanded further to provide alternatives. A new economy had emerged in order for people to survive. While really tough, people had begun to find ways around restrictions. In this period there had been an growth of movement of people – first back from South Africa and neighbouring countries as people lost their jobs and had no other forms of support, and then from urban areas within Zimbabwe back to the rural areas. The extreme challenges of living in town had hit hard and many felt that the only way to survive was to go ‘home’ to the rural areas, where at least there were family members to offer support, and the opportunity of a small plot of land to do gardening. This pattern continued through August into September, likely resulting in a massive flow of people (and viruses). Meanwhile, the wider political context shifted. With the prospects of opposition protests scheduled for the end of the month, the state and security forces were clamping down, using the COVID-19 regulations to restrict movements and gatherings. Some high-profile arrests had changed the political mood. While at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was pulling together and the joint COVID committees involved all political parties, the churches, businesses and others, tensions were rising.
September 7 (Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe): The most recent update again showed a shift in responses. The restrictions had relaxed a bit and the political tensions had eased somewhat. Although lockdowns were still being imposed along with movement restrictions, the way local economies had adapted over the previous months had meant that new supply chains had emerged. The shift from formal to informal marketing was complete and mobile shops from cars had become the dominant approach to retail selling. By this stage, people had given up on expectations that the state was going to provide, and many had turned to traditional healers, herbalists and prophets offering health care and support. While cases had not expanded massively, the threat of COVID-19 remained real, but new ways of coping had to be found. The failure of state provision, combined with the series of corruption scandals allegedly linked to those at the top, fed into a disappointment with political leadership and process. People were again on their own having to cope with the virus – and in particular the harsh lockdown measures that had been imposed. Many argued that it was not the virus that was killing them but the lockdown. There were of course always ways around the restrictions as life had to go on, whether involving selling things at night, moving through new routes or paying off police or security forces at road blocks. A sense of disconnection and disillusionment reigned, with a feeling that no-one else – and particularly the state – cared. This has generated a spirit of innovation however, as people have found new ways to get products to market, provide goods and get round the restrictions.
The COVID-19 pandemic – and in particular the lockdown control measures – has resulted in changing economic responses, huge transformations of market arrangements and value chains, there have been large movements of people, and with the rapid expansion of informal economic activity there has been innovation on all fronts. At the same time, politics has shifted from a politics of collaboration to a politics of conflict and dissent to a politics of disillusionment. With the economic struggles for livelihoods deeply entwined with politics, we can expect further changes as the pandemic unfolds. We are continuing our informal monitoring – getting to ‘know the epidemic’ – across the sites, so look out for further updates in the coming weeks.
Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation(and for the photosfrom different sites).
I had the latest long discussion on responses to COVID-19 in our rural study areas across the country on 5 September. Check out the earlier updates from 27 July, 15 June and 27 April The pandemic continues to take a hold in Zimbabwe, and the case numbers are rising (total 6837 reported cases and 206 deaths on September 4), although the rapidity and extent of spread is not as feared – so far at least. As one of my colleagues put it, “we are still the survivors of COVID-19”. That said, the impact of the lockdown measures is far-reaching, but since it’s now gone on for so long, people are (by necessity) adapting, and finding new ways of responding. What was striking about this conversation was the array of innovations happening.
Rural and urban connections
The relationship between town and countryside has been transformed by the lockdown measures. In the past there were frequent visits between rural and urban homes, with people being able to respond immediately to a crisis or just go and visit for a weekend. Now movement requires an exemption letter issued by the police. “You very frequently have to lie”, one of our colleagues noted, “saying you have a sick relative or that there is a funeral; otherwise permission is not granted”. The comedian VaMayaya captured it well in a recent video. The inconvenience and hassle is evident, as villagers try and bluff their way past the police officer.
The restrictions have a big impact when flows of agricultural labour are curtailed. For example, in our sugar-growing site in Hippo Valley, it’s cane cutting season and usually migrant labourers come for short periods, but this year they either haven’t come or they are failing to get back home, causing tensions and family disputes. The lack of labour is also pushing up hiring costs for producers and the resettled farmers are now competing with the estate. Fortunately more resettlement A2 farmers are on their farms these days, especially since lockdown, as the management of labour is increasingly demanding.
The importance of ‘home’
There are large numbers of people who have moved from towns in Zimbabwe back to their rural homes. Some have been away for years and have to find new places to stay. But town has become difficult to live in – there are few jobs and many have lost them since lockdown, prices are high, rents are prohibitive and the lockdown restrictions are harsh. Many are finding sourcing food difficult. Drivers, company workers, civil servants, vendors, sex workers and others who have lost the means to make a livelihood have moved in droves to the rural areas. In all our sites, the population of villages has expanded massively. Added to these local migrations, there are those who have come from abroad, as we have commented on before. ‘Home’ in the rural areas is the social safety net that the state is unable to provide.
Those coming back have to make a living of course, and there has been an expansion of agricultural projects (poultry, horticulture etc.) as well as other farming activities, as land has been subdivided by relatives. In our Mvurwi site some of the returnees have signed up for tobacco contracts for the coming season, acquiring grower numbers through relatives. Teachers no longer working in schools have set up private tuition arrangements in their homes, while mechanics and others are providing services once offered in urban areas. Vending has exploded, as former civil servants and others try and raise money through new businesses and, in some areas such as Matobo and Mvurwi, small-scale artisanal mining provides sources of income for those who once populated offices and factories in town.
The last few seasons have been poor in Zimbabwe and there are many areas this year in food deficit. Getting food to the right place when movement is restricted is a challenge. Responding to this has been a massive growth in private transport networks that facilitate the flow of food. There are food relief efforts by government and NGOs, but this is far more significant overall. Relatives with surplus in A1 resettlement farms will often take food to their kin in town in cars, where food is expensive and scarce. Those with significant volumes will sell on maize to traders who will take it to sell to traders in town markets. In local areas where there are patchy food deficits, people must scout around to check out which areas have food so links can be made, and food moved. It’s not like the past when people were always moving; in the COVID time people must actively seek out food and organise to get hold of it.
Some food is transported in larger quantities, with large 20 tonne trucks moving from Gokwe and northern Zimbabwe, for example, where food is plentiful to markets in the south of the country. The larger operations are well capitalised and organised, with ways of dealing with the movement restrictions through connections and payment to officials. Some operators control the whole supply chain, and move food to stores in urban areas where grinding mills are installed and direct sales organised. Other, more informal arrangements must deal with permits and road blocks, often having to pay off the police. Just as with the transport of groceries on trucks from South Africa discussed in an earlier blog, even though there are challenges, food does get through.
Despite the restrictions, the movement back-and-forth between town and the rural areas continues, and is essential for assuring food security and providing much needed goods. Much exchange is in the form of barter, as groceries (cooking oil, sugar, rice) and clothes are brought by people from town are exchanged with maize and other crops. Urban markets for food and other agricultural products are complemented by a huge growth of urban farming and gardening. As noted in a previous blog, nearly everyone is a gardener now.
Within rural areas such as our food insecure sites in the lowveld and Matabeleland South, some can exchange dried mopane worms, for example, with those who have grain nearby. It as a mostly informal system, but complemented increasingly by larger operations. It is far more effective than the cumbersome and politicised food relief systems of government, UN agencies and NGOs. As ever with food supply, even in a drought year like now, it’s about timely supply and access rather than overall availability, as is too often assumed in the ‘food crisis’ narratives about Zimbabwe.
Localising value chains: cars are the new mini-markets
Our team has been visiting local shops and supermarkets from Chikombedzi to Masvingo, Mvurwi and Kezi-Maphisa, and a common pattern is emerging. Retailers are increasingly sourcing locally. They complain that volumes are insufficient, quality is variable and the range of products is limited, but with restrictions on supply, including from South Africa, supermarket buyers are making use of local production. This is good news for horticulture, poultry and other suppliers in the rural areas who are receiving a COVID-19 dividend, despite the other travails.
This applies to other shops too. As stock cannot be sourced, local suppliers are turned to. The trend of South African ‘supermarketisation’ is being reversed due to an informal import substitution policy enforced by a virus. Of course not all products can be substituted and there are shortages of key elements for manufacturing processes. This is having knock-on effects for example in feed supplies, fertiliser manufacture, herbicide provision and spare parts of different sorts. This has definitely having a negative impact on farmers, as prices hike with increasing scarcity.
Shops in town are shifting their focus too. One hardware store in Masvingo, for example, was failing to stock goods and applied for a grocery trading license and is now shifted to supplying locally sourced groceries. But commerce is now not just through shops, as their opening hours are restricted by lockdown measures. The provision of groceries, grain, vegetables and a whole host of products is increasingly being done by local, mobile traders, frequently operating out of their own cars.
Mrs V. lives in Mucheke, a high-density suburb in Masvingo, she formerly has a stand at the KuTrain market in town. But this was closed for renovation due to lockdown and she instead took up trading from her car. “I don’t dream of going back to the kuTrain market”, she says, “I start at 3pm when shops are closing down and park at strategic points in the location and sell until the evening. It’s good business. I source products from local farmers, including those who have plots near Great Zimbabwe, and get groceries from truckers who come from South Africa”. Cars are the new ‘mini-markets’ and business is booming. All this is restructuring the economy towards more localised value chains that a greater diversity of people can benefit from, including farmers.
Working from home
Many formal places of work have closed and to make a living people must now work from home. It’s impossible to travel to work due to movement restrictions and those who are self-employed have shut up shop as rents and rates are high. Moving businesses to home during lockdown made total sense, and they are thriving. There are welding operations happening in living rooms, tailoring businesses in garages, bakeries in people’s kitchens, beer brewing in yards… along with hair salons, photocopy/printing businesses, brick-making and so on. The list is endless.
Working from home takes on a different meaning in Zimbabwe, whether in the townships or in the rural areas. Of course much of this activity is illegal, flouting health and safety rules and avoiding taxes, but as one person running a home business argued, “What can I do? I have to survive! We are learning new skills for survival!”
Finance in the COVID economy
With Zimbabwe’s economy in a mess, and currency swings a daily occurrence, navigating finance in business and agriculture is a challenge. The new Reserve Bank auction system, and the control measures that have limited exchanges, agents and cahs withdrawals has, it seems, brought some more stability of late. The official and parallel exchange rate is now closer, and the queues at shops, fuel stations and so on have reduced, as the opportunity for hoarding and speculation, and gaming the system has reduced. More commodities are now available in large part due to the new supply systems that have evolved in recent months. Instead, as one of my colleagues observed, “the queues you see today are waiting for sanitiser and temperature checks at shops”.
With inflation high and the local currency weak, the economy has by default re-dollarised, but the underlying fragility remains. All this is good for producers and consumers, but not everyone. Our team interviewed a money changer in Mvurwi, once a sight on every street corner: “I used to make US$500 per month, but now I am lucky to get US$80. I used to enjoy good living, drinking every day. Now it’s tough”. As our colleague put it, “rather than see the well- known money changers in the bars braaiing meat, they now go home with a bundle of vegetables like everyone else!”
Alternative health systems
With the near-collapse of the Zimbabwean public health system, and a series of rolling strikes by nurses and doctors who are poorly paid and badly treated, people are more and more reliant on alternative sources of health provision.
Sometimes this is through the family, with particular family members having knowledge about herbal remedies. There is a huge demand for particular herbs, tree roots as well as onions, ginger and lemons, which are seen as important in remedies. Not all of this is directed to COVID-19, but people are very aware of the need to boost immunity, stay healthy and have remedies at hand in case the virus strikes. Those supplying herbs or other agricultural products used as treatments have been experiencing a roaring trade in recent months.
The same is the case for prophets and other religious figures offering spiritual healing of different sorts, through banishing evil spirits and other causes of ailment. Large gatherings led by prophets from a variety of churches have attracted the attention of the authorities and some have been dispersed by the police. These days most are more organised, with effective distancing and requirements to wear masks. COVID-19 has definitely boosted the popularity of particular prophets across our study sites, who now have big followings.
Professional herbalists have also become massively popular. These range from the informal n’anga living in the village to Chinese/Indian herbalists to those African, traditional herbalists who have surgeries and clinics that spread between Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi. One such surgery is in Masvingo. One of the herbalists explained: “We have 300-400 customers a day, and sell herbs as far afield as the UK. There is huge demand. The clinics and hospitals don’t look after their patients, but we can – whether you are young or old. We can visit people at home or they come here. For COVID you must build strength to fight it and our herbs really can help”.
As elsewhere in the world, Zimbabwe’s pandemic experience continues to evolve, reflecting the very particular context of the country. Innovation, adaptation and learning to cope with a fast-changing, challenging setting are all important. We continue to monitor the situation across our sites from all corners of the country, so look out for another update in October.
Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation(and for the photosfrom different sites).
As part of the on-going discussions about Zimbabwe’s new land policy, land tenure is a central concern. Zimbabwe has a multi-form land tenure system, involving different legal arrangements and different forms of authority. This suits a complex land system with multiple users wanting different things out of holding land. This has been acknowledged time and time again, most prominently by the Presidential Commission on Land led by Mandi Rukuni way back in 1994.
Each time there is a policy review, consultants and commentators line up to make arguments for regularising what is seen as a messy, complex system. Drawing on ideology more than evidence, they argue for a standardised, ordered system based on a singular form of titled private property. There are many examples of this position – and alarmingly I heard them in a number of aid agencies in Harare recently. Eddie Cross is the most consistent and articulate proponent, seemingly having persuaded large sections of the opposition movement and many donors too.
In order to justify an overhaul, a whole series of simplistic narratives are deployed. The most persistent of which is the assumption that freehold private tenure is the desired gold standard, and all reforms should aim to create cadastral uniformity with private, individual plots registered. This is assumed to result in the release of land value as land becomes ‘bankable’, able to be used as collateral for investment credit.
Titling is not always the answer
As so many have shown – and has been discussed on this blog many, manytimes – this narrative is deeply problematic. I apologise for coming back to this subject yet again, but the argument needs repeating, as it’s vitally important. For a refresher, see the short note (replicated in this blog) I produced with the late, great Sam Moyo years ago in an earlier attempt to address these misplaced arguments.
Bottom-line, there are other routes to delivering security of tenure, facilitating investment and financing of land-based activities than freehold tenure. Leases and permits with the right wording are perfectly good bases for collateral, and mortgaging land is not the only solution to agricultural financing anyway. And of course private titling land is not always a route to tenure security and sustainable management of resources. It depends on the political and institutional context. Just ask any white farmer around 2000 about the limits of security on private titled property. And consult the vast research resources compiled by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom on the security of forms of common property.
Yet, it’s only particular forms of individualised, private property rights are seen as sacrosanct by right-wing, libertarian think-tanks like the Cato Institute – and their dubious followers in southern Africa. But, we must always remember the aim is not to generate one type of legal property arrangement, but security of tenure on any sort of land through diverse ownership arrangements.
Security emerges from different sources. These are political, social, cultural as well as through formal legal allocations of rights. These sources of authority have to emerge together. Traditional systems of communal land tenure, overseen by chiefs and headman and governed by culturally-accepted rules, can offer tenure security, just as can a piece of paper allocating a title. But this depends on whether the authority overseeing such tenure regimes is legitimate, trusted, transparent and accountable; and this depends on politics. It is the political settlement pertaining to land that provides security – or the opposite.
A political settlement over land
The problem in Zimbabwe is that, despite the repeated proclamations, there remains no finalised political settlement over land, even after 20 long years. This lack of settlement is what produces insecurity, and in its wake the on-going process of politically-motivated land grabbing that continues to plague the sector, especially around elections. Building a political settlement around land is not just high-sounding proclamations from the top, and some performative interventions to show willing, but also it means investing in the administrative and bureaucratic system that offers security and clarity. This may seem tedious – centred on recording, auditing, registering and documenting – and centred on the bureaucratic domain of surveyors and lands offices. But this demanding, long-term building of bureaucratic capacity is essential.
The fact that there are (finally) moves towards agreed compensation settlements with farmers whose land was acquired for land reform is very good news. It appears agreements are close on valuation measures, even if the mechanics over how compensation will be paid are as yet unclear. This is important, as the impasse that has lasted now nearly 20 years has been debilitating. Agreement on this will mean that the land reform areas, now settled for years, can no longer be deemed ‘contested’ by international donors and investors.
This means that donor and private support and investment can flow, without ‘restrictive measures’ (aka ‘sanctions’) getting in the way. With compensation processes agreed, then investment in land administration systems can follow; perhaps with some district level pilots, as I recommended a while back. In any area, this will allow for clarity on who owns what, and in turn audit systems can evaluate how land is used, and whether land is being held outside agreed laws, and with this clear, local negotiations over land use ownership can follow.
Getting an effective land administration system functioning is central to providing tenure security. Under such a such a system a multi-form tenure system is possible. It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Donors endlessly push supposedly successful land titling projects, whether in Rwanda or Ethiopia, but rarely mention the pitfalls, or the historical failures such as Kenya, where the consequences – sometimes bloody and violent – are still being felt.
A land tenure system in a multi-form setting just has to accept different approaches for different areas: leases for larger A2 farms, registered permits for new A1 farms, and selective registration for some parts of communal areas, as required (such as protection of village land against aggressive land acquisition by mining concerns or, in peri-urban areas, housing developers). Overall the aim is the same: enhancing tenure security where it’s needed (more in A2, less in communal areas), but not assuming that there is one (legal/administrative) solution. Such a system needn’t be complex and expensive, and the use of satellite technology certainly speeds things up.
Despite the persistent, ideologically-driven arguments, the ideal for Zimbabwe must not a fully titled private land tenure system with every parcel registered in a deeds office. This would take decades to complete and would not take account of the flexible arrangements required, particularly in smallholder and communal settings. I wonder sometimes whether those who push such a line have worked on the ground in such settings where overlapping systems and complex negotiations are the norm, and required. A simplistic form of land titling would also create conflict of massive proportions with boundary disputes endlessly clogging up administrative courts.
The best solution is to go for a parsimonious approach, maintain the multiform tenure system, and enhance tenure security through improving land administration – and avoid an apparently neat titling option that will not work.