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BZ Mavedzenge: the loss of a true public servant

Blasio Zivengwa Mavedzenge (better known simply as BZ) has tragically died following a car crash near Mashava. Another terrible loss in the global carnage of road traffic accidents, which claim 1.3 million people each year. And, after Sam Moyo, another brilliant person from our Zimbabwe land research community, robbed from us too early due to others’ reckless driving.

BZ has been a research collaborator and good friend of mine for 30 years. With many others, I am devastated by our loss. A constant source of sage, practical advice, with a deep knowledge of farming contexts, especially in Masvingo, BZ has been an inspiration on many fronts. Over the years, he has taught me so much, not least about how to do sustained, grounded research in rural settings.

I got to know BZ, and his close friend and colleague Felix Murimbarimba, in the mid-80s, when they were leading the Masvingo-based research of the Farming Systems Research Unit (FSRU), then part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Research and Specialist Services. Since then we have worked on many projects, and produced many publications together:  from early work on the impacts of structural adjustment on agriculture to work on drought and dryland farming (that ended up with the book, Hazards and Opportunities), work on soil fertility management, studies of crop-livestock integration and of course, since 2000, long-term research on the livelihood consequences of land reform. We also produced several film series together, and BZ’s skills extended to film narration, with his deep baritone voice providing the perfect commentary for the ‘voices from the field’ films.

BZ was no ordinary researcher. He did not have a string of qualifications after his name, no academic titles or positions. He was first and foremost a public servant, working for government from 1974 when he took his first job with TILCOR (now ARDA) to work on the Chisumbanje estate. BZ was born in 1947 in the depths of colonial rule. He grew up in Chirumanzu communal area, part of a chiefly family. He was educated, like his children, at the mission school, Gokomere, and later trained at a government agricultural training college, gaining an agricultural diploma.

From Chisumbanje, BZ went to Gokwe and trained as a cotton grader, and then joined the research department and worked at Matopos Research Station as a technician, implementing important research on grazing systems, from the mid-1970s until 1981, when the FSRU was established. Unlike many researchers, BZ knew his agriculture, and he also knew about implementing rural research, and how difficult it is. As a technician, low down in the hierarchy, BZ was often at the receiving end of poorly designed experiments or absurdly long surveys. From long experience, he had an acute sense of what was feasible, and what might be interesting, and our many discussions over the years on research design, methodology and data analysis have massively enriched my own capacities as a researcher.

On-farm research, bringing research from the station to farmers’ own fields, was central to the FSRU’s mission. As the approach evolved from simply replicating experiments in field conditions to more participatory approaches, involving farmers in the design, implementation and analysis of experiments, BZ and the Masvingo team came into their own. Important work on open-pollinated seed varieties radically shifted policy thinking, and later work on soil fertility and nutrient management provided important pointers to a more balanced approach to soil health. In this period, we developed close links with farmers in different sites across Masvingo province, which became crucial in later phases of work.

When the FSRU closed down, BZ moved to a research officer position within Agritex, the extension department. Nyasha Pambirei, then provincial head, knew the value of research and the important insights it could bring on the ground. This capacity was vital as we developed our work on ‘livelihoods after land reform’ from 2000, initially in Masvingo province. This resulted in the 2010 book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, plus many co-authored papers and reports. BZ was also central to extending our research efforts to Mvurwi and Matobo in recent years, using his extraordinary diplomatic skills to negotiate access to new sites, sometimes in tricky settings.

BZ was also a farmer himself, applying his exceptional knowledge of agriculture in the difficult dryland environment of Mashava. He gained land through the land reform, joining with the late Cosmas Gonese and the AZTREC group in the invasion of Shashe farm. In an interview, BZ recounts this story, and the early establishment of his A1 plot. The farm was his pride and joy. Following his retirement from government service, he moved there permanently with his wife, Mai Tapiwa, who has joined him in making it a wonderful home and productive farm. With the prolific rains this season, BZ was sending me many photos through WhatsApp of the harvest as it came in – maize, sorghum, millet, groundnuts and more.

Despite the sniping of some other researchers and journalists, being a farmer – proudly part of the land reform – did not distort BZ’s perspectives on Zimbabwe’s land issues. Quite the opposite: his engagements on his farm helped us all understand the challenges much better. He could be the harshest critic of some aspects of land reform, and associated policy, but equally recognised the potentials and opportunities it presented, as he tried to realise them himself. Over the last decade, Shashe farm has become a focus for training of others in farming approaches, and a centre for experimentation on agroecology and debate about food sovereignty, with many people coming from across Zimbabwe, and internationally, to learn from the Shashe experience. The Mavedzenge homestead regularly hosted visitors, and many recall the long and intense discussion into the night on all aspects of land, agriculture and livelihoods.

Even in his retirement, BZ was continuing his public service. Quiet and unassuming, BZ’s deep knowledge and commitment was inspiring to everyone who met him. Unlike BZ, his children and grandchildren were able to benefit from the fruits of Independence, and particularly education, which BZ and Mai Tapiwa were passionate about. As a regular visitor to his home in Masvingo over 30 years, I have seen the family grow, regularly reviewing spectacular school reports and hearing about many family achievements, near and far and across generations. I have learned much about parenting from the Mavedzenges, and only wish that the long-planned trip to their home with my own kids had happened before this awful event.

BZ’s passing is a deep loss for everyone who knew him, and for our research community more broadly. We have lost a true public servant; someone with strong values and commitment, deep intelligence and insight, grounded pragmatism and good humour. BZ, we will miss you, your kind advice and generous counsel, and of course that inimitable laugh.


 This tribute to BZ Mavedzenge, 13 October 1947-27 August 2017, was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. BZ was laid to rest at his farm in Mashava on 30 August. He is survived by his wife, and children – Tapiwa, Kenneth, Terrence, Romualdo, Tunga and Tafadzwa – along with many grandchildren. Please feel free to add your own comments, memories  and reflections below.


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Rethinking agricultural extension

Zimbabwe’s agricultural extension service, Agritex, was the pride of Africa in the 1980s, before the ravages of structural adjustment hit in the 1990s. There were extension workers throughout the countryside, and a network of subject matter specialists, most highly experienced and qualified. The quality of the training and advice offered was unparalleled anywhere on the continent, and for a time the service was well resourced with extension workers reasonably paid and with transport and so able to move around.

Today the extension service is a sorry reflection of past glories. Many qualified staff left or passed away (the ravages of HIV/AIDS hit many government services very badly), posts are unfilled, the transport capacity virtually non-existent and the ability to offer up-to-date advice severely hampered by the parallel decimation of government research services. Most farmers rely on private input suppliers, agrodealers and their neighbours for advice these days. Of course there are extension workers in the field, and they are usually extraordinarily committed and informed, despite the poor conditions of their posts. In the communal areas many get additional incentives from NGO programmes, often diverting their work to projects like conservation agriculture or group gardening.

I had some interesting discussions recently with a number of former Agritex staff and resettlement farmers about what they thought of the service today, and what they thought about its future, particularly in the post land reform era. They reminisced about the past of course, and acknowledged how effective Agritex had been, but they were also sanguine about the future. What do the ‘new farmers’ really need?

The discussion identified three important things: information (and particularly up to the minute market and price data), brokering (between farmers and contractors, suppliers, markets and service providers, to ensure that deals struck are fair and regulated) and business management skills (they were confident about agronomy, but not running a business, even a small one: managing accounts, cash flows, investments and the rest). This is a very far cry from the standard Agritex approach, based as it was on the old World Bank Training and Visit system, and of course with its roots in the colonial era with the post of ‘Chief Instructor of Natives’ held by the famous American missionary, E.D. Alvord for many years. Today the emphasis should be very different, my informants suggested.

This would require a total rethink of Agritex, and agricultural extension in general. Indeed a department in the Ministry of Agriculture may not be the appropriate organisational vehicle at all. My informants pointed out that the new farmers, compared to their compatriots in the communal lands, were younger, better educated, more mobile, and with good access to town. They all had mobile phones, and many had smartphones with Internet access. Many were making money, and had investment, marketing and business planning decisions to make, often juggling an agricultural enterprise with other activities. Many women were independent operators, or took on particular roles within a more complex business than the standard communal area farm.

Of course not all resettlement farms are like this, just as not all communal area farms are classic family smallholder farms focused on subsistence agriculture with some off-farm activities. There is a huge diversity, and tailoring approaches to extension and development more generally to different groups is essential. In our study in Masvingo we identified 15 different livelihood strategies across the sample of 400 households in 16 sites that we clustered into four broad types. In a recent DFID-funded initiative three categories are identified that roughly chime with our livelihood types: market oriented surplus producers, smallholders who are surviving and are in need of livelihood support, and those who are struggling and in need of social protection.

Our discussion focused on the first, and some of the second, group. But this is a big and growing proportion of the new farming population, and the one that is really going to get agriculture moving. While social welfare approaches are clearly necessary, if there are to be long-term transitions out of poverty and onto growth paths that are sustainable backing those who are engaging with markets, developing their farms, and investing should be a priority. And supporting such people with the type of service that meets their needs I would argue is a useful public service. Some of it of course could be paid for in time, but as a strategic government investment it could easily be justified.

The new DFID programme is being implemented by FAO, and appears to be focused on ‘training’ focused on building ‘resilience’ through ‘climate smart agriculture’, with a range of high-sounding objectives set. But is this going to be old-style training, rekindling the glory days of 1980s Agritex (although in this case implemented by NGOs) and focused on instruction and demonstration around farming techniques (including conservation agriculture)? Or will it be building capacity around the priorities of information, brokering and business that we identified? There has been a repeated default in new programming by aid agencies as well as government to return to the past, and not rethink for the future. This is $48 million of UK taxpayers’ money, so let’s hope it is better focused than previous efforts, and helps to rebuild an agricultural research and extension capacity in Zimbabwe that is fit for its new purposes.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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Irrigating Zimbabwe: time for some new thinking

In 1952, a major report on large-scale irrigation made the case for a substantial increase in investment in irrigation in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. The reason was growing concerns about national food security and the need to improve the production of land recently settled by war veterans. Of course 60 years ago, such support was for white war veteran settlers who had come to the colony following the Second World War. Such new settlers often displaced local populations (without compensation) as the Land Apportionment Act was implemented more vigorously. Expanding populations and the failure of agriculture to meet food security needs in periods of drought (notably 1947, but others too), had resulted in concern at the highest policy levels to do something about agricultural investment.

The arguments made then are just as relevant today – and with some intriguing parallels. Back then, the investments that followed, particularly in what were designated ‘European’ farming areas, provided an unparalleled infrastructure, including dams, schemes, river diversions and more. This became the backbone of the commercial farm economy. The report also advocated investments in the ‘African’ ‘native’ areas, but these were limited by comparison, and focused, particularly in the UDI period on schemes linked to a growth point development strategy led by TILCOR.

By Independence, Zimbabwe had about 150,000 hectares under ‘formal’ irrigation schemes; about 3% of the arable area. 68% of this was in the large-scale commercial farming areas, another 20% linked to commercial estates, 7% part of ARDA estates and outgrower schemes and only 3.4% smallholder irrigation schemes. The distribution of irrigation capacity was even more unequal than that of land and other resources.

So is the answer to the challenges of agriculture, especially following land reform, to take a leaf out of the colonial book and invest in irrigation? The answer is yes, in part. But it depends on what type of irrigation, with what type of support.

Irrigation of course has a much longer history in Zimbabwe than the 60 years sketched above. The ancient systems of Inyanga for example have attracted archaeologists’ attention for many years, as they offer an example of highly intensive and sophisticated small-scale systems. Dambo or vlei cultivation dominated the agriculture of the nineteenth century, as farmers farmed intensively in valley bottoms in the hilly areas, often hiding from raids. In the early colonial era, missionaries encouraged irrigation at times of famine and set up a few schemes near mission stations. Early attempts at government support from late 1920s built on local systems, with support to small irrigation plots under farmer control. The famous agricultural extensionist E.D Alvord supported such efforts and was very keen on irrigation as part of his modernisation project (see an interesting article by Mandi Rukuni on this history).

However the approach took a dangerous turn in 1935 when Alvord visited Native American reserves in the US and he came back with ideas for a much more technical, top-down approach. From then on irrigation development in Zimbabwe in the smallholder sector at least has been dominated by a dirigiste approach to management – highly subsidized schemes require farmers to following particular cropping patterns on standard plot sizes under the direction of an irrigation officer. In some settlement schemes, no off-farm work was allowed. In the 1980s, economic analyses showed that 100% of capital costs and 89% of recurrent costs were covered by the government. This provided little incentive for local control and management – aspects that characterised the success of early initiatives, and still do on informal schemes.

Extensive studies by the University of Zimbabwe and colleagues at Wageningen University in the Netherlands through the 1990s showed the variety of experiences of irrigation in Zimbabwe, ranging from the formal Agritex-run communal area schemes, of which there were around 70, to the much more informal set-ups, involving usually fewer people on smaller areas, with less elaborate technology and infrastructure. This research confirmed earlier findings around some of the key requirements for effective collective action, asserting rights over water and land and sustainable economic management, and chimed with international experience.

A key theme through all of these studies was the argument that a standardised one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and more flexibility and adaptability is required. Since Independence there have been numerous attempts at reviving irrigation in the smallholder sector. An ambitious irrigation fund was established in the 1980s but it went unused; FAO and GTZ invested in new policy frameworks and some investments; small-scale schemes were supported by the EU, and so on. The impact of all of this, both in terms of policy and impacts on the ground, has been desultory. What study after study has found, is that the formal schemes (with some exceptions) have not worked well. And it very often it is the small-scale informal set-ups – more akin to the traditional dambo irrigation of the past – that work best (a theme that I will pick up in next week’s blog). These can be supported through developments in water harvesting, including small dams, storage tanks and soil pits and contours, and also small-scale drip irrigation kits that allow greater water use efficiency in piped or channel systems.

Under the right conditions in the right places, irrigation pays. By smoothing production variability it addresses challenges of food security, felt increasingly since the 1990s, and especially in the last decade, much as was the case in the 1950s. For high value crops, such as horticulture, irrigation is essential, and much of the private investment by commercial farmers from the early 1990s was in these sort of facilities. Yet irrigation infrastructure and technology cannot just be transferred from one system to another. With a different agrarian structure, with different farmers on different farm sizes the old configurations do not make sense. A massive centre-pivot set up is not much use to small-scale farmers, and few new resettlement farmers could afford sophisticated computer synchronized, satellite-linked drip irrigation systems.

Clearly the investments made from the 1950s in the large-scale commercial sector paid dividends. But any government today would balk at the cost, and especially the long-term subsidies, and a consistent policy for handover to farmer control following establishment is required. Today a rethink in irrigation strategy and policy is urgently needed. Perhaps a new high level task force should be convened, with a similar impetus to that of 1952, but with a rather different political and distributional mandate. What is clear is that in order to get agriculture moving in the new resettlements, up-front government or donor capital investment is needed, but tying irrigators into a standard approach with high recurrent subsidy makes little technical or economic sense.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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Documentaries on land reform in Zimbabwe

A recent review article in the Journal of Southern African Studies by University of Pretoria based Rory Pilossof (see my review of his book in an earlier blog) discusses three film documentaries on land reform. The article in particular takes issue with our work and spends much of it launching a number of critiques. But, despite these diversions, in the end it comes to a sensible conclusion with which I agree wholeheartedly.

The review includes our short films, Voices from the Field, profiling seven farmers in our sample in Masvingo (see also youtube channel). Of course these were never ever thought of as documentaries as they were on average 5 minutes long, and simply as complements to the book and other more detailed material. The other two films are the much hailed, but heavily criticised, Mugabe and the White African (running to 94 minutes and big budget – certainly relative to ours) and the campaign film, the House of Justice, again focusing on farms in Chegutu, including that of Campbell and Freeth at Mount Carmel (running to 24 minutes, and lower budget).

With Miles Tendi and others, I have commented on the Mugabe film – and the even more extraordinary book by Ben Freeth. It is a shame Pilossof did not review Simon Bright’s excellent documentary, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? This is a much more appropriate contrast to the Mugabe film, showing how over a similar length of film, depth, nuance and complexity can be conveyed while still not losing its punch. I have my issues with this film too (as does Miles), but these critiques are not in the same league.

In my view, these three film contributions are very unlike and not really appropriate to compare. Pilossof however mainly uses the article as a platform to critique our work in particular. I will come to a few responses to this in a moment. However his overall conclusion I agree with entirely:

The lack of simple answers and the range of experiences, outcomes and processes make the land question a hugely complicated entity to study. More needs to be done to access the nuances and overlaps, rather than the dramatic and the separate. In part this entails conversations between white farmers, farm workers and beneficiaries…..the failure to situate land reform in the much wider political struggles of this period, and the history that informs them, is much more of a concern….

This is exactly the argument we make in our book, and has been made many, many times on this blog (see blogs on white farmers, labour etc.). Yet Pilossof complains about our film:

“Voices [our film] contains even less historical background than Mugabe and no commentary on the political context of the FTLRP. There is no mention of the violence surrounding the land allocations, of the processes of political patronage in land allocations or, most problematically for Scoones et al, the displacement of earlier land beneficiaries for new groups deemed more worthy”.

It is true in our five minute films we did not cover the whole history of colonialism, nor the wider political and policy context for resettlement after 1980 and during the fast-track period. This was not the intention. They were simply an opportunity for a few farmers, representing the range of experiences we found in the field – different livelihood combinations (farm and non-farm), different crops (market gardening, livestock, cotton, sugar) and different scheme types (A1 and A2) – to share their perspectives and experiences. The choice of seven was not statistically representative at all, and not intended to be, simply offering a range.

Our films were short profiles not full length documentaries, and could only do so much in the time (and a very limited budget). They were always meant to be complemented by the book where pages and pages discuss history, politics, economic context and present data backed by a rigorous sampling frame and both qualitative and quantitative data. As anyone who has read our material and this blog will know, we do not give a simple black and white view about land reform in Zimbabwe, as this review suggests. The films open with the following:

“Chaos, destruction and violence have dominated the coverage. While these have been part of the reality, there have also been successes which have thus far have largely gone unrecorded. The story is simply not one of collapse and catastrophe, it is much more complex. There have been many successes as well as failures”.

The films simply allowed a few farmers to speak, and tell their own story. They were indeed from different backgrounds, doing different things, many with previous employment. Pilossof regards this as a problem, proving somehow that they were not making a living from agriculture on their new farms. They were, but they were also doing other things, both before land reform and since. This is the reality of rural Zimbabwe, and the land reform settlements, something we wanted to get across.

Unlike Ben Freeth and co, such farmers have not had the opportunity to share their experience in their own words to a wider audience. It was heartening to find the BBC interested in following up, and Martin Plaut and his team did a series of interviews with some of those presented in the films. To hear Mr Nago speaking on Radio 4 while eating my breakfast in the UK was a fine change from the usual diet dished out by the BBC and other international media. Yes, these are only one set of voices, but they are important ones surely?

Pilossof then provides another line of attack, claiming that our “entire research project was supported by Agritex”. Yes certainly we worked closely with colleagues in Agritex, but also we worked with others at UZ, AIAS, Ruzivo Trust and so on. We were supported financially by the UK’s ESRC via a grant through PLAAS. All this is very clear in our materials. He goes on: “This collusion with the state is never discussed”. I don’t think we were colluding with anyone, and our work has been widely shared in many fora, and have been always very open in our partnerships. But he argues that we had special freedoms and “…the compromises entailed include a blinkered focus on beneficiaries, ignoring the reform process and its associated violence”. As discussed in many previous blogs we totally reject this claim – and our writing and commentary just simply does not bear such accusations up. He goes on: “Scoones et al are as guilty as Bailey and Thompson [the filmmakers involved in the Mugabe film] (and to an extent Freeth) in refusing to acknowledge the tortured processes of land transfer in Zimbabwe, past and present”. This again is of course quite ridiculous, betraying a lack of attention to our work.

For some reason he seems determined to discredit our work. The overall result is that, by dismissing our findings and inappropriately in my view criticising our film through a false comparison, Pilossoff ends up supporting the interpretations in the other films. To be honest, I would have expected a more thorough argument in JSAS. Maybe I am being overly sensitive as I actually agree completely with his conclusions, even if not with most of his arguments. Take a look at the review for yourself, but I am afraid you will have to pay £23.50 to read it in full (for only 5 pages!) as it’s behind a paywall. Sorry…

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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