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Who are the commercial farmers? A history of Mvurwi area, Zimbabwe

For some the answer to who are the commercial farmers in Zimbabwe is obvious. The image of the rugged, (male) white farmer in shorts, surveying his family’s land carved out through hard labour and skill from the African bush is etched on the popular imagination. But over time, there have been many different types of ‘commercial farmer’ in Zimbabwe, and a new paper from APRA – Agricultural Commercialisation in Northern Zimbabwe: Crises, Conjunctures and Contingencies, 1890–2020 – explores the conditions of their emergence in the Mvurwi area.

Mvurwi town is about 100km to the north of the capital Harare, and from the 1920s until the land reform of 2000 was surrounded by (largely) white-owned large commercial farms and estates. To the east was Chiweshe communal land (formerly reserve and Tribal Trust Land) where Africans farmed. Africans also lived in the labour compounds on the farms and in Mvurwi town, many originally from nearby countries, hired to provide labour for the large (mostly tobacco) farms.

Our paper documents the agrarian history of this area from Cecil Rhodes to Emmerson Mnangagwa, or from around 1890 and the initial colonisation of what became Rhodesia through different phases until today. The paper asks two questions: who are the commercial farmers – those producing surplus and selling it – and what drivers have affected changes in the agrarian setting, making some more or less likely to be able to commercialise production?

We made use of a diverse array of sources, including archival material, biographical interviews, survey data and satellite imagery of environmental changes (this will be the focus of a future blog). Mvurwi’s agrarian history is one of tobacco and maize, of labour shortages and migration, of infrastructure building and urban growth and of government policies that have supported some over others at different times. It’s complex and fascinating.

Establishing white commercial farms, marginalising Africans

In the early years, at least into the 1930s, it was African farmers from Chiweshe who were the commercial farmers, supplying food to the new European settlers who were getting established on their new farms. Before the Land Apportionment Act restricted land access for blacks, Africans and Europeans lived side-by-side, but it was Africans who knew how to farm this environment and produced large surpluses of small grains, and increasingly maize.

Following the establishment of the colonial government in 1923, a huge range of measures were applied that restricted African farming and supported the establishment of European agriculture. This was the time also when tobacco became established as the major crop, providing important revenue for Britain as the colonial power. European agriculture struggled through the depression years, yet was expected to contribute to the war effort from 1939. After the Second World War, the colonial government supported the expansion of European agriculture, and invested considerably in subsidised infrastructure development, as well as the provision of finance. British war veterans were settled, and the land around Mvurwi became a prosperous farming area, on the back of state intervention and African labour, with a new set of white commercial farmers who displacing Africans.

Prosperous white commercial agriculture, challenged by sanctions and war

The period from 1945 until the early 1970s, when the liberation war started in earnest, was the one where the image of the white (male) commercial farmer took hold. These were largely family farms in this period, operating increasingly efficiently with inputs of new technologies (hybrid seeds, fertiliser, tobacco curing facilities and so on, facilitated by state-led R and D), and considerable amounts of cheap African labour, often living and working in appalling conditions. The supply of labour was assisted both through recruitment from the Rhodesian Federation (from 1953), and through local migrant labour; as African farming was squeezed further men increasingly had to seek employment in towns, mines and on the farms.

After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith’s government, the effect of sanctions hit the white farming community, but all sorts of sanctions-busting measures were used, with the help of apartheid South Africa and others. White commercial farming still prospered, but there was also the beginning of a trend towards consolidation, as the smaller, less capitalised and connected white family farms struggled. With the beginning of the liberation war and the arrival of guerrilla fighters in the Mvurwi area from 1973, farming was hit hard. Remote white farms became targets for liberation fighter attacks, and meanwhile the state restricted the engagement of Africans with the comrades by creating ‘protected villages’ in Chiweshe.

Independence: a smallholder green revolution and economic liberalisation

It was only after Independence in 1980 that farming took off again. The new state, now with support from international aid donors, shifted emphasis towards supporting small-scale communal area farming, while European farming was left largely to continue as before, but with less state support. In the African communal areas, the results were spectacular, ushering in a ‘green revolution’ with increased production and sale of maize, creating a class of African commercial farmers once again. White commercial farmers also benefited from the removal of sanctions, with preferential trade agreements in products such as beef, and they were able to shift to higher value products (horticulture, flowers etc.) as markets opened up.

The liberalisation of the economy from 1991, at the behest of the Bretton Woods institutions, saw further advantages for increasingly consolidated large-scale, white-owned commercial farms; although the withdrawal of state support, the decline of research and extension services and the loss of state-backed credit meant that poorer African farmers suffered, and the green revolution soon fizzled out. By the 1990s, a boom time for white commercial agriculture, many smaller white family farms had gone, and the commercial farmer in this period was more likely to be in a suit in a board-room, negotiating international financing and trade deals. In this period, African farming in the communal areas became increasingly impoverished, reliant on donor projects and frequent food hand-outs due to the recurrent droughts.

Land reform and new commercial farmers

All changed in 2000 with the land invasions and the subsequent Fast Track Land Reform Programme. Most of the white farms in the Mvurwi farming area were taken over, although a few were left initially, along with most of the large Forrester Estate to the north. Land invaders were mostly from land-scarce and poor Chiweshe as well as other communal areas and towns nearby. The land invasions resulted in the creation of smallholder A1 resettlement areas, often on farms with considerable numbers of compound labourers living there. Later, medium-scale A2 farms were established, attracting very often middle class professionals along with political, business and military elites.

Today it is a very different farming landscape, with new commercial farmers. These are largely black (although there are some joint ventures with former white commercial farmers and Chinese companies in the A2 areas) and include both successful A1 farmers (men and women) who have managed to accumulate and invest in their farms through own-production and some A2 farmers who have managed to secure finance through off-farm jobs or through state patronage. Unlike their white counterparts who established farms in the early twentieth century with a huge amount of state support, today’s resettlement farmers suffer a lack of assistance and limited finance. State incapacity, systemic corruption and international sanctions combine to undermine the potentials of commercialisation, as this blog has discussed many times before.

Crises, conjunctures and contingencies: a non-linear agrarian history

So what do we draw from this history (check out the long paper for the detail)? First is that there are very different types of commercial farmers beyond the stereotypical image that have existed over time. This is because different people have had different opportunities in each of the historical periods we have identified. This has been affected by state policy, international relations/sanctions, labour regimes, markets and so on. We see over time not a simple, linear secular trend, driven by relative factor prices, land scarcity, population growth or environmental change, but sudden shifts, as agrarian relations reconfigure.

Such changes may emerge through state policy – Land Apportionment, Maize Control and so on obviously had a huge impact in the 1930s; through the investment in particular infrastructure – the road from Concession to Mvurwi opened up markets massively and facilitated urban growth, as did the arrival of mobile phones decades later; as a result of the emergence of new technologies – the SR52 hybrid maize revolutionised white commercial farming, as did the arrival of the rocket barn for curing tobacco; as a result of a significant environmental event – the droughts of 1947, 1984, 1991 – and many more – meant that some farms went under, others were taken over or African labour migration became necessary; because of changing patterns of labour availability – the challenges of labour recruitment were a continuous refrain among European farmers from the 1930s, as they are among commercial land reform farmers today; as a result of shifts in geopolitics and global markets – sanctions from 1965 and 2000 have had huge impacts, as did the requirements of the Washington consensus loan conditionalities from the 1990s, while the growth in tobacco demand from the 1940s and again from the 1990s into the 2000s (increasingly from China) drove farming economies across Mvurwi. Along with other reasons discussed in the paper.

Like Sara Berry and Tania Li (among others), the paper argues that it is events – crises, conjunctures and contingencies – as inflected by social relations (of race, class, gender and age) and politics that offer a more insightful explanation of the history of farming in Mvurwi. This history is non-linear, uncertain and involves a complex interaction of drivers, and far from the deterministic theories either of classic agrarian Marxism or evolutionary agricultural/institutional economics. For this reason, over 130 years, there have been many different types of Zimbabwean commercial farmer, and there will likely to be others into the future as chance, contingent events and particular crises combine with longer-term drivers of change.

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



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UK-Africa trade and investment: is it good for development?

Just ten days before Brexit is declared, the UK is hosting a major investment summit, attended by the PM, Boris Johnson and an array of royals. There is much hype about the event (check out, #UKAfricaSummit, #InvestinAfrica, for example), with hopeful, win-win-win rhetoric abounding, linked to forging new partnerships for a post-Brexit future. Ghana, it seems, is being given top treatment as a favoured destination, while despite being ‘open for business‘, Zimbabwe seems to have been snubbed.

UK aid policy these days is very much focused on promoting UK trade interests abroad. Whether DFID survives as a separate entity or gets incorporated into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will soon be known; but whatever happens, the UK government has adopted a global business promotion approach for UK firms, on the assumption that this will help meet the SDGs.

I have no objection to private sector investment and trade, but quite whether all such initiatives meet the criteria we assumed were central to UK aid policy is another matter. Indeed, questions have been raised about the allocation of funds to some quite dubious outfits. The linking of aid and trade of course has a history in Britain. Remember the Pergau dam controversy, when aid was used as a sweetener for a deal (in this case for arms)? This scandal of course led to the commitment to untie aid, a separate development department with a cabinet minister and an Act of Parliament specifying how aid must be spent. This consensus on aid since the mid 1990s however is under threat.

Trade and investment can of course help reduce poverty, promote women’s empowerment and be good for children’s rights, as the gloss from DFID suggests, but the opposite may be true too. There are many different business models – and so labour, environmental and rights regimes – with very different outcomes for ‘development’. We’ve been looking at some of these issues over the last few years across a number of projects (in fact all with DFID funding), and there are some important conclusions, relevant to the new UK government’s focus for aid.

The project, Land, Agriculture and Commercial Agriculture in Africa (led by PLAAS), compared three broad types of commercial agricultural investment. These were estates and plantations, medium-scale commercial farms and outgrower schemes. The team worked in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia and looked at each business model in each country, examining the outcomes for land, labour, livelihoods and so on. The cases included investments with some UK-linked companies, including the much-hyped Blue Skies company in Ghana, which packages and exports fruit produced by smallholder outgrowers. There is also the rather bizarre sugar outgrower scheme in Zambia, operated by Illovo, now largely owned by British Foods, whereby smallholders’ land is incorporated into an estate, and they are paid revenues for the use of land. The full set of publications was produced as a special Forum in the Journal of Peasant Studies, with an overview, and papers on Ghana, Kenya and Zambia.

Our findings showed that the ‘terms of incorporation’ into business arrangements really mattered. Too often estates/plantations operated as ‘enclaves’ separated from the local community, possibly providing employment opportunities, but frequently with poor conditions. Those investments that had substantial linkage effects included those with smallholder-led outgrower arrangements, where leverage over terms was effective. Meanwhile, consolidated medium scale farms potentially had positive spillover effects into neighbouring communities through labour, technology and skill sharing linkages.

A decade ago, at the height of Africa’s land rush, many such investments were deemed to be ‘land grabs’, but our work as part of the Future Agricultures Consortium argued for a more nuanced assessment of what works for who. Not all investments are bad, but not all are good either. Linking investment to the FAO’s ‘Voluntary Guidelines’ is essential, as this allows investors, governments and recipient communities to make balanced appraisals, avoiding investment riding roughshod over local land rights and livelihoods. Our review of the Guidelines for the LEGEND programme, highlights what is needed.

Another project, part of the Agricultural Policy in Africa (APRA) programme, has focused on agricultural investment corridors in Kenya (LAPSSET), Tanzania (SAGCOT) and Mozambique (Beira and Nacala). Alongside Chinese, Brazilian and other investors, UK investments are evident in all sites, notably through support from AgDevCo and UKAID in the Beira corridor (although many initiatives have been affected by Cyclone Idai during 2019).

Again, our findings highlight the design of corridor investments, and the importance of facilitating a ‘networked’ approach, with multiple linkages from the core investments (usually around infrastructure, large estates and mining) to the wider hinterland. Too often extractive ‘tunnel’ designs emerge, with limited impacts on wider development.

Our conclusions are reflected in AGRA’s excellent 2019 report produced by Tom Reardon and colleagues, focusing on the ‘hidden middle’. This argues that private sector investment that has the most impact is usually small, often informal, and deeply linked into local economies. Clusters are usually spontaneous, not planned as part of grand corridor or investment hub schemes. And when you look, the link between the vast number of smallholder producers and consumers is increasingly filled with many entrepreneurial private sector actors working in transport, processing, logistics and so on.

These private sector players are not ‘missing’, as is often assumed, but instead ‘hidden’ from view. The focus on ‘investment’ and ‘private sector’ (as in the trade summit) usually emphasises large, formal operations, branded as UK plc. But it is the smaller, local outfits that are driving change in African agricultural value chains, and in need of support and investment. Will the focus of the UK Africa investment summit be on supporting such smaller initiatives with the real potential for transformation, and developmental gains? From what I have seen, I somehow doubt it.

As the UK scrambles to compensate for the errors of committing to Brexit, holding the UK government to account in respect of its aid spend focused on support UK-led investment in Africa will be crucial, lest business imperatives override development goals, and larger UK investors get the upper hand, crowding out (hidden) local alternatives.

Investing is certainly possible in ways where the ‘terms of incorporation’ for local people and the ‘linkage effects’ for local economies are positive, and where land rights are protected in line with internationally-agreed guidelines. But it does require a sophisticated approach that goes beyond the promotional gloss and the hype of international trade fairs.

There’s plenty of good research on the implications of trade and investment on development in Africa, including that commissioned by DFID. Let’s hope the arm of the UK government that is promoting trade and hosting presidents from across Africa in London this week makes use of it.

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

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What are ‘appropriate technologies’? Pathways for mechanising African agriculture

Capital goods are essential for agriculture, whether for tillage, irrigation or threshing. Mechanisation of agriculture is therefore seen as a core aim for agricultural development, and is widely pushed as a route to increasing production and efficiency. But what scale of technology is appropriate? Where can farmers find the right sort of technology to meet their needs? Does trade in capital goods respond to market demands? Do aid projects help or hinder?

These are the sort of questions we have been puzzling over in Zimbabwe as we’ve been looking at the role of various types of capital goods used in agriculture in land reform areas. Capital goods range from large tractors to small pumps, and these are being used across farms of different sizes, from A1 resettlement farms, with typically under 5 hectares of cultivated land, to much larger A2 medium scale resettlement farms. Size matters, both of the technology but also of land areas and the scale of operation, but so also does capacity, flexibility, maintenance requirements and politics.

Tractors: the symbol of mechanisation

Tractors have always been the symbol of mechanisation in agriculture. From Soviet mass production under Stalin to aid projects across Africa. As a previous blog discussed, the promotion of tractors has a long history in Zimbabwe too. While there was a healthy trade in the large-scale commercial sector, with imports from different parts of the world, the record of tractor projects in the small-scale farming areas was dismal. But land reform from 2000 has changed the dynamic. The large-scale sector is much diminished, replaced by a mix of medium-scale A2 farms and a larger number of smaller A1 farms, where dynamics of ‘accumulation from below’ are evident. This has generated a new demand for tractors.

As part of a wider study on mechanisation and commercial agriculture in Africa under the APRA programme, new work from Mvurwi area, a high-potential tobacco growing area north of Harare, has shown how tractor use has been expanding. Despite various projects, including the Brazilian More Food International programme, much of this has been based on a private market. Official figures suggest that tractor numbers increased nearly six-fold between 2011 and 2017, mostly in the medium-scale farming areas, and predominantly through a second-hand market of machines originally imported for former large-scale farms. These figures may be an underestimate, however, as survey data show that in the small-scale A1 resettlement areas tractor hiring has increased significantly, as tobacco successful small-scale farmers invest in tractors and hire them out.

The Brazilian tractor cooperatives have contributed to this, but are only a very partial element of a bigger story. Large four-wheel tractors are expensive items and only some are able to buy them, even when old, battered and repaired for a second-hand market. Collective ownership through the Brazilian coops potentially open access to others, but the politics of coops are notorious, and the ones in Mvurwi have become embroiled in turf-wars over control, with coop leaders fending off attempts at political capture by party officials. Tractors of course are always political.,

Tractors in Mvurwi these days are therefore a mix of very old machines imported several decades ago (usually ancient Massey Ferguson and John Deere models), and more recent Chinese models (imported in the flurry of investment under the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe programmes of the mid-2000s) and a few new Brazilian models (as in the picture above). Perhaps surprisingly, it is the older ones that are the most common and the most likely to continue to function, as there are both the skills to mend them, and a (declining) second-hand spares market. For any mechanisation programme, the ability to repair and reconstruct is essential, and often forgotten in the eagerness to bring in new, shiny machines that support a domestic industry (in China, Brazil, Belarus, India, Iran or wherever) through an aid programme.

Small-scale pumps: opportunities for farmer-led irrigation

The tractor story contrasts with that of small-scale irrigation pumps, which have expanded massively in recent years across the new resettlement areas. As discussed in a recent paper, focused on sites in Masvingo, small, cheap, Chinese-made pumps, together with flexible plastic piping, have transformed the capacity for farmer-led irrigation in a dramatic fashion. This process has largely been ignored by policy-makers and aid agencies alike.

The process is being driven by an agile private market, involving a network of players that link importers with retailers with a growing cottage industry in repairs. Gone are the days when you could only buy a pump set if you were seriously rich or the beneficiary of an NGO project in a ‘group garden’. Costing only US$250, virtually anyone can get one, and start irrigating from rivers, streams, dams and vlei ponds. This has expanded the opportunities to many, including young people without land. The onward links to horticultural markets and processing opportunities in turn all generate employment and local economic growth.

It is both the characteristic of the technology (small, mobile, flexible etc.), but also the market context, that allows small-scale pump irrigation to thrive, and makes the technology ‘appropriate’. Upgrading and scaling up is possible too. Some choose to buy more small pumps to maintain flexibility, while others buy larger, fixed pumps and dig boreholes to expand irrigation.

There are therefore many pathways of innovation and mechanisation. These must suit different people’s social and economic conditions, as access to cash, technology, land and labour is managed together. Appropriate technologies are always socio-technologies, with technical, social and political lives intimately linked.

Rethinking agricultural mechanisation policy

Mechanisation of agriculture is occurring apace in Zimbabwe, but not as the planners would wish it. The irrigation engineers remain sceptical about the small-scale pump revolution, fixated as they often are with ordered, regularised irrigation schemes with fixed, large-scale pump technologies. Meanwhile, the engineers in the mechanisation departments dream of bigger tractors, with more horsepower and linked to drillers, seeders, combines and the rest, in order to create a vision of commercial agriculture derived from the textbooks. Aid programmes, such as the Brazilian coops, often replicate such visions, as technicians import a perspective from their own context of what ‘tropical technology’ should be, without thinking about need and context.

However, under the noses of the technicians and planners things are happening. These are largely private ‘below-the-radar’ initiatives, linked to locally-embedded markets, and with entrepreneurship not only linked to supplying the kit, but also adapting, maintaining and repairing it. For tractors, the second-hand market is thriving allowing more timely tillage of larger areas, and with small-scale pumps, the cheap, flexible sets have transformed irrigation.

But there are limits. As the stock of tractors, and particularly spares, declines, there are challenges in meeting demand. Hiring businesses, including via cooperatives, are an alternative, and particularly important for small-scale production, where owning a large tractor just for yourself doesn’t make much sense. This is why the connections between A2 and A1 areas is important, and such coordination requires facilitation. For pumps, the semi-disposable pump sets are ideal for starting up, but upgrading is a big step, and borehole drilling remains very costly. Issues of ground and surface water access and management for sustainable use of course become important as pump use expands.

In the wider technological landscape there are gaps too. Two-wheeled tractors, for example, for use on small plots might have an advantage for some, while intermediate level pumps and cheaper drilling options may help upgrading. Investments in linking hiring options through online applications have emerged in some places, while support for training in repairing diverse types of equipment may encourage local businesses. With a better idea of the nature of what ‘appropriate technology’ means a role for coordination and facilitation by state or NGO players emerges, including encouraging south-south trade in capital goods.

Silent, hidden green revolutions

Despite the narrative of state-led, directed innovation and mechanisation, agricultural green revolutions rarely happen in this way. Much more common is a flexible bricolage of initiatives that emerge, based on pulling together options that fit. As Steve Biggs and Scott Justice argue for the Asian experience:

“In regions where smaller-scale mechanization has taken place, there has also been a growth of rural industries and strong linkages with the broader national economy. Whether by design or not, it appears that markedly different patterns of smaller-scale rural mechanization over time have led not only to agricultural production increases but also to broad-based rural and economic development…. It is our hope that there will be increasing interest in the “silent and hidden” revolutions of the spread of smaller-scale equipment and that broad-based rural development, such as worthwhile rural employment and careful and intensive use of water and energy sources, will again become important goals of economic development. There is now empirical evidence on a grand scale that shows it can be done”.

This empirical evidence is emerging in Zimbabwe too, and a wider recognition, along with selective coordination and facilitation by state and aid players, is essential if Zimbabwe’s agriculture is to transform in the post-land reform setting.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.



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The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: what’s in it for Africa?

The huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum recently concluded in Beijing. 37 heads of state attended, along with droves of policy advisors and numerous thinktanks and research institutes, including IDS where I work. Monica Mutsvanga, Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, attended on behalf of the Zimbabwe government. By all accounts it was a lavish affair, with grand speeches and big commitments totalling $64 billion. But what to make of it all from an African perspective?

As discussed on this blog several times before (see here, here and here), while Chinese engagements with Africa can be framed in terms of ‘new imperialism’ or part of a benign process of ‘mutual learning’, in practice a more nuanced perspective is needed. African states have agency in the process of negotiation, and the Chinese always adopt an incremental and adaptive approach to policy, in Africa as in China. There is no single top-down plan to be forced on unwilling recipients.

As our studies of Chinese (and Brazilian) investments in African agriculture (in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – reported in an open access World Development issue) showed, what emerges varies from country to country, project to project, depending on how negotiations play out. And this very much depends on which Chinese state owned company, from which province in China, is involved, and how African states and officials negotiate. Sometimes the outcomes are disastrous – inappropriate technologies and failed projects – but sometimes positive dynamics unfold. No surprises here: Chinese engagements are very similar to aid from Denmark, the UK or the US, just more focused on productive infrastructure and perhaps more honest and straightforward.

Beyond the BRI rhetoric

At the BRI Forum there was grand talk of mutual benefit, inclusive approaches and green and sustainable development. Just as with western aid, forget the rhetoric, and look at the practice. Chinese geopolitical and commercial ambitions are clear. The BRI is certainly about regional, even global, political influence, especially through trade. With coal mines and power stations being opened under its banner, forget the green credentials for now. As a strategic player, who plays the (often very) long game, the benefits to China of all the roads, ports and other infrastructure being built are obvious.

This does not mean though that such investments are disadvantageous to host countries and regions, just because China benefits too. The TAZARA railway built between Tanzania and Zambia in the early 1970s still provides an important trade link, assisting economic integration. New investments may too – but only if designed in the right way, and subject to careful deliberation and negotiation at a local level. Being too eager (or desperate) to receive Chinese investment could be dangerous.

Minister Mutsvanga’s speech in Beijing had a hint of this. Repeating the ED ‘mantra’ (her term) that Zimbabwe is ‘open for business’, she continued:

Zimbabwe has fertile soils and a favourable climate for farming and agro-industry. It is a treasure trove of much desired mineral wealth. Zimbabwe has gold, diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones. There is the diverse energy offering of hydroelectric power, thermal and coking coal, methane gas. For new and green energy there is, platinum, lithium, uranium and abundant solar. Base metals galore include chrome, nickel, vanadium, tin, rare earths and scores of others.

This sounds more than being open for bilateral negotiations around mutually beneficial investment; more an invitation to a resource grab. The Chinese are not immune to this, as the sorry tale of diamond mining in Marange shows. But it needn’t be this way: being open for business doesn’t mean open for any business on any terms.

Waving the flag, the state-run newspapers in Zimbabwe hailed the minister’s visit, and the prospects for Zimbabwe. But the list of supposed BRI projects – such as the new parliament – were planned long before, and nothing to do with building a corridor for trade. To link with the BRI hype in Beijing, the Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe opened a BRI art exchange exhibition, demonstrating how the two countries were connected. Cultural exchange is certainly a good thing, but Minister Mutsvanga, I think, was looking for more.

Corridors for development?

So what might a corridor development look like that has wider benefits for development, and is not simply a route to facilitating extractivism? A recent study carried out along the eastern seaboard of Africa – in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique – has looked at four very different corridors, all notionally connected to the BRI – LAPSSET, SAGCOT, Nacala and Beira. All involve major port and road/rail developments, linked to a variety of energy and agricultural investments of varying scales (see the earlier blog on Mozambique).

Our research contrasted corridors constructed as ‘tunnels’, conducting valuable resources out of a country and importing goods to metropolitan centres, and ‘networks’, that allow linkages to rural hinterlands and a dynamic of development associated with the investments. Each of our case studies showed elements of both at play.

Corridors, as Euclides Gonsalves explains for Mozambique, are about ‘acts of demonstration’, linking political ambitions to local development. The grand, stylised performances at the BRI Forum in Beijing also play out in villages and project sites in African rural areas. Enlisting and enrolling actors, and material artefacts (grain siloes, extension centres, new roads and so on), are part of the game. Enacting corridors has political and material effects, as some people are included and some excluded, and certain political interests are promoted. The net benefits may be positive, but the performative aspect is key, he argues.

Many corridors are about constructing imaginaries, and creating an economy of expectations, Ngala Chome argues for LAPSSET in Kenya. The corridor has been long planned, and while port facilities are being built in Lamu, many follow-on investments have not yet materialised. Anticipation, expectation and speculation create a new political economy around prospective corridor sites, as we see in the pastoral rangelands of Isiolo where the pipeline and road is expected to traverse. As our work under the PASTRES project shows, pastoralists in these areas complain this has resulted in a massive growth in speculative land deals.

A struggle over development and its directions is unleashed by corridor developments. Everyone has been crying out for investment, but when it comes, the terms of incorporation are inevitably uneven. As Emmanuel Sulle shows for the sugar and rice plantations in the SAGCOT corridor area of Tanzania, processes of displacement and disenfranchisement unfold. And this is even with ‘inclusive’ business models, such as outgrower schemes, heavily promoted by agricultural investors across the corridors.

Networks not tunnels

What are the policy recommendations from our APRA corridors research? Here are the highlights:

  • Policy appraisal must include political economy analysis to explore the potential winners and losers. External capital/infrastructure investment mobilises local interests, including local capital and the state, creating new patterns of differentiation. This means appraisal must go beyond the standard economic assessment to a wider social and political analysis.
  • The design of a corridor – and the associated business models promoting agricultural investment – make a big difference. Opportunities for a more networked organisation, avoiding the limitations of a ‘tunnel’ design, need to be explored, especially around the design of transport infrastructure that can benefit local economies.
  • Terms of inclusion and exclusion in corridors are mediated through a range of local institutional and political processes. For example, land speculation and the revitalisation of older conflicts over resources may occur as a result of corridor development. Benefits may be unevenly shared in already unequal societies, with women and poorer households missing out.
  • Processes for negotiating corridor outcomes require the mobilisation of less empowered actors – including women and poorer people – and their organisation around clear guidelines – such as those within the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on land tenure – that ensure terms of incorporation into corridor investments are not disadvantageous.
  • Support for legal literacy and advocacy, as well as the organisation of disadvantaged groups, will help people to be able to articulate demands. This requires building on local organisations and networks to help counter the power of appropriation of local elites in alliance with the state and investment capital.

All these are relevant for any investor, and for any corridor-style investment. I hope Minister Mutsvanga and the BRI planners take note, and avoid the rush to invest and take a more patient, deliberate approach that creates networks not tunnels.


This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Ian Scoones. Photo credit: Ian Scoones, Nampula, Mozambique

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NEW PAPER – Medium-scale farms in Africa: history lessons from Zimbabwe

‘Medium-scale’ farms as seen as potential drivers of future agricultural growth in Africa. In Zimbabwe, much hope is vested in A2 farms allocated at land reform becoming productive, with hopes pinned on investment flowing following the election. The A2 farms, averaging around 100 ha in extent, will be a major focus of policy attention in the coming years, as attempts are made to resuscitate the commercial sector. These are also the areas where the political-military elite now firmly in power own land, and there will be multiple political and economic incentives to invest in the A2 land reform areas.

But what will be the future of such medium-scale commercial farms? Can we look to historical experience to suggest possible trajectories? What will happen to the A2 farms several generations on? Will we see a progressive evolution of increasing commercialisation and investment driven by market forces as is sometimes assumed, or will a greater diversity of outcomes arise, as chance, necessity and contingency play their part? A new paper is just out in the journal Africa (open access) that asks these questions.

The paper draws on an historical and contemporary assessment of what were called ‘native purchase areas’ in Zimbabwe. These were medium-scale farms in todays’ parlance, established for black farmers by the colonial government from the 1930s. Through a study of Mushagashe area, we asked what’s happened since, and why?

Structural transformations

A number of recent studies have documented the growth of ‘medium-scale’ farms across Africa, from Ghana to Malawi to Zambia to Kenya. ‘Investor farmers’ – local rural elites, retired civil servants and urbanites wanting a rural base – are creating a new dynamic as land markets – both formal and informal – emerge, and rural traditional leaders, government officials and others get involved in the process, accruing personal benefits along the way.

This redistribution of land towards a new elite results in processes of land dispossession and rural proletarianisation, but also investment, skill development and economic linkage effects between new medium-scale farms and the smallholder plots that surround them. For many, despite the negative consequences for some (perhaps many), this dynamic is seen as the future: a ‘structural transformation’ of the agrarian setting, offering many opportunities for growth and investment.

In Zimbabwe, the land reform of 2000 created a category of medium-scale farms – the A2 schemes. Around 25,000 such farms were allocated, ranging in sizes from around 20 ha (especially with irrigation) to over 500 ha, in dry areas. Like in other neighbouring countries, this has resulted in a new agrarian structure, complemented in Zimbabwe’s case by a massive increase also of smallholder agriculture.

The new A2 farmers have a similar social and economic profile to elsewhere: urban connections, business people, retirees, and they are also often well-connected politically. Unlike elsewhere the new A2 farms did not emerge from a land market, but from direct allocation by the state, subdividing large-scale commercial farms and estates. Although allocations were notionally done on the basis of a formal application process, including the submission of a business plan and a vetting of applicants in terms of qualification, capital availability and investment ideas, this often didn’t happen. Instead, in multiple cases, there was a well-documented pattern of corruption and patronage, especially around election times, when politically- and military-connected elites grabbed farms.

The result has been a mixed set of outcomes for A2 farms. Some have done very well, investing and producing; many though have not, and the farms are languishing. Very often this is due to the lack of capital and finance, which has not been forthcoming due to lack of collateral security. The process of issuing 99 year leases has been painfully slow, and for a variety of reasons the banks have been reluctant until recently to accept them as guarantees. The general lack of liquidity in the economy due to recurrent crises has also hampered investment.

The recent studies of medium-scale farms across Africa have focused on farm structure (in the MSU studies they have taken a huge range of sizes from 5-200 hectares to represent this group) and who owns the farms, and largely not their fortunes as productive enterprises, patterns of investment and long-term viability. Our new studies under the DFID-supported APRA (Agricultural Policy Research in Africa) programme, which is linked to a set of MSU studies led by Thom Jayne, is looking at A2 farms: investigating their sizes, ownership patterns and through some detailed surveys in Mvruwi and Masvingo, investigating both production and investment.

Most post-land reform studies have focused on the A1 smallholder farms (appropriately so, given they are the majority), so this will be the first in-depth assessment of the A2 farms, beyond very selective audits carried out by the state a decade or more ago. This will help us understand whether the dynamic in Zimbabwe, generated by the A2 allocations in land reform, replicate or contrast with, what has been found in other countries in the region.

Native Purchase Areas 80 years on

In addition to this study, our work has been looking at longer-term histories, and a previous allocation of ‘medium-scale’ farms (also averaging 100 ha) from the 1930s in Zimbabwe. These are the Native Purchase Areas and an earlier blog series has highlighted some of the findings already. Our new open access paper in Africa synthesises and extends the analysis, based on Mushagashe small-scale commercial farming area near Masvingo.

Our findings show that unbridled optimism (or indeed pessimism) about the future of medium-scale farms is unwarranted. The MSU studies from across Africa have spotted an important shift in size structure, but they tell us little about the future. The idea that there is a linear evolution of farm systems from smallholder to medium-scale to large-scale commercial, as land areas consolidate and market forces drive comparative advantage needs to be challenged.

The big debates about structural transformation in agriculture currently being revived in agricultural economics are often starkly ahistorical. They assume simple, unidirectional evolutionary change as incentives shift. But there’s a lot else that goes on besides. When we look at history in detail – as we did for Mushagashe, but more impressively Sara Berry did for Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia – we see that commercialisation doesn’t happen like this. There are stops and starts, booms and busts, generational changes, policy shocks and so on. History is about contingency, conjucture and chance, not predictable, linear evolution.

As we found in Mushagashe, 80 years on some farms were thriving; others had been but were languishing now; others had plans for the future, but weren’t getting going; while others had been abandoned, or were in the process of being so. Still others had different views of the land: this was home, somewhere to seek refuge from ‘communal area’ life, or where other family members could be settled, in what, over generations, had become more like villages than conventional farms.

Commercialisation we found wasn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. For some it was the classic pattern of increasing external inputs, greater deployment of labour and higher, more marketed outputs. But for others commercialisation was selective: in projects run by particular family members, or in particular plots, where water was available.

Lessons from history

While history cannot predict the future, it can help us ask questions about what might be. And the Native Purchase Area lessons documented in the new paper suggest that it is unwise to be too gung-ho about the future of medium-scale farms in Africa. The restructuring of farm sizes we are seeing now will have many outcomes, and the sort of processes that unfolded in Mushagashe since the early 1930s will likely play a part in creating a wide diversity, both in the A2 farms and in other medium-scale farms in the region.

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

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Roads, belts and corridors: what is happening along Africa’s eastern seaboard?

The main port at Nacala, Mozambique

The eastern seaboard of Africa from Kenya to Tanzania to Mozambique has become a major focus of attention. The ports – from Bagamoyo to Beira – are seen as the gateway to Africa, a place where great riches can be found. Such ports, and the road and rail links that connect them, are now being redeveloped at a frenzied pace. Much of this is about mineral export, but agriculture is part of the picture too, as a number of the new (or often revived) corridors are seen as ‘agricultural growth corridors’, a term on the lips of many ambitious planners and investors.

Eastern Africa’s ports are also vital staging posts in China’s massively ambitious ‘belt and road’ initiative to connect to the rest of the world. The maritime ‘roads’ across the India Ocean, connect to ‘belts’ that stretch across Asia to China, and through Africa and Europe. The Chinese vision, promoted enthusiastically by President Xi Jinping, is one of an interconnected world, supported by the best of Chinese infrastructure, providing new opportunities for profitable exchange and market-driven export-based development.

For the sceptics this is a replaying of colonial exploitation; imperial ambitions in a new age with new loci of commercial power. An interest in the eastern seaboard of Africa is of course not new. The ports, roads and rail links of played other roles in previous eras – from the slave trade to colonial extraction. For those with strategic geopolitical interests in the region, not least India who sees the Indian Ocean as important militarily and economically, recent developments have major implications.


A canon pointing out to sea at the Portuguese colonial slave fort on Ilha de Moçambique

The Nacala corridor: more than coal?

I recently spent a week in Nampula province in northern Mozambique. This is the location of the Nacala corridor, which stretches from the coal mining region of Tete through southern Malawi to the port of Nacala. The visit was part of a project, led in Mozambique by Euclides Gonçalves, on the political economy of agricultural growth corridors in eastern Africa. It is a small component of the new DFID-funded APRA programme, which has just produced its first Working Paper by Rebecca Smalley on this theme.

The Nacala corridor has been the subject of much controversy around the Prosavana project, a trilateral development cooperation project involving Brazil, Japan and Mozambique, discussed in earlier work on China and Brazil in African agriculture. In its early incarnations Prosavana was aiming to roll out massive agricultural investment projects along the corridor, focusing on Brazilian investment and expertise, replicating the much hailed success of the Cerrado in Brazil. These grand plans however unravelled through a combination of organised international opposition, collapsing commodity prices, the Brazilian political crisis and the plain fact that investing in large-scale agriculture in Africa is incredibly difficult, requiring very deep pockets given the risks.

Now things have moved on. The grand plans – at least in their original form – have been put on hold, but there is much happening below the radar. The rail line carrying coal from Tete is fully functional, as is the new port facility at Nacala. There is a new airport at Nacala and the road is in good shape. Land is cheap, good quality and relatively plentiful, and the processes for transfer of ‘DUATs’ from communities to investors is relatively straightforward, as long as some bureaucratic and consultation hoops are jumped through. Locally and nationally there is much political will supporting external investment from the Mozambican party-state, seen as a way of generating growth in a poor part of the country prone to supporting opposition groups. As a source of patronage and backhanders no doubt there are other incentives too.

The Vale coal rail line cutting across the rural Mozambican landscape

At one level the corridor to the new Nacala port facility, established on the other side of the bay to the original Nacala port, is only about exporting coal. Vale, the huge Brazilian conglomerate, has invested millions, now in partnership with Japanese investors. The rail line is increasing freight capacity, although local passengers have limited opportunities to use the railway and local villagers must wait ages for long trains to pass as the rail line cuts through their lands. Others are involved too. For example, Chinese construction companies are also involved in infrastructure development. With improved facilities in the original port, and the potential, as yet unrealised, for the railway to be used for more than coal and the odd passenger train, others are eyeing up the region too.

Agribusiness and development

From established agribusiness operations, such as Rift Valley Corp’s Matanuska banana operation near Manapo, to smaller, more prospective investors in agriculture from Brazil, South Africa, Portugal, India, Jordan, Canada the US and more, the corridor appears to be generating interest, although not at all as part of a coordinated grand plan. Such investments are often supported by international ‘aid’ funds that help to ‘de-risk’ investments or provide opportunities for cutting costs (such as the use of Brazilian tractors supplied through the More Food International programme; again the subject of earlier research being continued under APRA).

A Brazilian tractor in use on a new commercial farm

Local farmers may benefit too. Such operations generate employment opportunities, although the labour conditions are poor, and they may not benefit villagers in the immediate locality. Outgrower arrangements are often mooted as part of improving local relations, a model heavily promoted earlier by AgDevCo in the Beira corridor as part of a UK aid programme, but many fail because generating export quality, regular supplies in sufficient quantities is seriously tough. Local players are also jumping on the corridor bandwagon, with government officials and business people investing in land, and linking up with new external investors.

Who benefits? Political economy questions

It is a highly dynamic situation that the research is only now starting to examine. Corridor investments clearly provide much needed infrastructure in locations that have been marginalised, and remain extremely poor. But who will benefit? An extractivist regime that sees the corridor merely as transport route to export natural resources (in Nacala’s case coal) may see limited local benefits, as the rail line acts more like a ‘tunnel’ connecting mine to port, with little interaction with local people and economies along the way.

A more integrated corridor development may yet emerge, however, as the corridor becomes an attractor for economic activity that spreads out as a network, rather than an isolated, linear connector. For this to happen, as in the old ‘growth pole’ model, other economic activity has to be attracted, and the benefits of infrastructure development shared locally, and also more widely. In this case to the hinterlands of the eastern seaboard, across regions to the landlocked countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe, for example.

But, even if such wider activity happens, some will appropriate the spoils more than others. As in other areas where rapid economic transitions happen through land investments, there is plenty of room for speculation, patronage and deals that create new elites, excluding others. Political economy really matters, and in contrast to much existing research on growth corridors that focuses on the ‘business case’ and the sequencing of infrastructure, this is the emphasis of our research in Mozambique (Nacala/Beira), as well as Kenya (LAPSSET) and Tanzania (SAGCOT).

The longer history of corridors along eastern Africa is one of exploitation and extraction: from slaves to plantation crops to minerals. But how can contemporary investments – which I believe should not be naively rejected – be made to work for the majority, not just the few? This is the underlying challenge, and one our research hopes to investigate, engaging along the way with investors, local villagers and the brokers and intermediaries among state and non-state actors who can make a difference to the way corridor development pathways emerge.

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

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Tobacco and contract farming in Zimbabwe


How does commercial agriculture – and particularly contract farming – affect agrarian dynamics? We have been looking at this question in work in Mvurwi area in Mazowe district over the last few years. New work under the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa project of the Future Agricultures Consortium will pursue this further.

An open access paper is just out in the Journal of Agrarian Change – “Tobacco, contract farming and agrarian change in Zimbabwe”. (PDF here). This looks at the influence of tobacco farming (both contracted and independently grown) on patterns of social differentiation and class formation within A1 resettlement areas. Tobacco production is one of the big post-land reform stories, but how is this driving different patterns of accumulation, with what implications for livelihoods, labour and politics?

Lots of data are presented in the paper on contrasting production, asset ownership and investment patterns across our sample of 220 households. Towards the end of the paper, we offer a simple typology of different classes of farmer, resulting from differential accumulation due to tobacco production.

Social differentiation and class formation

The Accumulators: This group are those with sufficient resources to grow tobacco and sell it on their own. In the recent past they may have had contracting relationships with companies, but many have found it possible to operate independently because of sufficient resources accumulated. Tobacco income has been invested in tractors and transport vehicles, allowing households to cultivate effectively and transport tobacco to the auction floors. They balance tobacco farming with commercial maize farming, so they spread their risk in terms of agriculture. Many also have other businesses, including tractor hire and transport, but also house rental, as some have invested in real estate in Mvurwi, Mazowe and Harare from tobacco proceeds. This group is generally older, male, more educated, and sometimes with jobs in town, or at least pensions and other resources – sometimes remittances from children abroad – to draw on, which helps the path of accumulation. This group hires permanent labour, and also uses a temporary workforce hired from the locality as well as from the compounds. Links to state officials, agribusinesses and political networks become important for gaining access to some resources, notably fertiliser, and so accumulation from below combines with accumulation from above for this group.

The Aspiring Accumulators: This group includes a number with formal contracting relationships with companies. They do not have enough resources to produce and sell independently, but are prepared to commit significant land areas to tobacco to fulfil contracts, and take on the associated risk. They generally have a larger proportion of their farms allocated to tobacco, and so less to other crops, including maize. However, on average, they still manage to produce more than a tonne of maize per year, and so, even on smaller areas, have enough for self-provisioning. Many also complement tobacco production with small-scale commercial horticulture, often run by women, and so have diverse sources of income. They hire labour, both locally and from the compounds, but have a smaller permanent workforce compared to the accumulator group. In terms of off-farm income sources, this group combines traditional local occupations, such as building or brickmaking, with cattle sales, and some with small transport operations. While aspiring to greater things, this group is certainly ‘accumulating from below’, and shows a significant level of purchase of assets, including cattle, solar panels, cell phones, as well as agricultural and other inputs.

The Peasant Producers: Not everyone is accumulating to the extent of these other groups, and for some a more classic peasant production system is evident. This does not mean ‘subsistence’ production, as all are engaging in the market, but the production system features a dominance of own-family labour (although some hiring in of temporary piece work), and production that is spread across a variety of crops, including tobacco. Most in this group will not be in a contracting relationship with a company. They instead sell tobacco, often as part of a group, independently. There has been a large movement from this group to the other two accumulator groups in the past few years.

The Diversifiers and Strugglers: There are a number of households who are not producing in the way the peasant producers manage, and are clearly struggling. This group does not engage in cropping for sale (or if so very little, and not usually tobacco, but mostly maize), and often produces insufficient maize for self-provisioning. Such farmers have to diversify income earning activities, often with a clear gendered division of labour, across activities including building, carpentry, thatching, fishing and some craft making (for men) and vegetable sales, trading, pottery and basket making (for women). They rarely hire labour, and will often be the ones labouring for others, as temporary labourers on nearby farms.

Dynamic agrarian change in tobacco areas

These categories are far from static, and the drive to accumulate, with contracting seen as an important route to this end, is ever present, both in people’s own commentaries, as well as in observed practices. Everyone can see success around them, and tobacco is the symbol of this, although some are having their doubts about its sustainability and diversifying into other high-value crops. These categorisations of also miss the differential trajectories of accumulation within households, across genders and generations. As seen in the recent blog series, some youth are failing to make it, and often remain within increasingly large accumulator households as dependents, even after marriage. Some women may be tobacco farmers in their own right, but tobacco accumulation is predominantly a male phenomenon, with men often taking on the tobacco business, and associated investments from the proceeds.

What do these patterns tell us about likely longer-term patterns of agrarian change? The tobacco boom has provided a significant group of land reform beneficiaries the opportunity to accumulate. This has had spin-off effects in the rural economy – generating employment, resulting in investments of different sorts, and changes in the local economy as small towns like Mvurwi grow.

It has also generated class-related conflicts and dependencies both in relation to compound-based farm worker households and with others in the A1 areas who are struggling to reproduce. The weak kin-based social relations within new resettlement communities limit the redistributive effects of a ‘traditional’ moral economy, and means that there are genuine losers, as well as winners, from the land reform.

There are inevitable limits to accumulation, set by environmental factors (and especially the supply of wood for curing), market conditions (and changes in the world market, health concerns, the demand for higher quality leaf and price shifts), social-political relations (and the ability to negotiate within markets), and limited land areas.

In the A1 areas, successful households attract others, particularly from the communal areas, and household sizes expand as others are taken in. Surplus income can be invested in basic social reproduction – including maintaining rural homes, investing in education, health care, marriage of children and so on – as well as production – including livestock, farm equipment, inputs, transport and so on – but again there are limits to the herd sizes and capital items and other inputs that can be bought.

A key question will be where the next round of investment will end up. Here the relationship between countryside and towns, especially small towns, becomes important, as accumulators build urban/peri-urban housing for rent, private schools as business ventures, and sink capital into other urban-based businesses, potentially a source of employment for the next generation. This is only beginning now, but the data show that this is a trend to watch.

These economic transformations also feed into and are built upon social and political dynamics. Successful A1 farmers – very often well educated, and with links to urban areas – are important social and political actors, often seen as leaders in local political formations (mostly within the ruling party, ZANU-PF), but also in other groupings, such as churches and business associations. How alliances are struck with farm workers – in all their forms – as well as those A1 farmers who are struggling will be significant, as new forms of agrarian politics emerge on the back of the tobacco boom.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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