Tag Archives: beef

Changes in beef market regulations open opportunities in southern Africa

Last month at the OIE (World Animal Health Organisation) Assembly in Paris, changes to international regulatory standards around Foot and Mouth Disease were adopted. This has long been argued for, and will make a big difference to livestock producers across southern Africa.

The updated OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code makes it possible for African countries with wild species like buffalo that naturally harbour foot and mouth disease (FMD) viruses to be able to trade beef without necessarily requiring the physical separation of wildlife and livestock through the extensive veterinary cordon fencing that has characterized animal disease management in southern Africa since the colonial era.

Steve Osofsky,  Wildlife Conservation Society  AHEAD Coordinator,  commented “we’ve reached a critical turning point in regards to resolving the more than half century-old conflict between international beef trade policy based on foot and mouth disease control fencing in the southern African context and the migratory needs of free-ranging wildlife in the region and beyond”.

In Zimbabwe, with large populations of FMD-carrying buffalo, this has long been a major challenge. In the past, a massive amount of funding was spent on trying to keep buffalos and livestock separate and thousands of kilometers of fencing erected, in order to gain access to international markets. The European Union invested considerable sums in creating a zoned arrangement, with ‘disease free’, ‘buffer’ and ‘infected’ areas to allow exports to European markets under special agreements that existed under the Lome agreement. This was a lucrative trade for those beef farmers able to comply. However, it also excluded many beef producers in large parts of the country. In addition, it diverted huge amounts of aid funds, as well as government resources, in the inevitably vain attempt to create FMD disease freedom.

In southern Africa, where the FMD virus is endemic, this was an unscientific and expensive policy. But pressure from European nations and others in the OIE prevented any change in international regulatory policy until now, despite excellent arguments from African researchers, including from Zimbabwe, that safe trade alternatives exist. In many ways it was a scandal – a huge waste of time and public money, distorting markets and creating benefits for the few not the many in the name of ‘development’ and ‘aid’.

Now quarantine-based value chain approaches to beef production (also known as commodity-based trade) can become a routine option.  AHEAD Guidelines show how this policy change offers the unprecedented possibility of access to new beef markets for southern African livestock producers. As Osofsky says, it also “unlocks the potential for restoring migratory movements of wildlife and thus enhancing prospects for long-term wildlife populatioon viability within individual countries as well as in transboundary landscapes like the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area”.

As argued in earlier research convened by the ESRC STEPS Centre and supported by the Wellcome Trust, commodity-based trade for beef will help open up markets within Africa, as well as Asia, and  make these markets available for a wider range of producers. A journal article and associated commentaries mapped out the options. Complying with safe trade regulations requires upgrading value chain infrastructure and support, but it means that a small-scale livestock producer in the new resettlements or communal areas can now access high value markets, boosting ecoomic opportunity and improving livelihoods. Land reform has restructured markets as well as land, and the’ real markets‘ for beef allow multiple opportunities (see also our recent ‘making markets’ film on beef).  This policy change will therefore make a massive difference to people and economies across the region.

The old era of fencing and absurd and unachievable ‘disease free’ zones is now over, and we can now accept that livestock production in southern Africa must live with the FMD virus, but in a way that allows for safe trade and careful regulation. Sometimes the long, hard slog of evidence-based policy research does pay off, despite plenty of interests stacked against it. Congratulations to the 180 national members – and especially the African contingent – at the OIE Assembly!

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

 

 

 

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Making markets: land reform, agriculture and new local economies in Zimbabwe

Over the last few weeks, a series of films have been posted based on work undertaken by the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development project in Zimbabwe. By looking at different commodities – tobacco, horticulture and beef – they have explored how land reform has created opportunities for new markets and employment.

A new locally-based and inclusive economy is being generated, replacing often narrowly based economic activity of the past. Not everyone benefits from these new spatially and socially different patterns of economic activity, but there are important lessons for future development strategy that emerge.

A focus on local economic development, and supporting new market networks and value chains that can add value and create employment from a transformed agrarian economy is crucial. This will require a rethink as to how we think about ‘commerical agriculture’ and market-led development, and move towards seeing rural development in a new spatial context, with land reform sites, linked to other areas of rural production, and to towns and cities, and wider markets.

As further research findings are produced, I will up-date blog readers. Meanwhile, you can have a look at all the films again in a playlist (both high and low res versions are below – and do run on the first 1 minute 30 sec introduction which is repeated in each. The playlist starts with an overview, and then moves to each of the commodity focused films. Click the icon on the top left of the image to see a choice of the films if you don’t want to watch the lot. They are all about 10 mins long).

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Transforming beef markets in Zimbabwe

This week the final film in the ‘Making Markets’ video series is released. This focuses on the transformed beef sector in Masvingo. In farms that were once large-scale ranches, with high quality animals stocked at very low rates, now a very different cattle production system has emerged on the new resettlements. Here multi-purpose herds are being kept providing multiple functions – draft, transport, milk, manure – and also meat. The beef market has radically changed, from one focused on high quality cuts and exports to the supply of a growing urban domestic market. New farmers are supplying beef via a range of private abbatoirs, butcheries, supermarkets and informal meat traders. The whole value chain has transformed in ways that has resulted in employment and more locally-based, inclusive growth.

The video picks up on themes discussed in earlier blogs, including on:

This work, and the production of the film, has been supported by the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development (SMEAD) project, looking at changing patterns of local economic activity following land reform.

Watch the video here (as before if you’ve watched others in the series, you can skip the first 1 min and 30 secs. Also if you would prefer a low resolution version, the link is here):

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Making markets: local economic development following land reform

Today we are releasing a series of films on the relationships between land reform and economic activity in Zimbabwe, focusing on three commodities: tobacco, beef and horticulture. The films emerge from on-going work coordinated by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies based at UWC in Cape Town under the ‘Space, Markets and Employment in Agricultural Development’ (SMEAD) project supported by the UK ESRC and DFID growth research programme. They were made by Pamela Ngwenya, supported by the field team. This week, I am posting the overview film which gives you a taste of the series. In subsequent weeks, I will post ones on the each of the three commodities we looked at.

Over the last couple of years the work has been carried out in Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe looking at the linkages between agricultural production, employment and other economic activity and the spatial patterns of these interactions. Through some detailed case study research, the project has been attempting to look at the different growth pathways linked to agriculture, and investigate how inclusive these are, asking who gains and who loses from agricultural commercialisation.

The study of course links to old debates about scale and agriculture, and the linkage and multiplier effects of different types of farming. Do big or small farms create more employment and economic growth, for whom and where? What spatial mix of farm sizes and markets make sense? Can local economic development flourish in an era of globalisation? These are not easy questions to answer, and that’s why the debate has continued and continued. It depends what commodity, which markets, what spatial arrangement of farms and markets, levels of infrastructure and much more.

But across our studies in southern Africa, some interesting patterns emerge. The cases from Malawi show very localised economic activities, with spillovers and connections occurring within a few kilometers. Few farmers are able to scale up, and although commericalised, the prospects for growth without wider shifts in the economy look bleak. In South Africa by contrast, the linkages were extensive, with very few steps to large companies operating in highly developed value chains, and linking to markets in distant urban conurbations. Here, for differnt reasons, the prospects for local economic development looked limited. The value was captured and exported, and employment was not being generated in the local area. Zimbabwe showed an intriguing middle ground. Here lots of local economic activity was evident, particularly linked to entrepreneurial farmers in the A1 resettlement areas. These farmers were selling into new value chains, created since land reform. These were more local, supplying markets in nearby towns and business centres for beef or horticulture, but also export markets for tobacco. Employment was being generated along the value chains, and benefits were far more widely shared.

The results of the study are still being processed, synthesised and written up and I will share more when the reports are out. But the early indications suggest an interesting story, especially for Zimbabwe. This suggests a focus on local economic development, capitalising on and amplifying the linkages already created by entrepreneurial farmers who have benefited from land reform. This will mean a major rethink of rural development policy and planning, but the benefits could be significant if the cases highlighted in these films are anything to go by.

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Retail revolutions: the rise and rise of butcheries and informal food selling in Zimbabwe

In last week’s blog I discussed the new beef production systems supplying meat to consumers in Masvingo province and beyond. A radically reconfigured pattern of land use and ownership has resulted in diverse new value chains. This has had effects across the chain, including in the retail sector.

In our book, and a paper we wrote in 2008, we discussed the situation in the midst of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. The picture was one of informal markets, illegal trade and the collapse of the mainstream retail sector. What has happened since 2009 and the stabilisation of the economy and the introduction of a multicurrency environment?

Certainly the growth of butcheries has continued, despite challenges. In a survey in 2006-07 we counted 31 butcheries in Masvingo town (20 in Mucheke township alone) and 9 in Ngundu. All businesses suffered badly at the peak of the economic crisis, and many closed in 2008. However since 2009, they have reopened. In 2013 the number of registered butcheries in Masvingo stood at 32 (14 in town, including 8 supermarkets, with a further 18 in the townships). In 2010-11 there were also 13 in Ngundu and 21  in Chiredzi (5 in town, 12 in Tshovani and 4 in Garage). Unlike in 2006, supermarkets are stocking beef, but only the more premium ‘supergrade’ cuts. In Masvingo, for example, OK and TM source from the larger abbatoirs, such as Carswell and Montana who can supply high quality meat regularly. During the economic crisis they would source from wherever, including meat traders, but, as TM’s meat buyer explained, the quality and reliability was poor, and enjoying a vibrant trade. Today meat traders supply other butcheries who undercut the supermarkets in terms of price. Some outlets are directly linked to abbatoirs, and they can cut costs even further.

Clearly demand is buoyant, despite economic difficulties. While red meat consumption has declined according to official statistics, and there has been a switch to pork, chicken and fish, beef remains people’s favoured meat. But with the change in production system, there is a different pattern and quality of supply. Instead of the top cuts, the lower quality ‘nyama’ is more commonly sold, and this can still be marketed at reasonable prices.  In addition to registered butcheries there are number of ‘mobile’ illegal operations. Masvingo’s Chief Health Officer, Mr Munganasa explained they have a ‘running battle’ with such vendors who sell cheap, imported South African chicken and beef from freezer boxes. A leading local butcher, Mrs Foroma, complained: “We are losing business from these vendors. We pay our rent, and comply with the regulations, but they  undercut us. They become very active in the evening after the municipal authority workers knock off. They use illegal ‘under the tree’ slaughter and sell to food sellers”.  But illegal operators say there plenty of business: “there is room enough for everyone”, one argued.

In order to increase profits, and compete with the multiple independent vendors, many butcheries also have a food selling business, sometimes operated as a franchise. For example Hungoidza butchery at Ngundu established a food outlet in 2000 which has continued as a thriving business, relying on truckers who stop on their way to and from Beitbridge. The butchery makes biltong which they buy, and also has a braai (barbecue). “There is always a brisk trade”, the owner explained.

Also with local slaughter arrangements, linked to butcheries, there has been a growth in sales of ‘fifth quarter’ products (offal, head, feet etc.), including sales to small restaurants and street sellers of food. Take Stanford Maringo. He is in his early thirties and comes from Zaka. He got a job about 10 years ago at Chakona’s butchery in Masvingo. He was a meat cutter and cattle buyer. But the pay was poor and he wanted to have his own business. In the end after trying out vegetable selling in the market, he struck a deal with the  butchery owner that he would continue cutting meat, but could use the machine for slicing ‘mazondo‘, and he could put up a braai stand (barbecue) outside the shop. He sells mazondo to the customers at the next door bar, and has a roaring trade. He also generates good business for the butchery, buying about 80 cows’ feet a week, and selling on uncooked but sliced mazondo to other food sellers and restaurants.  Stanford explains his plans:

My business is doing well. I send money home each month to my relatives in Zaka. Last month I bought a digital camera, and I will start a photo business too. My real, long term plan is become a cattle buyer, and enter meat retailing with my own shop. I also married my sweetheart, thanks to the proceeds from selling mazondo. She is also a butchery employee, but wants to start a hair salon. My mazondo business is going to provide the seed funds for this.

So, from selling cattle feet or tripe on the street, big and better things can happen.  The same applies to the food sellers in Chikombedzi market. This is a massive weekly market centred on the cattle trade. Each week hundreds of animals are exchanged, and thousands of people from all around congregate. A number of food selling outlets have sprung up to serve the customers.  The market is tightly regulated however. The local council charges vendors for their stands, and the Ministry of Health also requires certificates, banning those who are HIV positive from selling food. This all adds to the costs, but it is still profitable.

Nyariwe Ngudu has a stall, and she hires someone each month over the two days of the market to fetch water, wash plates and help her with the cooking. She sells pork from her own farm, but also buys in other meat to serve with sadza (mealie meal porridge). Betty Madondo focuses on cooking relish on market days. She has a mix: some goat meat, but also chicken as those coming from town prefer chicken, she says. Others get game meat and fish poached from the park, but the game scouts are always around at the market and demand bribes for selling.  Although she doesn’t deal in game meat, she still has to pay bribes to the council workers and health officials, as the regulations are so strict. She cooks it in the evening before the market, and the food vendors come and buy from her, who sell on when the buses and trucks arrive for the market.

“There are so many people who come to the market”, Betty explains. “It’s great business, and they all want meat relish”. Although this is an intermittent business, with the market happening only once a month she gets a good profit in a few days, She also sometimes travels to other markets in the area to make up her income. She explains her business model: “When I get cash from relish sales, I buy sandals at the market. I then exchange these for goats, chickens, occasionally pigs, in the villages before the next market”.

Meat retailing has been transformed in recent years, as has the whole meat value chain. All these new enterprises are across the chain are connected, and have links to the land reform programme. From the new farms come the livestock, providing the business for the cattle traders, butcheries, abbatoirs and pole slaughterers. Low paid government workers also take a cut, deploying ‘regulations’ strategically, taking fines or bribes. And from there, food sellers, restaurant owners and others can make a living, providing new opportunities to build, expand and extend their livelihood activities.

The current situation represents a highly differentiated scene with room for diverse enterprises fitting different market niches. As South African and local capital reinvests in the Zimbabwean retail sector, will this diversified, employment and livelihood generating sector remain, or will the longer term picture be one of consolidation in a few big players, as has happened in so many other places, with the smaller operators squeezed out? Hopefully policy and consumer choice will mean that the more diverse pattern that has arisen will continue to thrive.

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

 

 

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Beef value chains in Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe

There has been a lot of talk recently about reviving the beef sector. The donors are commissioning consultancy after consultancy. But most fail to look at the reality on the ground, instead harking back to a model of the past. As discussed in an earlier blog, I believe that this is missing the point. The past will not return, nor should it. The days of the heavily subsidised large scale commercial ranching sector are gone. Instead, there are multiple, smaller producers, with offtake coming often from multiple use herds in A1 and communal areas. In addition there are the new beef producers who link small and medium scale production on A2 farms with new value chains.

In the next few weeks, it is this group of producers, and their inter-linkages, that I want to focus on in a series of blogs. This is something we have been investigating as part of a project on ‘space, markets and employment’, and the implications of new economic linkages for local economies, with one of our cases being beef value chains in Masvingo province. Yet this new dynamic of cattle production has been almost completely forgotten in the current discussions, yet such producers perhaps the potential core of a new commercial beef sector. This week, let me illustrate my point with a series of short case studies drawn from our on-going work in Masvingo province.

Case 1: Mr OM has an A2 farm north of Masvingo of around 250 ha. He runs around 60 cattle there, which are regularly slaughtered. He also milks the cows and sells soured milk locally, and even has plans for a dairy on the farm. He has a truck which can transport live animals for slaughter at the abbatoirs in town. He also owns a small supermarket in town, which now has a thriving butchery section, supplied by his farm. When his own supply is short, or animals are in poor condition on his farm, he sends buyers out to the communal and resettlement areas near his farm to purchase more to make the trip to town worthwhile. He also buys from local abbatoirs. The supermarket was established some years ago when he was working in government and then the NGO sector. During the economic crisis it was not making any money, and it was closed for some time. But since 2009 and dollarization business has been booming. Demand for beef remains high, and he can undercut the main supermarkets (OK and TM), by strategic pricing, particularly of the lower quality cuts. He employs labourers on his farm, as well as at the supermarket, and buyers work on contract. His relatives act as farm managers and oversee the shop.

Case 2. Mrs M acquired A2 ranches in the lowveld during land reform. They also own a butchery and local store in Ngundu. Today the two enterprises are connected, with cattle being brought to the butchery for slaughter and sale from the ranches. They also have a meat supply contract with the local mission which provides a regular demand. The main challenge is transport as the farms are several hundred kilometres away along appalling roads. Sometimes they make arrangements with the town abbatoirs to bring their livestock for slaughter in their own trucks, allowing a greater number to be transported at a time. The herds are gradually being stocked at the two plots, and since there is plenty of grazing they believe that greater numbers can be held, despite the dry conditions. Check out the video, where Mrs M explains how all this works, and her plans for the future.

Case 3: A local family business, into retail, restaurants, transport and a range of other activities in Masvingo, rented the essentially unused CSC abbatoir as part of a new vertically integrated local ranching business. This was short-lived however, as the local deal with CSC was not approved. They switched instead to other local abbatoirs for slaughter. They have combined their own A2 farm with a number of others which are now leased, allowing them to run some 450 head of cattle across 3-4 farms. The other farms had been acquired by local elites during land reform, but were not being fully utilised, and spare grazing was available for leasing. They now have a network of farms supplying beef across the province at outlets they own in Masvingo, Chiredzi, Bikita, Mashava and so on. Their butcheries remain good business, but they are now branching out into a restaurant business in Masvingo town.

Case 4: Lease grazing is also at the centre of another business, run by a white farmer whose family used own over 10000 ha in the province across multiple properties, including unused CSC ranches. These days he only has one farm, which is subdivided which is far too small to keep his cattle on. Instead, he leases grazing from new A2 plot holders. At the peak around 3000 head were grazed in this way across a dozen properties. These are however scattered, and managing these lease arrangements and maintaining fences etc. is a major headache. While he kept this going for around 10 years, in the end he decided the costs of managing such an arrangement were too much. Instead he focuses on the purchase, sale and marketing of stock from a variety of sources, including communal and resettlement areas. Cattle are purchased at auctions and then slaughtered at Montana and Carswell abbatoirs in Masvingo, with sales to town supermarkets, as well as school contracts. Occasional leasing is required, but he no longer maintains such a network of farms, and has many fewer cattle of his own.

Case 5: Mr RM says that “land reform unlocked grazing potential and gave me the opportunity move more cattle from distant areas and lease graze then in nearby resettlement areas like Beza and Kenilworth” He also leases CSC land and Mushandike ranch. He breeds Brahman bulls with indigenous females which he says is ideal for this area. Around 50 cattle are sold per month, nearly all to Montana Meats in Masvingo. Their prices are not the best, but they pay immediately, he says. Two years ago he established a restaurant in town. At the restaurant 1kg of meat can yield $10, so $2000 from a dressed animal of 200kg, instead of $700 by selling it at $3.50/kg (late 2010 prices). The restaurant takes around 2 beasts a week. “While there is stiff competition in the restaurant business in Masvingo, it’s still a good option compared to just meat selling”, he explains.

Case 6. Mr D used to own plenty of land in the lowveld of Zimbabwe around Mateke hills, and had a huge herd of good quality Brahman cattle. When land reform came he diversified his business with connections over the border in Mozambique. He established a camp over the border, and employed people there to create small settlement and large holding pens. He illegally drove cattle across the border, paying bribes to the Zimbabwean and Mozambican officials. On a visit during 2010 there were over 3000 cattle being held at Bazani camp. He also has acquired land for holding pens near Maputo where the cattle are transported for slaughter and sale. Transport is by train or by truck. Some animals are sold locally at the bazaars along the border which thrive on illegal trade with Zimbabwe and South Africa. Animals are still transported across the border, but he is working on a plan to develop the ranch business in Mozambique, where land is plentiful

These cases show that the cattle and beef business is thriving in Masvingo province, but not in the ways it did before. The CSC abbatoir is effectively defunct, a massive white elephant created on the back of subsidies to white farming in the 1970s. Instead smaller abbatoirs are thriving, along with informal pole slaughter linked to butcheries. New value chains are being created, no longer based on massive individually owned ranching operations. Instead, with smaller farm sizes, there is a need to aggregate from multiple farms. In this way benefits are more widely shared, and more people become involved in the market. Links to the big retailers still exist, such as the large supermarkets in Masvingo, but increasingly it is smaller operations, sometimes linked to new farm operations. The new beef entrepreneurs are not poor –they require capital, transport and connections, and are beneficiaries (often from elite circles) of the A2 farm allocations. Former white ranchers are also engaged, through lease grazing, cross-border trade and purchase and selling operations. But again their businesses have transformed. All are generating business and employment, and linking communal and other resettlement farmers into new market networks.

If the consultants employed by the aid agencies want to get to grips with the new beef economy and build practical solutions and new policies on what is happening rather than some perception of what ought to be the case, they need to take a trip to Masvingo. And of course, as already hinted at, it is not just the production side that has changed, but also the pattern of meat retailing, and cattle purchasing. In the next few weeks, the blog will look at the growth of butcheries and the changes in the retail sector, as well as the role of abbatoirs and the challenges and opportunities of local cattle marketing.

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

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Why good numbers matter in Zimbabwe (part II)

This week’s blog follows on directly from last week, when I introduced the excellent new book, Poor Numbers, by Morten Jerven. This week we move from the general argument to the Zimbabwe case.

Let me offer three examples – each of which have been mentioned in this blog before – that complement Jerven’s cases, and contribute to the same bigger point that good numbers matter.

Agricultural output data: Zimbabwe’s agricultural data comes from a variety of sources, including annual crop surveys, market surveys and assessments of throughput at marketing depots. In the past, when the sector was dominated by a few large farms, it was relatively easy to get a picture of production each year. Output from the communal areas was assessed through state marketing channels through marketing boards for most of the agricultural commodities, especially maize (but also cotton, tobacco and beef). While statistics on cotton and tobacco remain reasonably good, as their marketing is channelled through few players, the production and marketing of maize and beef, by contrast, has changed dramatically since land reform.

Today there are diverse marketing channels, including much locally-focused marketing and little reliance on the old marketing board routes. And with many more farms across the country (around 150,000 new units in the A1 schemes alone), field-level monitoring by extension agents is nigh on impossible. For important crops such as the small grains (millets, sorghum), groundnuts, many oilseeds and beans, as well as smallstock, we know virtually nothing about total production and marketing.

The bottom line is that we don’t know how much food is produced and where, nor do we know how much is stored and marketed. Despite the attempts of Fewsnet, ZimVAC and others, the estimates are increasingly guesswork, especially as sampling frames and data collection protocols have not changed sufficiently to respond to the dramatically reconfigured agrarian structure.

Each year we get conflicting estimates of how dire the harvest is going to be, and the consequences this will have for food imports, and food aid. With such uncertainties, this becomes a critical area of political contestation: between government and the donors, and even between international agencies. Claiming a food ‘crisis’ may be the only way of securing international funds, as sustaining an ‘emergency’ has been essential to continued international engagement through ‘humanitarian’ aid. Such a response may well be justified; but it may be not. The problem is often we don’t know.

Migration data: Similar uncertainties centre population data and migration-related demography. While we know that migration, particularly to South Africa, has increased, we have absolutely no idea how many people have moved permanently there (or indeed to other destination countries, although the data for the UK, for example, is better). Large numbers are bandied around, which serve particular politically purposes; in South Africa (linked to xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric) and in Zimbabwe and internationally (supporting the narrative that people are ‘fleeing’).

But the figures of course don’t take into account the long-term pattern of circular migration whereby people move temporarily, or indeed increasingly seasonally. If we were to believe the figures, there would be far fewer people in Zimbabwe than there seem to be. For example, the preliminary results for the 2012 census show that the population has increased by 1% over a decade and stands at nearly 13m. Even within the country we don’t know where people are living. There is an assumption that the urban areas are growing, as people flood to the cities. But is this the case? Debbie Potts doubts this data for sub-Saharan Africa generally, but until we get better locational census data that accounts for regular movement, we will not know.

Land ownership data: This is perhaps the most contested, and in the absence of a proper land audit, we cannot know. But when ‘surveys’ purport to present data that show that “40% of the land was seized by Mugabe and his cronies”, and these figures get reported in the international media as fact, we are in trouble. This most recent examples of this short-cut journalism and recycling of ‘facts’ are from the BBC (on the Hard Talk show with Patrick Chinamasa) and the UK Guardian (in a link put in by the paper in an otherwise good piece by Simukai Tinhu). The earlier land audits by Utete and Boka have shown categorically the problem of elite capture in the A2 sites, and our detailed province-specific work in Masvingo supports this. But the scale is nothing like that claimed.

This poverty of data leads to a poverty of understanding, and so a distortion of debate. We should not be ignoring the abuse of the land reform programme by some politically-military connected elites, and the ownership of multiple farms is clearly contrary to any regulation, but our focus should equally not be only on this issue, and the wider picture, based on realistic data, needs to be central. This is why, in terms of the GPA and in line with the now agreed constitutional commitments, a proper land ownership and use survey (an audit) is critical.

If you don’t know how much food is being produced, how many people are in the country or have left and who owns what land, then how can you begin to make plans for the future? As contributors to other headline statistics, including GDP, such figures may result in major distortions.

For example, in Zimbabwe, GDP figures have been used to show the dramatic decline, and then impressive recovery in the formal economy (see the shower of graphs in the most recent budget statement), yet, as I have argued before, even in the depths of the crisis in the late 2000s, economic activity was far higher than measured. The ‘real economy’ – informal, often based on barter exchanges, sometimes illegal, much of linked to cross-border trade – was thriving, despite the collapse in the core, formal economy. It had to: this is how people survived. If you believed the figures on the formal economy, where the numbers were collected, people would have been suffering far more than they did.

As the formal economy has recovered, this has been registered in the statistics, but the informal economy still exists, and indeed the 2000s saw a massive restructuring of economic activity, not only in the agricultural sector, but across the economy towards more small-scale, informally-based enterprises. This is not a bad thing, as it provides the basis for more inclusive, employment generating, broad based growth. But if it is not understood, measured and recorded, it does not feature in planning and crucially budget allocation discussions. ZIMSTAT has recently published the 2011/12 Poverty, Income Consumption and Expenditure survey, and in a future blog I will review its findings, and the degree to which it has been able to respond to the changed post-2000 context.

While it may seem that a focus on statistical services is a rather dry and dull subject, it is in fact essential. ZIMSTAT has a small ‘did you know?’ box on their website’s front page. It says: “The likely success of development policies in achieving their aims will be improved by the use of statistics”. They are right. Revitalising statistical services, and improving their capacity to carry out national-level, macro-census type work, as well as smaller, more focused surveys, complemented with qualitative insights, is vital.

If development is to be successful, a thorough-going and honest debate on the quality of data and how to improve it is essential. Jerven’s superb book discusses an important topic with clarity and honesty; and for donors thinking of investing in government capacities in Zimbabwe again, it is well worth a read.

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

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