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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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The changing fortunes of former farm workers in Zimbabwe


Last week, I offered an overview of our findings on changing livelihoods among former farm workers from three former large-scale farms near Mvurwi in Mazowe district, and focused on broad survey findings, but what about individual’s life stories and perspectives? This week, I share four case examples of around 25 we have collected to date. They offer important glimpses into the life of farmworkers, before and after land reform (see also blogs from last year on this theme).

The first two are women (both single) who have gardens, but must rely on piecework and remittances to survive. The first case fits into the group highlighted last week of households with between zero and 1 ha of land, while the second has no land beyond a very small home garden. The second two are profiles of men and their households, both with 1 ha plots. From these interviews we can see clearly how things have changed, in different ways from different people.

A recurrent theme is the sense of new freedoms, but also extreme challenges and precarity. Reflections on the past focus on control, ordering and disciplining, but also stability and the certainty of a wage. As the testimonies show, farmers were very different in their approach. Different people weigh up the pros and cons of change in different ways. Gaining access to land, as highlighted last week, even if a very small plot is seen as crucial, but this is only available to some, and security of tenure is uncertain, dependant on local patronage relations.

The life histories highlight the multi-generational experience of farm work, and the endless mobility of moving farm to farm in search of work. Several of these cases have family connections with Mozambique or Malawi, but several generations removed. Home has become the farms, although some have communal area links. A fragile existence persists, as we see much mobility in populations living in the compounds in our study areas. Evictions are frequent, and conflicts with settlers common, although, as noted in some of the cases new accommodations, as land is rented, skills hired and former farm workers become incorporated.

Above all, the cases highlight the complex livelihoods of former farm workers, and how, as discussed last week, the single category is insufficient. A process of differentiation is occurring among former farm worker communities, with links to the new settlers and radically changed agrarian landscape influencing what is possible.

Do read four of the interview transcripts collected earlier this year:

“There’s no-one to plan for you”

I was born in Forrester Estate in 1967. My father worked there on irrigation, opening water to the canal. Mango and apple is what they grew mostly. Also wheat and soy bean. My mother worked as a general worker. I came to this farm with my parents. I went to school up to Grade III (Lucknow farm school). My mother became sick so I left school. I looked after the other children, as I was the first born. I was married in 1980. I went with my husband to Mozambique in 1992, and returned here in 2009. My husband married another wife – it didn’t work out. My father is still here, and my mother is late. I have had five children. My first born girl is late, and I also have four boys. Two did Form 4, and other two up to Grade V/VI.

We have a garden for growing tomatoes and vegetables. We go and sell by the road side to raise cash for school fees. It’s about one acre. We dug ponds in the garden. I work with one of my sons in the garden, and do not hire labour. We do maricho (piecework labour) ourselves. One son is here, but the others are in Mozambique, but I don’t get any income from them. In past when working for whites, we had very small gardens near the house only. Now we have extended gardens, and can grow more. My livelihood is better now, as I have the freedom to do gardening, and sell without asking anyone for permission. You can plan to do what you want. There’s no-one to plan for you. Before you were told what to do. Now time is your own. You have to plan. If you work the land you will be OK; if you are lazy and don’t bother, you will starve.

“There is more freedom but it’s a tough life”

I was born in 1977 and went to school up to Grade 7, but I didn’t proceed to secondary, as I had no birth certificate. I was the first born of a family of four. We lived on different farms on Forrester Estate. My father was a cook who moved from place to place, working for the same white man who was a cattle manager. My mother was both a general labourer and a house girl. My father started out as a worker, then became foreman, then house boy then cook. My grandparents were farm workers too, working near Concession, and were originally from Mozambique where they were both born.

We moved to this farm in 1992 when my father’s boss moved. I have never married, but I gave birth to a son in 1992, who is now training to be a lawyer at university. I have two boys and a girl, and live with my parents. We have never had any money. The pay was always poor. The white farm owner here was harsh. If you bought a bicycle or TV he wanted to know where it came from. There was a mindset that workers would always steal. Even if we had extra money, we would not buy things, as the farmer would be suspicious. Here you were not allowed to farm anything. No gardens even. In one year only he gave 3 lines for all the workers, but that was it. As a cook, foreman, driver or clerk you got given second-hand chairs or a TV from the whites.

We have been helped by my brothers. Two were kombi drivers in Banket. My parents helped then get licenses. They helped with the education of my kids, and fund my son at UZ. Today it’s difficult to raise money – it’s only maricho (piecework). Despite being old, my father and mother even go. We have a very small garden, where we grow vegetables and a bit of maize. We do have one cow which gives us milk. We don’t have any other land. Those with connections got 1 hectares, and farmworkers were prevented from getting resettlement land. This is home now. We have nowhere to go. The farm workers have a cemetery. This is where we live, however difficult.

In the past you had a salary. You knew it would come. If the boss had relatives visiting, my father would get extra. Now you don’t know where money will come from. But at least we will not be asked where we got the money to buy things. We now have a TV, sofa and kitchen unit. Each child has a bed. We also have solar. There is more freedom but it’s a tough life.

“Relations are better now”

I was born in 1969 in Muzarabani, was married in 1993 and I have four kids: two girls are now married and did up to Form 4, I have one boy doing Form 3, and one girl in Grade 6. My parents worked on the farms, creating the steam for the boilers for curing. I started working after Form 1, as an assistant spanner boy at Concession, and went to work on tobacco farms in Centenary. In 1995, I was promoted to be a foreman, and later went on a course on curing, planting, reaping at Blackfordby.

I came here in 1997, as my boss was friends with the former owner here. He was a tough guy. You couldn’t buy personal property. I had a small radio only. I would buy goats and sell for school fees, and other money was sent to my parents now retired back in Muzarabani communal. I tried to keep broilers, but was taken to the farmer’s own court, and wasn’t allowed to keep them. He needed people to be dependent. You had to buy at his shop, and couldn’t go to Mvurwi. He would give chikwerete (loans), but would be deducted from the salary. There was a football ground, and we were the ‘Sharp Shooters’, competing between between farms.

I got a 1 ha plot in 2002. Because farmworkers were prevented by the white farmer from the card sorting exercise for allocation of land, 27 of us came together and argued that we needed allocation. We went to the village heads, party officials and the Ministry of Lands. In the end, we were given land set aside for ‘growth’. We don’t have ‘offer letters’, but we went to the District Administrator and our names are there. But without ‘offer letters’, we can’t get any support. We don’t have any help at all. There is still suspicion of us compound workers. During the elections of 2008 it got really bad, and we were thrown out. We camped on the roadside for three days, until the MP and other officials intervened. We came back and relations are better now.

I also have been renting land. One of my relatives has a big field in the A1 settlement. She is a war vet and was married to my late brother, and I rent a plot to grow maize from her. In exchange, I help them out and do the grading and curing of their tobacco. But this year I didn’t get any land, as she used the full six hectares. My son, my wife and I all do piece work. We’ve got a garden (about 30 x 40 m), and grow potatoes for sale in Mvurwi, and at the homestead we grow bananas and sweet potatoes.

I first planted tobacco in 2006, with 7000 plants and got 12 bales. Then in subsequent years, I got 15, 12 (I was disturbed in 2008 by the evictions), 16, 18 and 20 bales. Since 2011 I have got 20 each year, with 25 bales in 2016, the highest ever. I employ workers on piece work from the compounds myself. After harvest I buy inputs in Harare, bulk buying. After land reform, I have bought other goods. We now have a 21” TV, a sofa, two bicycles, a kitchen unit, a wardrobe and a big radio. I built the barn myself, making the bricks. I also have two cows and three goats, and I hire a government tractor (from the Brazilian More Food International programme) for ploughing.

“Life is better now if you have land”

I was born in 1963 on a farm in Concession. Our family originated from Mozambique; my parents came as labourers. My parents separated, and the six kids went with my mother to another farm. We moved to many farms over the years, and came here in 1981. Of my siblings, one of my brothers is also here, and another works on a farm near Harare doing brick moulding. My two sisters live in Epworth.

At first I was a general labourer. I got married in 1984, and it was around that time that I got promoted to deputy foreman on the ranching operation. My now stepfather came here in 1986. He is now late and was a specialised grader. I have five kids: 4 boys and 1 girl. My first born is working and assisting me. My second born is assisting teaching here on the farm paid by the Salvation Army, the others are still at school.

I have a one hectare plot and a garden. The Committee of Seven and sabhuku (headman) allocated plots to 30 people (out of 89 households in the compound). At land reform, we were prevented from getting land. We concentrated on our jobs. We didn’t know if the land reform would happen for long. Now we know it’s a reality, but we missed out. Before the farmer would parcel out lines in different fields for farm workers. This was an alternative to rations, and only maize only allowed. You could get a tonne out of your allocation.

The farmer here wanted everyone to go to school (Lucknow Primary). Four white farmers built the school for farm workers, and school fees were deducted from wages. We did not rely on extra work apart from farm labour. We were busy. We had a revolving savings club to allow us to buy things, but couldn’t buy much. It was a struggle. We didn’t buy livestock as we had nowhere to keep them. We were allowed to buy TVs, radios, bicycles. But the farmer didn’t want noise, so radios had to be quiet! We had enough to survive; hand to mouth.

On my one hectare plot, I generally plant tobacco and maize 50/50. I managed to buy a truck in 2014 from 16 bales of tobacco from ¾ ha. I have five cattle, an ox cart and an ox drawn plough. I also managed to by a bed. I have to pay school fees too. I use the truck to transport tobacco to the floors, and others pay. From 2013, I am no longer going for maricho (piecework). Those with 1 ha plots end up being the employers here. Otherwise if you don’t have land it’s all maricho. Sourcing inputs and tillage is a major challenge. In the past selling was not a problem, you could get a letter from the Councillor. But today they want an offer letter. About eight compound members have TIMB grower numbers. I help others to sell under my number. They say thanks with $20.

One son does it locally on the A1 farms. Family members help in my field, and they get a share. I hire labourers from the compound. About five when doing picking, also planting, weeding, grading. $3-4 per day. My son also now has a one hectare plot, given out by the A2 farmer next door, who lives in the old farm house. There is no payment for the land, but if he asks for some help, we go and help out. It’s all about good relations.

Life is better now if you have land, even though it is small. For those without land, they view the past as better.

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


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What are former farm workers doing 16 years after land reform?

farm worker Mvurwi

There has been much debate about the fate of ‘farm workers’ following land reform, with discussion focused on displacement and dispossession (and many dodgy numbers touted around),  but relatively little about what has happened to this group since (although this blog has tried). Today we must ask,  is the term ‘farm worker’ now irrelevant, and do we need a more nuanced characterisation? Our research in Mvurwi area in Mazowe district suggests the answer is yes.

Those who were once workers on white commercial farms are now carving out new livelihoods on the margins of the resettlement programme, often under very harsh conditions. Their challenges are barely represented in wider debates on future rural policy, with the focus being on the new settlers. How they are surviving, and how they are integrating within new farming communities following land reform, remains poorly understood, and under-researched.

Fortunately there is new research emerging which paints a complex picture across the Highveld farming communities. In a couple of weeks I will review Andrew Hartnack’s excellent new book, Ordered Estates, for example. Our own research shows some similar patterns. On the three former large scale commercial farms where we are working near Mvurwi, now each subdivided into multiple A1 resettlement farms (a total of 220), there are three farm worker compounds, housing 370 families. Before land reform these families worked on farms across the district and beyond. Around half formerly worked on one of the three farms where we are working, the others came from 23 other farms, displaced by the land reform as compounds were closed and new farmers, particularly A2 farmers taking over larger farms, dismissed workers, and replaced or downsized their workforce.

In the last 15 years, these families – and now their descendants – have had to carve out a living on the margins. The old system of employment, under the paternalistic ‘domestic government’, so well described by Blair Rutherford, has gone. In its place is a much more precarious existence, based on a range of unstable sources of income. Many work for the new settlers, others farm their own land, others do a range of off-farm activities, from brickmaking to mining to fishing. We interviewed 100 household heads, sampled randomly across the compounds, and asked whether they thought their life had improved, stayed the same or got worse since land reform. Contrary to the standard narrative about former farmer workers, we were surprised to find 56% of informants saying that things had improved. IM commented: “Life in the past was very hard. It’s definitely an improvement today. I didn’t even have bicycle then, no cattle. Now I farm a bit, and have both”.

Three farms near Mvurwi

How are people improving their livelihoods, and what is happening to those who see a deterioration in their livelihoods? Our studies have aimed to find out. What is clear is that a single designation of former farm worker is insufficient. Today, this is a much more differentiated group. In the past there were grades of different jobs, with drivers, cooks, foremen and others with managerial posts getting better conditions and pay than field workers. But today, the differentiation is not based on jobs, but on a range of livelihood options being followed. Access to land in particular is crucial. In many ways, the people living in the compounds are not so much workers in the classic sense, but more represent the ‘fractured classes of labour’ that Henry Bernstein has described, mixed in with aspiring peasants and petty commodity producers.

Across our three farms there is a clear difference between those with plots of land, and those without – or with only small gardens. Some former farm workers gained land during the land reform. Across our sample 19 A1 households are headed by former farm workers or their sons, representing 8.6 per cent of plots. For those who remained in the compounds in two of the farms, access to 1 ha plots was negotiated following land reform, with the approval of local politicians, the District Administrator and the Department of Lands. This arose out of major disputes, particularly around the 2008 election, between the A1 settler farmers and those living in the compounds. For others small garden plots are available, and these can be vital for household survival. In addition, there is a growing rental market in land, as A1 farmers unable to use their full allocation of land, rent out small plots (usually 0.1-0.2 hectares) to compound residents. This helps hook them into labour relations, and means that often highly skilled workers are on hand.

Before land reform farming was not possible for those living in the compounds. The white farmers on these 3 farms sometimes offered ‘lines’ within their fields as an alternative to rations, but farm workers were not allowed independent incomes. This was a highly controlled setting, with paternalistic, sometimes violent and brutal, control creating a system of dependence and fear. Of course former farm owners were very different, and some were better than others, as the testimonies of farm workers clearly show (see next week’s blog for some extended case studies), but the expectation was that those living in the compounds were under the control of the farmer, and expected to work in return for pay, housing and some amenities. Today the housing has to be maintained by the residents, there is no regular pay (except for a few who have been employed permanently by the new settlers) and school or clinic fees must be paid for.

Differentiated livelihoods

The table below offers some basic data, contrasting four different groups: those who got land under land reform and are now A1 settlers but were formerly farm workers (or their sons); those living in the compounds with plots of more than 1 ha; those with plots/gardens of up to 1 ha; and those without land (or just small gardens by their houses).

A1 farmers, who were former farm workers Compound dwellers with more 1 ha or more of land Compound dwellers with land areas less than 1 ha Compound dwellers with only small home gardens
Land owned (ha) 3.5 1.5, plus 0.3 rental 0.4, plus 0.3 rental A few sq metres, plus 0.2 ha rental
Cattle (nos) 2.1 0.7 0.5 0.1
Maize (kg in 2014) 1569 735 418 66
Tobacco (kg in 2014) 1045 470 232 27
Cattle purchased in last 5 years 0.9 0.3 0.2 0.0


The contrasts are stark. Those who managed to get land during the land reform are doing relatively well (21 households of the 220 settlers across the farms). Their skills learned on the commercial farms are paying off. Even though they have much lower land areas than others in the A1 settlements, they have reasonable production and on average cultivated 2.5 ha in 2014. This resulted in a surplus of maize being sold, and tobacco being marketed. As a result, they are accumulating cattle and other goods, building homes and employing people themselves from the compounds.

But those living in the compounds are not all the same. There are some (26 per cent of our compound sample) who are more akin to the poorer settlers, or those in the communal areas, who have on average 1.5 ha, renting in a further 0.3 ha. They produce about three-quarters of annual family food requirements from maize, while also selling tobacco and engaging in other work. Their reliance on selling labour is limited, although at the peak of the farming, curing or grading season they may be hired. Many had higher grade jobs before, and may be sought out for advice. They have started accumulating and are investing in cattle in particular (but also a whole range of other goods, including solar panels, water pumps, bicycles, and a few have bought cars).

Then there are those with some land but under a hectare, although also renting in land (52 per cent). This group is more reliant on labouring and other off-farm activities. Many are engaged in trades, including building, carpentry and so on, servicing the A1 areas, but on their own terms.

And finally there are those who have only home gardens, although some are renting in land (average 0.2 ha, hence some maize/tobacco production), and are highly reliant on selling labour to land reform farmers (22 per cent). Labour organisation may involve farmers turning up with a pick-up and recruiting on the day, or may be mediated by a local broker (often a compound member) who is in mobile phone connection with a number of farmers, both A1 and A2, and directs people to work openings, again by mobile phone.

The proportions in these categories of compound dwellers is not fixed, however. Proportions change season by season and over time. What we see is an emerging class differentiation among former farmer workers, driven in particular by access to land. In discussions around whether lives have improved or deteriorated, everyone mentions land, as well as employment conditions. Land access is however limited, and political gatekeeping means that not everyone can benefit. Allocations of land since the land reform within the three farms we have studied have depended on complex negotiations between those in the compounds and local political leaders. New settlers are suspicious of those in the compounds. Cheats, thieves, foreigners, MDC supporters and worse are the descriptors often used.

This antagonism is not universal however, as settlers are well aware they need the labour and skills of those living there for their tobacco production. Good relations in the end are necessary, and accommodations have to be found. Brokering by local politicians and traditional leaders resulted in the concessions of the 1 ha plots; and land deals with nearby A2 farms to avoid antagonism have also occurred. Compound leaders, usually with connections in ZANU PF, have been able to create opportunities, but only for some. Usually it is the older, male, better educated, previously higher grade employees have benefitted, while the youth, single women and others with fewer connections have not, as profiles in next week’s blog will show.

New questions for research and policy

While the policy discourse continues to focus on displacement and farm worker rights amongst the NGOs and human rights community, those who used to be farm workers themselves have had by necessity to get on with life. They know the situation has changed and have to negotiate the new reality. As discussed, some have benefited, others not. But right now, there is an urgent need for a more informed policy discussion about what next, and move the policy debate on. Tobacco production, now the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s fragile agricultural economy, is being grown by a large number of new land reform settlers (amongst others). This production is reliant on labour, yet its organisation is very different to what went before. This suggests new challenges and priorities for policy and advocacy.

Some important new questions arise. What labour rights do those living in the compounds have? What land is required as part of a national redistribution to sustain their livelihoods? What is the future of the compounds, sitting as an anomaly in the new resettlements, a reminder of a now long-gone past? These questions are barely being discussed, and much more research and informed debate is urgently needed. The next couple of blogs will offer some more on this theme, with the aim of raising the debate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Making a living as a former farm worker: some cases from Zimbabwe

Last week’s blog discussed the livelihoods of former farm workers living in compounds on three farms near Mvurwi in the tobacco growing zone of Mazowe district, now subdivided into multiple A1 plots (see also Zimbabweland blogs here and here). The compounds were established for farm workers on what were previously large-scale commercial farms. They now must sell their labour to several hundred A1 smallholders, mostly growing tobacco and maize. They must supplement this employment, most of it temporary and poorly paid, with other livelihood activities. This week, I offer four very brief profiles of four former farm worker households to give a sense of how livelihoods are composed.

Case 1

Mr K is a farm worker originally employed as a general hand at Forester Estate. He moved with his family to Ruia A compound following the acquisition of a portion of the large estate for resettlement.   A descendant of immigrants from Malawi who came to do farm labour, the 55 year old received limited education and has struggled since fast-track. The family’s housing in the compound consists of a four roomed house with a communal borehole as the main domestic water source. Currently there are two adults and two children resident at the home.

Prior to land reform K was a full-time employee earning Z$35, supplemented by the periodic sale of poultry, vegetables and fish, combined with brick-making and thatching, as well as petty trading. At Ruia A, K and his son, along with Mrs K, participate in casual labour in nearby A1 plots. The three of them supplied 600 work days to the farms in the 2013-14 season at a daily wage rate of US$3 generating US$1800 in household income. The household also has access to 1000 square meters of land near the compound where they grow subsistence crops. They also get remittance income from a son who is employed elsewhere as a security guard.

In the pre-resettlement period the Ks did not have access to land or cattle, goats or sheep. This has not changed much post resettlement. The family has access to one cell phone and has two photo voltaic panels for night lighting. They also keep a few scavenging chickens that they sometimes sell for extra income.

Case 2

A number of farm workers moved from other farms that were occupied under the A2 programme. Mr T who now lives with his family at Ruia A Compound is one of them. A Mozambique national originally, the 45 year old Mr T is one of the more successful former farm workers. Before coming to Ruia A he worked at ADA farm as a general hand. In 2000 he earned Z$30 per month. Currently 3 adults (more than 20 years old) and six children (less than 20 years old) reside at the compound. T did not go beyond Grade 7 in his education. The family resides in a four roomed residence without electricity or running water. The family gets water from a communal borehole. The most precious asset owned by the family is a motor cycle. They have two cell phones for communication and a solar panel for lighting their home at night. The Ruia A committee allocated them 0.3 ha of land, all of which is cropped with maize and a few lines of tobacco. In the 2014 season the family reaped 20 bags of maize and 50 kgs of tobacco. In addition they have access to a small garden in the vlei areas for vegetables.

Three members of the T family – one male and two females – are involved in farm labour in the Ruia A A1 plots. In the 2013-14 growing season the family supplied a total of 500 work days at a wage rate of US$3 per day generating an income of US$1500. Prior to settlement T had access to only 1000 square-meters of land and did not have any large livestock. Currently the family has 6 cattle, 3 of which were acquired in the past five years. They also have a goat. T earns some money from periodic sales of cattle, vegetables, building and carpentry. The T family feels their welfare has improved post Fast Track land reforms.

Case 3

Mr M, is a 45 year old descendent of migrant workers from Malawi. He previously worked at Ruia A farm as a general hand earning Z$30 per month prior to the Fast Track land reforms. Mr M who did not receive any formal schooling remained at the Ruia A worker compound when the farm was parcelled out to A1 scheme farmers. Currently three adults and four children are resident in a four roomed dwelling. Two men and one woman in the household contribute to household income through casual labour supply to maize and tobacco farmers in the surrounding A1 farms. In the 2013-14 season they worked for a total of 400 work-days at a wage rate of US$3 per day or a total household income of US$1200. This income is supplemented by income from poultry sales, vegetable sales, brick-making and thatching.

Prior to land reform the family had no access to allocated or rented land, and very few assets. This was supplemented by income from brick-making, poultry sales and vegetable sales. According to them, the welfare of household has improved post Fast Track with the family having access to 0.4 hectares allocated by Ruia A leadership and they have invested in two cell phones, a bicycle and a couple of solar panels for night lighting. From the 0.4 hectares the family reaped 0.6 MT of maize to supplement the family’s food needs.

Case 4

60 year-old Ms C has no formal schooling, and is resident in Hariana compound. Prior to settling at Hariana she worked at Fia Farm in Centenary as a farm guard earning Z$20 per month. They are now residing in a five roomed Hariana compound house, including six adults and three children. Farm labour is no longer the main source of income for the household, with more income being derived from own farming operations.

The family secured a hectare of land from the Hariana scheme leadership and they rent 0.4 hectares from an A1 farmer in Hariana scheme, where they grow tobacco, maize and sweet potatoes. In the 2013-14 season the family harvested half a tonne of maize all for household consumption, 900 kg of flue-cured tobacco worth about US$2700 and 1000 kg of sweet potatoes sold along the Mvurwi – Harare highway. The family also grows vegetables in a small garden close to the dam that are also marketed to travellers along the Mvurwi-Harare highway. Extra income is also earned from sale of goats (she keeps 5 goats on the plot), poultry and tailoring services, while fishing in the Hariana dams supplements household food.

Only one male member of the family is still involved in farm labour services to Hariana A1 farmers. During the 2013-14 season he supplied 120 labour days at an average wage rate of US$3 per day, bringing in about US$360 over the 2013-14 season. Using proceeds from farming and prior farm labour services the family managed to dig their own well for domestic water supply, purchase a bicycle and a car. Two members of the family also have cell phones.


These very brief profiles show the fragility of life in the compounds. Farm labour is no longer guaranteed, and other livelihood options have to be sought. Access to small plots of land near the compounds, allocated by the A1 committees, is essential, and those who gain access to a hectare or more are diverting energies to small-scale agriculture and away from labouring. While the A1 farmers are hiring employing people, the number of days hired and the low salary rate means that total incomes are low, especially when spread across often large household groups. Farm compound houses are often of low quality, and without amenities, but may have multiple residents, as many farm workers have been evicted, especially from A2 farms, as new farmers have restructured their work forces. In each of the cases discussed above, representative of the wider sample, the family originally came from Malawi or Mozambique. This means that they do not have connections elsewhere in Zimbabwe, and are only linked to other former farm workers, with limited means. A few manage to get work elsewhere, and benefit from remittances, but not many.

Before land reform, life on the compounds was isolated, overseen by a highly controlled arrangement that allowed limited opportunities, described so well in terms of ‘domestic government’ by Blair Rutherford in Working on the Margins. Before farm workers were wholly dependent on the large-scale commercial farmer for food, housing, income, health care, education and more, but today they have had to carve out new social and political relationships in the post land reform era. This has been tough for many, as the cases above show. However, perhaps surprisingly, with the exception of one case, all the others remarked how life had improved following land reform. While clearly still extremely poor, they liked the flexibility of not having to be behoven to a single employer. They were happy to have small plots of land that were often not allowed before. And they saw the independence to set up small businesses and have a diversified livelihood liberating. The oppressive character of their former employment conditions was commented on again and again in interviews. They clearly would desire a better life, but the life they had before, for many, was worse.

What the longer-term prospects are for former farm workers living in new resettlement areas is not clear. Will they remain and continue to provide an often highly skilled, cheap labour pool? Will they become more integrated with the A1 farmers, and take up farming, acquiring more land? Will they be evicted and resettled themselves, being seen as a difficult legacy of the previous era (as has occurred in some farms), and if so where will they go? Often seen as ‘non-citizens’, discriminated against politically, they have little voice and limited agency. The mainstream narrative of ‘displacement’ does not apply in the way it is often presented, but the reality is certainly tough, and needs some imaginative policy solutions that currently are not even being debated.

Thanks to BZ Mavedzenge and the Mvurwi research team for compiling the cases

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

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What happened to farm workers following Zimbabwe’s land reform?

Previous blogs have discussed the fate of workers who had worked on the large-scale commercial farms that were distributed during land reform, both in relation to the total numbers affected, and the new livelihood strategies that have been pursued. The role of labour in the new farm structure is a crucial and under-studied issue, as it is more generally in agrarian and livelihood studies. However we now have some data from our own fieldwork that sheds light on these issues.

Over the last few years we have been working in the Mvurwi area of Mazowe district as part of the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development project. We have carried out similar surveys to those that we had done before in Masvingo (and now more recently in Matobo) to find out how similar and different these sites are, and how the experience of land reform has affected different people in different places.

In Mvurwi we have been looking at what has happened on a series of A1 farms (involving a sample of 220 households), as well as a few case studies of A2 farms nearby. We have also been investigating what happened to farm workers who have either got land as part of A1 settlements or are still living in the farm worker compounds.

Across the three farms where our A1 sample is located, there are four farm worker compounds, with around 370 farm worker families currently living in them – half are original workers from those farms, the rest were displaced from about 25 other farms (notably A2 farms), from Mazowe district and beyond, where new owners have expelled former workers, as they have restructured their operations.

Former farm workers are not a uniform category of course. There are some who managed to get land under the fast-track process and since, and are part of our A1 sample. Of this sample 10% were former farm workers, from the farms concerned or from further afield, as many had to move. Others were compound dwellers with small plots where they were growing food, and indeed tobacco, and they were engaged in regular work, being employed by A1 or A2 farmers. Others had carved out new livelihoods, sometimes combining piece work on farms, with other activities such as building, carpentry or fishing (see below). However others have no jobs or other forms of livelihood, and are struggling. Some have gone to communal areas and have reinsterted themselves into social networks there, but many do not have access to these, being ‘foreigners’ originally from Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia for example, and with no rural home, despite having lived in Zimbabwe for generations. It is a diverse experience, and one that deserves more research scrutiny.

Among our sample of A1 farms, on average each household employed 0.8 permanent workers and 4.2 temporary workers, both men and women. Many of the permanent workers are drawn from where the household previously came from, often nearby communal areas, bringing in relatives and others. However, new A1 farmers growing tobacco have also hired in permanent workers from the compounds. These are often the skilled farm managers and others who can help with their new tobacco businesses. Others say they prefer to hire from the compounds as the labour is skilled and disciplined, and they are happy to avoid being tied to relatives. Permanent workers include both men and women, and the same applies to temporary workers. These are nearly all drawn from the compound, and are hired for particular production tasks. Wages are low especially for temporary work, and workers are not organised or unionised, and so have little bargaining power. Not all compound households can find work for all the time, and so must develop more diversified livelihoods. Land reform was 15 years ago, and a whole new generation has grown up in the compounds since. This group of youth have not learned the skills of their parents in tobacco growing, and so are not hired so often. They must seek out other income earning activities to survive.

The table below offers some average household social profiles and backgrounds of A1, A2 and farm worker households. The A1 households are split up into ‘success groups’ (more or less successful according to local informants), while the others are lumped together.

Table: Profiles of A1 (Success Group 1-3), A2 and Farmworker households in terms of characteristics of household head/land, crop outputs, income sources; assets and their accumulation.

  A1-SG1 A1-SG2 A1-SG3 A2 FW
Educational level of household head (% above Form 2) 54 51 58 80 19
Age of household head (% above 50 years) 42 48 33 60 40
Land area allocated [ ha ] 5.4 5.6 5.6 51.9 0.6
Land area cultivated (ha) 3.6 3.7 2.4 7.8 0.6
Maize production (kg), 2014 4805 2931 2232 18400 419
Maize sales (kg), 2014 3279 1384 973 14280 0
Tobacco production (kg), 2014 1338 1460 880 4700 246
Remittance income (percentage receiving) 13 17 16 60 15
Cattle sales (%) 33 39 22 40 1
Local piece work (%) 8 8 14 0 44
Vegetable sales (%) 27 52 49 60 34
Building, thatching, carpentry (%) 12 24 32 0 54
Fishing (%) 8 11 22 0 19
Cattle ownership (N) 9.8 6.9 4.7 10.0 0.5
Car/truck ownership ( %) 47.9 23.2 30.1 20 2
Bicycle ownership (%) 58 60 59 80 35
Cattle purchased (N) in last 5 years 1.2 0.9 2.1 0 0.2
Cars purchased % in last 5 years 27 19 21 0 0
Bicycles purchased % in last 5 years 25 35 44 80 23
Cell phones purchased in last 5 years (N) 3.4 3.2 3.8 6 1.6
Solar panels purchased (N) in last five years 1.1 1.1 0.9 0.8 0.8
Water pumps purchased % in last five years 0.25 0.52 0.34 0.2 0.2

Comparing farm worker households to others, we can see that across variables, farm worker households are badly off. They have very small plots of land (average 0.6ha), all of which is cultivated. They do this intensively although in 2014 only realising 400kg of maize on average, and 250kg of tobacco. Maize is all consumed, while tobacco offers some additional income. This is complemented by a range of other sources of income. Local piece work (including the temporary farm labour discussed above), building/thatching/carpentry and vegetable sales (for women) dominate. Fishing is also important in one of the farm dams for some. Compared to the other sample groups, asset ownership is very limited, although a few have livestock, and some are buying new animals. By contrast to the more successful A1 farmers, the possibilities of accumulation are limited, although farm worker households have bought bicycles, cell phones, solar panels and water pumps.

There is little doubt that former farm workers are extremely poor and often have precarious livelihoods. However, in the absence of alternatives, they are surviving, often through a combination of intensive agriculture on garden sized plots and other work. The compounds across what was the large-scale commercial farming areas of the Highveld are home to many thousands of people. The long-term future of this population remains uncertain, but for now their labour and skill is an important element of the success of some of the new resettlement farmers, and some are managing to find ways of getting their own plots.

Next week, I will share a few case studies of former farm workers from this area to show how different people are making a living.

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

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New research on land reform in Zimbabwe

As mentioned last week, the University of Sussex hosted the major biennial UK African Studies Association conference. Around 600 delegates were registered, and there was a real buzz, with panels on every conceivable topic from every corner of the continent. Quite a few papers reported on new work from Zimbabwe, and land and politics was a recurrent theme. In the end we had a single panel of three papers (as several panellists had to drop out at the last minute). It was a fascinating session to a standing-room-only audience.

The three panellists all reported on new research in the now not-so-new resettlements, representing different geographic areas, and diverse methodologies. All looked at how new livelihoods are being carved out following land reform in A1 sites. This included in-depth reflections on the relationships between farmers and farmworkers, a quantitative assessment of production outcomes across sites compared to communal and old resettlement areas, and an analysis of how farm and off-farm livelihood opportunities are combined in a mining area.

The session kicked off with an excellent paper by Leila Sinclair-Bright who discussed the changing social relations between ‘new farmers’ on an A1 resettlement area in Mazowe and farmworkers. Through a deep, focused ethnographic approach she looked at changing notions of ‘belonging’, and the way livelihoods are negotiated. A case of a chief’s court dispute over land highlighted many of the dynamics. For, while the farmworkers were accepted as part of the farm community, and even incorporated into the cultural fabric of life through their as ‘sahwira’ at burials, when a group tried to claim formally the land that they had been cultivating this was rejected by the A1 farmers. ‘Belonging’ had its limits, and the new farmers tried to circumscribe this, arguing that as ‘foreigners’ (many had Malawian origins several generations back), their role was not as land owners but labourers. That the farmworkers had been bargaining hard on wages and opting for alternate livelihoods had played into this tension. Certainly the emerging forms of ‘belonging’ differ dramatically from that described by Blair Rutherford in the pre-land reform era, but the cultural politics of farmworker-farmer relations are as live as ever, often flaring up into disputes of this sort. Leila’s paper highlighted the value of really in-depth analysis of cases to uncover the textured dynamics of change on the farms. We have been subjected to far too much simplistic analysis, often based on spurious statistics, on farmworkers, but this sort of work really provides a much-needed qualitative insight that is immensely revealing. As the new social, political and economic relations are negotiated on the new farms, new bargains and accommodations will be struck, and this will require innovations in institutional and cultural practices; sometimes drawing on traditional norms, but in other cases requiring new deals to be struck.

Taking a very different approach, Gareth James offered an overview of some of his impressive survey work across three districts in Mashonaland/Manicaland, involving a sample of over 600 (here’s the powerpoint). This involved a large sample extending the classic work by Bill Kinsey and colleagues that tracked the fortunes of ‘old resettlement’ area farmers, comparing these to their neighbours in the communal areas (see our Masvingo work on this, in a recent blog series). Gareth has developed a sample in A1 farming areas, and looked at a range of factors. This presentation focused on ‘outcomes’ and in a series of graphs he showed how the A1 farmers on average outperformed both the old resettlement area and communal area farmers across a range of criteria. As younger, more educated, more capitalised farmers, they had higher outputs and yields of major crops (maize, cotton, tobacco), applied more inputs and achieved higher incomes. He offered a listing of the constraints faced too, which included a familiar array focused on the challenges of accessing farming inputs and labour. For those of us who primarily work in the drier south of the country, the production statistics were impressive. Across the two seasons studied (both of which were not good seasons), the A1 farmers achieved an average output of around 6 tonnes of maize. Taking the standard figure of annual consumption requirements of 1 tonne per family, this means around 5 tonnes could be sold, and contribute to a dynamic of investment and accumulation that Gareth described. This was of course added to by the often impressive outputs of tobacco. Averages of course only tell one part of the story, and as he pointed out there is much variation. As we have seen in Masvingo, these dynamics create new patterns of differentiation and associated class formation in the new resettlements, with major consequences for agrarian social relations and longer term change. There was insufficient time in the presentation to explore these issues, but the results are tantalising, and the overall output statistics impressive. Of course there are qualifications, and some of these were discussed. Is this a temporary boom, based on the ‘mining’ of the soil? Will the success attract more and more people to area, and so undermine per capita success as land and outputs are shared among more and more? Did the new settlers manage to outcompete their neighbours through preferential access to inputs, offered through political patronage? All of these factors are important, but do not undermine the overall story of a production boom, with major opportunities for accumulation in the new resettlements.

The final paper by Grasian Mkodzongi reflected on his work in Mhondoro Ngezi in Mashonaland West Province. Here A1 and A2 resettlement areas are in close proximity to the major Zimplats mining complex. Grasian’s paper concentrated on the relationships between farming and mining, as mediated through labour contracts, business opportunities and political connections. In addition to the large-scale mine there are many other smaller mining operations, for gold and other minerals that provide opportunities for others. The paper focused on the social and political negotiation of the farming-mining relationship, based on a number of cases. New farmers are able to insert themselves into the economic activity associated with Zimplats, supplying inputs (such as silica found on their farms) as well as profiting from upstream aspects of the value chain. Farmers have used the politically-charged debate around ‘indigenisation’ to their advantage, manipulating the rhetoric and demanding economic benefits. This sets up new political and economic relationships between the farms and the mine that are played out through local political dramas. The story is immensely complex and fast evolving, but it offers an insight into how, at the local level, new economic relations with capital are being negotiated, and how a very particular political dynamics and discourses influence this. Contrary to analyses that offer only a simplistic and generalised view of politics concluding that all is guided by top-down patronage, looking at local relations through in-depth research reveals a room for manoeuvre for those who have the resources and ingenuity to play the system.

These brief and rather partial summaries cannot do justice to the richness of the papers. If you want to hear more, there is a recording of the presentations and the discussions here. As noted, each in different ways contribute to our evolving understandings of livelihoods after land reform, and demonstrate the importance of diverse methodological approaches in capturing the nuance and diversity. These three papers, all emerging from PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh, are examples of a growing array of research on different themes in different places. They add together to an impressive dataset that has yet to be fully grasped by policymakers, donors and other commentators, including many academic ‘authorities’ on Zimbabwe.

A couple of years ago, I compiled a list of research projects on ‘fast-track’ land reform of different sorts, many deriving from PhD and MA degrees, and mapped them. The coverage then was impressive, and I am sure has extended much further since. Yet, despite this growing body of work, we hear again and again misleading commentary and inappropriate conclusions being drawn on land reform in Zimbabwe. But building on the earlier work, including ours in Masvingo, we now have an impressive set of insights, offering nuance and perspective on our overall assessment of Zimbabwe’s land reform. I hope this blog will continue to be a space for sharing these results with a wider audience. So if you are doing a study, and have some results to share, even if preliminary, do let me know!

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


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How have the ‘new farmers’ fared? An update on the Masvingo study III

In last week’s blog, I looked at farm production, and the difficulties faced in recent drought years, and this was contrasted with patterns across the previous decade. But crop production is only one part of a wider, diversified livelihood portfolio. What other contrasts have we observed in the more recent period compared to the 2000s, the focus of our book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities?

Comparing the survey data between 2007-8 and 2011-12, what is significant is the accumulation of on-farm assets. And this in only a few years. This is most striking in cattle numbers. 281 cattle were purchased across the sample of 400 in the 5 years prior to 2011. This amounts to an outlay of perhaps US$100,000 in total. Interestingly, these purchases were concentrated in ‘success groups’ 2 and 3, the poorer end of our sample, who have shown the capacity, despite the challenges, to accumulate. Goat numbers have remained more stable, but sheep numbers have increased, although totals are not huge. It is cattle where the investment has been concentrated, and this represents a significant commitment to rural production.

In addition, people have bought ox carts, ploughs, cultivators, and a variety of forms of transport in large numbers, all indicating that people are keen to invest in land-based activities, despite disappointments in crop production in certain years. Cell phones and solar panels have featured prominently in assets purchased in recent years too, and house building has continued apace (see next week’s blog). This shows an on-going commitment to staying in the resettlements for most, but with ‘modern’ houses, solar electricity and phone connections assured. I will discuss this pattern of investment and its value in next week’s blog, but the total numbers and values are striking.

Another interesting change is the decline in remittances being sent to households in our sample, especially from the major sources abroad (notably South Africa, but also the UK, Botswana etc.), except in the site close to the South African border in Mwenezi. This reflects perhaps decreases in incomes in diaspora communities due to the post-2008 global financial crisis, but also a sense that in the post 2009 period, new settlers need less support given the ‘recovery’ of the Zimbabwean economy.

However, to counterbalance this, in 2010-11 there were greater percentages of households engaged in local off-farm income earning activities, across all categories (building and carpentry, brickmaking and thatching, fishing, wood carving, tailoring, transport businesses, grinding mills, trading and piecework employment), except pottery and basket-making. This suggests that, with the return of a viable cash economy, off-farm diversification is more feasible. But it also indicates the importance of such diversification, especially for poorer households, when crops fail, as they did in this period.

While there has been turnover in households – through death and inheritance as well as exits – there has also been a continued process of attraction of new household members, and a growth in household size, from 4.0 to 6.5 overall between 2007 and 2011-12. In part this is due to a predictable pattern of cyclical demographic change as younger families become older, and produce more children. But it is also the consequence of attracting relatives and others to work on the farms.

There has however been a slight decline in farm employment on A1/informal farms between 2007 and 2011-12, while on A2 farms permanent farm employment has increased a little, with temporary labourers declining slightly in this season. Across the full sample there were 244 permanent jobs and 384 temporary ones. This is an important source of livelihood for these people, with the permanent employees each with families linked to the farm, in addition to the core household members gaining livelihoods from the new resettlements.

With disappointing crop production overall (although with some doing relatively well nevertheless even in these drought years), but increased on-farm investment and off-farm diversification yet broadly static employment levels, what is going on? Have livelihoods changed since 2009 when we completed fieldwork for the book? The answer is: yes and no.

The broad pattern that we recounted in the book remains similar: a particular pattern of differentiation, with some successfully ‘accumulating ‘from below’. Clearly people remain committed to the land and to an agricultural future, and livestock in particular seem to be a major focus of investment. But people also realise that surviving only on crop production given the vagaries of the weather, is not enough, and other sources of income, especially if remittances decline, are important.

Data from more recent harvest seasons have been collected from the same group of households, along with some more detail on household turnover and exits, but the data has yet to be fully analysed. I will keep blog readers updated on the changing fortunes of our sample farms, as the longitudinal perspective really does give a sense of the peaks and troughs, trials and tribulations, opportunities and disasters of farming as a core livelihood in the land reform areas of Masvingo.

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

The on-going Masvingo study research is conducted by Ian Scoones, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene.






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