Tag Archives: food security

Zimbabwe’s bumper harvest: what explains the success?

As farmers turn to the next season with the beginning of the rains, the country is in a good position having reaped a bumper harvest in 2020/21. An estimated 2.7 million tonnes of maize were produced, triple the amount in the previous season. Given COVID-19 and the endless lockdowns and restrictions, this is remarkable and witness to the possibilities of significant production if the rains are good.

For too long the narrative has been that after land reform in 2000 and the decline of large-scale commercial farming, Zimbabwe has shifted from a breadbasket to basket case, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary documented repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere.

However, the harvest this last season has been spectacular. Does this mean that the biased commentators can finally abandon this tired narrative? What are the factors that have contributed to this success?

Good rains make a big difference, but how reliable?

Well, obviously good rainfall makes a massive difference. In the last season, this was substantial and well spread. Without significant irrigation support, most farmers must produce on dryland fields, so good rains are essential.

However with climate change this is far from guaranteed, and the recent period has shown much variability. Often unexpected extreme events such as mid-season droughts, floods, even hailstorms, destroy the crops, even if on average the season is OK. Climate change predictions suggest that this is likely to be the pattern into the future, meaning mechanisms of climate adaptation are essential.

Planting in pits: the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme

One response to uncertain rainfall has been the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme – a system of zero tillage cultivation involving the construction of small pits allowing water and fertility to concentrate. The government reports that yields on such plots increased from on average 1.2 tonnes per hectare in extensive dryland fields to 5.3 t/ha on Pfumvudza plots.

This is impressive, and certainly our early assessments suggested boosts, although perhaps not quite as much. In some areas waterlogging and intensive weed growth hampered crop productivity and for some a lack of labour meant that digging pits in the required format was impossible.

Overall, there is little doubt that where such intensification occurred many people across the country, especially smallholder farmers in the communal areas, gained significant yields, even though these were on very small areas per household.

Indeed, scaling up Pfumvudza techniques is very difficult without mechanisation, as it is so labour intensive. As a focused gardening technique to guarantee outputs it works well (and the adaptations that people have adopted this year, such as combining with winter ploughing, changing the pit design to avoid water pooling, often even better). But Pfumvudza will not solve Zimbabwe’s agricultural production challenge given the still relatively limited areas involved, even when these are multiplied by millions of plots.

It is difficult to tell, but it’s very unlikely that Pfumvudza such plots contributed massively to the big total harvest given the areas involved. Pfumvudza has been important at the margins, especially for poorer, smallholder farmers, and of course as a result has become central to early electioneering by local politicians. Instead, this year maize outputs from larger farms across bigger areas were key contributors to the total.

Command agriculture

Here the government’s other favoured programme – Command Agriculture – probably came into play. The programme has been plagued by corruption scandals, poor delivery and costs a small fortune due to poor repayment patterns. Through the ministry of agriculture and with military support, programme offers loans to mostly to larger-scale farmers, often in the resettlement areas (mostly A2), including seeds, fertilisers, fuel and other inputs.

Not surprisingly, such support boosts yields and on larger areas in a good rainfall year, this results in big outputs, which have to be channelled to the state Grain Marketing Board to facilitate loan repayment. In terms of aggregate food production Command Agriculture certainly delivered in the last season, although the economics of this achievement can be seriously questioned.

Of course, only relatively few, often well-connected, farmers gain full access to Command Agriculture packages. Even if a wider group may get some elements, there are multiple complaints that delivery is delayed, the input packages are incomplete and that there is so much corruption in the system, it’s difficult to navigate as a normal farmer. Many in our land reform study areas don’t bother and prefer to go it alone.     

Land reform boosts food security

My hunch is that it is the large numbers of land reform farmers, often farming on relatively small areas (around 5 hectares of arable) in the so-called A1 areas, who have made the difference, and are the major contributors to the harvest success. Twenty years on, they have settled into a rhythm of successful, small-scale production, with selective use of inputs but on areas significantly larger than their communal area counterparts, who may have a hectare or less of land to farm.

Supplementary irrigation in small plots may help, assisted by the massive growth of small pumps and irrigation pipes. Although such areas rarely focused on maize, except for early green maize in gardens, the possibility of emergency irrigation in some plots is there, although not required in the past year.

We have been studying land reform areas now for 20 years, and the results are interesting yet still poorly understood. Production of course varies massively between years, across our sites (from the high potential areas of Mvurwi to the dryland areas of the Lowveld around Chikombedzi) and between people (some highly commercialised, with increased mechanisation and others much more subsistence producers).

Overall production is significant as this is on large areas (a total of around 10 million hectares across A1 and A2 farms nationally). A boost in yield as happened this past year can make a huge difference in aggregate, offering opportunities for sustained national food security, with surplus grains either stored or invested in value addition activities. The massive increase in poultry production across our sites reflects this, again having positive benefits across communities.

In the past year, government stopped imports of food and has planned significant storage of surplus grains for future years. Perhaps more importantly, it is the local food networks between land reform areas generating surpluses and communal area neighbours and town dwellers that is important.

Such networks, facilitated by informal trade often centred on small towns and business centres, are central to boosting food security. In the past year, with movement restrictions, closed shops and disrupted value chains due to COVID-19, these informal, yet again poorly understood, networks have been essential. This is the case in all years, but has been especially so during the pandemic.

With land reform and the emergence of a networked food economy, people have something to fall back on. This is in stark contrast to South Africa, where with a loss of jobs, the closing down of the economy due to COVID and multiple restrictions imposed, people suffered extremely with hunger rife. As we have seen, this can lead to desperation and unrest.

In our study areas, many Zimbabweans have returned home, as with some land it’s easier to survive. People are carving out new plots, reclaiming land in the communal areas and getting subdivisions in the resettlements. Land reform not only provides food security, but also social security and political stability.

Structural shifts, new potentials

While much commentary focuses on the technical responses to crop production – with much partial boosterism around particular ‘solutions’ – it is this wider structural shift in land and agriculture brought about through land reform that is perhaps more important in explaining the harvest success in the past year.

And linked to this is the new food economy, connecting informal networks of trade, involving lateral exchanges between areas via urban areas, often circumventing the old, formal centralised system altogether (although this past year there were more deliveries to the GMB as payment systems have improved).

However, as the painful experience of the past 20 years since land reform has shown so clearly, such gains are not necessarily sustained. A very poor year can follow a good one with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, the potentials of the new structural relations of land, agriculture and food that have followed land reform have been demonstrated this past year (as indeed before). What is needed is major investment in agriculture and rural development – beyond the technical programmes, despite their benefits – to ensure that these potentials are built upon for the future.

Photos by Felix Murimbarimba (planting pit digging in Masvingo; Mr Mapurisa delivering maize to Nyika GMB depot, Bikita)

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

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Beyond the silver bullet solution: towards a ‘systems agronomy’ perspective

The previous two blogs (here and here) have discussed the Pfumvudza conservation agriculture programme that has become a high-profile, politicised intervention during the last season. In a very wet year, the results have been interesting. Yields have been good on the small plots, but many problems have been faced. And, because of the good rainfall, yields have been impressive too under conventional farming in larger open fields, especially for those who planted early. The result is a predicted bumper harvest of maize, perhaps around 2.8 million tonnes, one of the highest on record.

For the proponents of Pfumvudza the return of food security after many years of importing food due to drought, this shows how the programme has been a huge success, witness to the commitment of the party-state to the people and development. While there have clearly been important gains, as the previous blogs have emphasised, we have to avoid getting carried away with the Pfumvudza hype.

Beyond the hype of a silver-bullet solution

Just as with the range of other supposed magical, silver-bullet interventions that are supposed to revolutionise agriculture, promoted with similar evangelical zeal – whether under labels of ‘green revolution technologies’, ‘regenerative agriculture’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘agroecology’ – we need to understand the context for the intervention in the wider farming and livelihood system.

As farmers will always explain, particular technologies, techniques and packages are seen as useful additions for particular challenges, but are definitely not panaceas. They work under certain conditions (of rainfall, soil, labour, seed, fertility and so on), but not automatically as the results from across our sites discussed in last week’s blog have shown.

Yet, added to the mix, new practices, such as conservation agriculture, can be part of a complex farming performance, where external inputs, local knowledges and indigenous resources are combined. In this way of thinking, farms must be seen as complex systems and managing them requires skill and knowledge and the adaptive combination of techniques as part of a repertoire. For farmers, as Paul Richards explained long ago, agriculture is always a performance, a carefully managed drama across scenes and sites, within a wider system.

As the previous blogs in this series have shown, Pfumvudza definitely has merits in certain socio-ecological circumstances. Conservation agriculture as a gardening technique applied to home fields it may have merit, if labour can be mobilised and inputs – including mulch – found. But we have to understand the dynamics of farming systems within farms and across years, as home fields/gardens and outfields interact. There are social and gender dynamics here too, as it is often women who tend home fields/gardens, while men focus on the outfields, but this may be upset by focused extension investment in a particular part of the farm.

The need for a complex systems approach

In other words, following the arguments of Ken Giller and colleagues, we need more ‘systems agronomy’ thinking. This means thinking about where different practices fit (land area/soil type, garden vs. outfield); how labour is deployed and by whom (seasonally, between men and women, including the costs of hiring); the levels of mechanisation (beyond a reliance on just garden-based hoe farming on very small plots) and the management of different inputs across the farm (such as through competition over crop residues as mulch and animal feed, the levels of production of manure as livestock herds decline and how focused inorganic fertiliser inputs are applied). And so on.

This is what farming systems research made the case for from the 1970s in response to the failures of the single, magic bullet approach of the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s. The high yielding varieties, fertility inputs and water control technologies only worked in some controlled settings, and a more attuned approach was needed. This extended to more participatory approaches from the 1980s and 90s when farmers became involved in, and helped design, scientific experiments.

But sadly much of this impetus has been lost in the last two decades as a technology transfer mode has returned to agricultural development. This applies not just to the ‘green revolution’ technologies, promoted through such organisations as AGRA, but also the so-called ‘alternative’ technologies of agroecology and regenerative agriculture promoted by NGOs, donors and some UN agencies. Conservation agriculture and Pfumvudza is just one such example.

How should we assess what works from a more holistic, systems perspective? Too often agronomic and even economic efficiency assessments are just on the basis of a single plot, but this is not how farmers must respond. Focused attention on a metre squared is not the same as managing a whole farm, and indeed a wider livelihood system.  The focus on the field plot and the obsession with single packages pushed by extension has long been shown to be inadequate, as argued by Robert Chambers and many others (including me…) in the Farmer First book series over decades (also here and here). The wider approach to ‘sustainable livelihoods’, originally promoted by Robert and Gordon Conway in the early 1990s, added to this argument (see also here from me).

From a technology focus to a systems approach

Zimbabwe’s history of agricultural research and development has followed a similar path. The high point of green revolution technology-led enthusiasm was in the 1950s and 60s when the famous Rhodesian maize varieties such as SR52 were out-performing the American mid-West. The package approach of ED Alvord was the basis for extending successful technologies to the ‘natives’ through demonstration even earlier, from the 1920s, as part of the ‘gospel of the plow’. This technology focus persisted but after Independence, but in the 1980s the Farming Systems Research Unit was established in the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Ministry of Agriculture, which led on adaptive and later participatory research.

Indeed our research team grew out of this unit and has maintained its philosophy even after it was abolished in the restructuring of the 1990s, the result of the collapse in state funding to research resulting from the structural adjustment programme. Since then government agricultural research in Zimbabwe reverted to a more technical focus, but with limited funding has been seriously hampered and it has been the NGOs and the donors that have led, with a cycle of fads and new project efforts that have emerged.

From Alvord onwards, Zimbabwe has frequently succumbed to fads in agricultural production, with promises of silver bullet solutions, and with committed, sometimes highly politicised, evangelists showing the way. The story of Pfumvudza is therefore one part of a longer history. However, just as with previous interventions, understanding how such technologies and practices fit within a wider agricultural and livelihood system is essential.

As the results from this past year show – discussed in this blog series and indeed reflected in much longer-term studies – Pfumvudza and conservation agriculture more generally may be one part of the solution, but only one part. Rather than getting carried away with the hype of a singular solution, a more systems perspective that appreciates the complex performance of farming is urgently needed.  

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

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Conservation agriculture: latest experiences from Zimbabwe

In the last blog, I introduced the Pfumvudza programme in Zimbabwe, a version of conservation agriculture that has been heavily promoted across the country during the last season. In this blog, I look at what happened, based on reflections from our field sites across the country – from Chikombedzi in Mwenezi in the far south, to Matobo in Matabeleland South to Masvingo and Gutu districts to Mvurwi in the north.

Across our sites, even in the resettlement areas where there are larger land areas, the uptake has been impressive. According to our informants (mostly agricultural extension officers living in the area), it is lowest in the tobacco farming area of Mvurwi (around 50%) and high in the poor sandy soil areas of Gutu/Chatsworth (over 90%) and Wondedzo (about 80%), as well as in the drier areas of Mwenezi and Matobo (80-90%).

But what Pfumvudza actually is in the different sites varies. Across the sites different packages – mostly maize, but also soya and sorghum – were offered. But there was a huge range of different seed varieties delivered. Some proved excellent, others less so. And the timing of the deliveries varied too. Some were available before the early rains, allowing dry planting, others arrived late, missing the plentiful early rains and hitting the mid-season drought that affected many sites. In addition to variations in types of seeds there were different levels of provision of fertiliser (compound D and top dressing), with many farmers complaining that this was inadequate. All these factors had a big effect on the outcomes of the programme.

Comparing Pfumvudza and conventional approach: a very rough assessment

In the last few weeks as crops have matured, the team has done a visual assessment of the likely harvests in the Pfumvudza plots and in other fields. This is very rough-and-ready, and should not be taken as a definitive assessment, but it’s based on long experience of working in the areas, and in most cases with experience as trained extension workers. Within these averages there is of course wide variation, much to do with timing. Those who planted early and benefited from early rains did well, both on their Pfumvudza plots and in their other fields. The results (with all the caveats) are in the table below.

SitePfumvudza (very approximate tonnes/ha)Conventional (very approximate tonnes/ha)
Mvurwi4.86
Gutu Chatsworth3.52.4
Wondedzo Masvingo1.52
Matobo4.22.5
Chikombedzi Masvingo43
Average yield3.63

Except in Mvurwi and Wondedzo, the Pfumvudza plots seem to have yielded more than the conventional agriculture in the open fields, but of course only on very small areas. The yield levels in the main fields this year were actually quite good, including in the usually very dry areas of Matobo and Mwenezi, where average yields are usually below a tonne per hectare. Any assessment must take account of what is happening in home and out fields, hence the comparison above. In good seasons, the use of more extensive outfields is feasible, and many ploughed furiously in December when the rains arrived in earnest. Even though planting late, they did reasonably well.

Of course the inputs supplied may not have all ended up in the Pfumvudza plots; as in past free distributions free inputs are applied carefully across the farm, making any evaluation tricky. In terms of the overall volume of output, outfield crops under conventional systems across several hectares will far exceed those produced in the small 0.06 ha Pfumvudza plots. Even with higher yields per hectare, the plots provide only a small fraction to the total. This of course might have been different in a dry year, when outfield crops may fail completely, and small garden-like plots provide an important production safety net, and so any evaluation must look across years, with the above figures taken in context.

Farmers’ reflections reveal a complex story

So what happened on the ground across our sites? A number of themes emerged in discussion with farmers and the field research team, relating to the effects of soils, rainfall pattern, seed supply, labour and politics:

Soils. Different soil types make a big difference. In sandy soils, there have been complaints of leaching due to heavy rains. This was particularly the case in Wondedzo in Masvingo where sandy soils suffered through the incessant rains this season. By contrast, in some areas where there are heavier soils and farmers complained about pooling of water in the pits and waterlogging. This meant adaptation of the system, including the building of cross furrows and other drainage systems, noticed in particular in Mvurwi, where the Pfumvudza plots fared worse than the conventional farming areas. 

Rainfall. It was an unusually wet season this past year, with good early rains, a gap and then later rains. The season was in three periods, and those who planted early and got inputs in time did well. However those who planted later had poor results. This was a pattern across all our sites. However the high rainfall particularly affected our northern site in Mvurwi, which would normally expect reasonable rains for crop growth. Here waterlogging and even algal growth along with a massive weed burden proved a big problem in the conservation agriculture plots. By contrast, normal drainage and the use of herbicides in other fields proved helpful, resulting in higher yields there. By contrast in the dry south, where drought conditions are more common high rainfall on rich, heavy soils proved a bonanza and both Pfumvudza and conventional plots did spectacularly (at least for these areas). Of course any agronomic system must be able to adapt to different conditions, as there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ year. Mixing different approaches within a farm may be an important way forward, rather than seeing Pfumvudza as ‘the’ solution.

Seeds. It was comments about seed varieties that dominated the discussions with farmers across the sites. The government programme had a challenge in gaining access to seed and too often it resulted in inappropriate seeds being offered to Pfumvudza farmers. For example in Wondedzo and Gutu Chatsworth, farmers complained bitterly about the poorly-performing Syngenta variety supplied for their Pfumvudza plots. The SC513 that they bought locally did much better. In Mvurwi, farmers refused to collect the seed offered under the programme, and much remains rotting in the stores. Instead, they used their own seed, which proved more effective. In Matobo, farmers were happy with the Pioneer varieties that were supplied and this was the same in Mwenezi where Seed Coop varieties were offered. Early planting on high fertility soils in these sites resulted in bumper yields on the Pfumvudza plots, and also good yields elsewhere.

Labour. The digging of pits was a requirement for receiving inputs. So last year resulted in a growth in demand for labour, especially to help older and infirm people. Young men in particular were able to get piece-work employment during the lockdowns of 2020 to dig pits. And some richer farmers also employed labour as it is very hard work digging a full plot for Pfumvudza farming. Those in Mvurwi resettlement areas, where tobacco farming dominates, argued that Pfumvudza is not for commercial agriculture, where you need larger areas and digging pits is impossible (although with the loss of many cattle due to January disease last year, many had to resort to this technique due to a lack of draft power). The local nick-name for conservation agriculture is ‘dig and die’ (diga ufe). Many still refer to the programme in this way, but the term is now used quietly, as today criticising the programme is definitely not encouraged given its political cachet.

Politics. Many farmers complained about the politicisation of the programme. In the past you had to perform what the NGO or development project wanted to get the inputs for conservation agriculture, but now it’s more elaborate given how Pfumvudza has become a party-led, state backed campaign. Many commented that this politicisation means that (as with command agriculture) that patronage politics are played out around the programme, and those not supporting the programme are deemed to be in opposition to the government and are victimised. Others expressed suspicions that the Pfumvudza programme was part of a larger aim of down-sizing farms in the resettlement areas. If it can be proven that good yields are achievable on a small plot, then subdivisions become more possible, they observed. Farmers argued that the programme should be solely under the control of the ministry, and not within the purview of politicians, councillors and party cadres. However, the offer of free inputs is not shunned, although many argued that earlier programmes, such as the Presidential Support Scheme that was not tied to digging pits, were more effective. Many farmers said they would not continue with the practice if there were no free inputs.

Agronomy in context

In sum, while appreciating the programme, farmers complained a lot about the poor seeds, the late delivery and the uneven provision of inputs. They argued strongly that a blanket approach to the whole country controlled centrally – with everything from seeds, to fertility inputs to plant population to the size of the pits – does not make sense.

The programme instead needs to be much better attuned to local circumstances, including learning from how farmers have adapted the system, and not hiding this from extension workers and others for fear of admonishment. One extension worker recalled being tackled by a group of farmers earlier in the season: “You are from government”, they said, “what sort of people are you? You give us rubbish seeds. Who is responsible for this?”. As a front-line worker in a hierarchical, centralised system, he had no answer and had to agree (quietly). The failure to adjust, adapt and attune of course undermines any technological intervention. Learning from failures is always important.

Agronomy is always site specific, making big generalisations about interventions and techniques very problematic, as many reviews of conservation agriculture have pointed out (e.g. here and here). Context matters. There is never a magic bullet for farming. It all depends. This is why a more rounded perspective – beyond the idea of single magic bullet intervention – is needed. This is the theme of the blog next week, which is the final one in this Pfumvudza blog series.

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

Thanks to the team from across the country for their inputs and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating and compiling

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Can the Pfumvudza conservation agriculture programme deliver food security in Zimbabwe?

It looks like it’s going to be a good harvest this year in Zimbabwe. Early crop assessments suggest that there will be a bumper crop of maize, perhaps the highest since the early 1980s at 2.8 million tonnes, planted across 1.9 million hectares. The season saw heavy rains throughout the country. As a result there is much optimistic talk of national food security for the first time since 2016. This would be exceptionally good news, especially given the dire situation in the wider economy and the challenges of importing food during the pandemic.

Some are claiming that this success is because of the promotion of a high profile conservation agriculture technique (now branded Pfumbvudza/Intwasa in Shona and Ndebele), involving the digging of pits as small planting basins to concentrate water and nutrients. There has been a major push by the state, with high-level political backing. The national drive has been backed by international agencies, including many donors and the UN’s FAO, and the Pfumvudza programme has been touted as the nation’s saviour, aimed at achieving the elusive goal of national food security after years of food imports due to successive droughts.

The president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a big fan, and it has been promoted vigorously by the new minister agriculture, Anxious Masuka, and his enthusiastic Permanent Secretary, John Basera, along with all MPs and local officials. Enlisted as part of a technocratic renewal and revival of the economy, Pfumvudza has taken on a political role with substantial political investment from the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

What is Pfumvudza?

Pfumvudza is not a new innovation. Conservation agriculture has been hyped in particular by the FAO and a number of NGOs and donors, over a number of years, both in Zimbabwe and the region, with decidedly mixed results. So what does Pfumvudza involve?

Originally promoted by Brian Oldrieve of Foundations for Farming in Zimbabwe since his early experiments on Hinton Estate in the 1980s, the approach has taken on an evangelical tone, with the required mulch in the pits described as ‘God’s blanket’ and the practice being promoted as ‘God’s way’. The energetic extension of particular packages of agricultural production combined with religious zeal of course has longer precedents in Zimbabwe. E.D. Alvord, the American missionary, who promoted improved agricultural practices from his position of agriculturalist in the Native Affairs Department from 1926 to 1950, promoted in his book, The Gospel of the Plow.

The Pfumvudza programme has a rather different evangelical zeal, driven by a politics of desperation, as the government tries to get agriculture moving. With the much touted ‘command agriculture’ programme aimed to promote more commercialised agriculture faltering through corruption scandals and uneven results, the government has switched to focusing on small-scale agricultural areas, mostly the communal lands but also A1 resettlement areas, where the majority of farm land lies.

Conservation agriculture is founded on several core principles, including practising minimum soil disturbance or tillage; having permanent soil cover by using organic mulch and using crop rotations and intercropping cover crops with main crops. In Zimbabwe the practice involves the digging of shallow pits using hoes and using mulch to cover the growing plants. The Pfumvudza programme has designed a highly specified package involving the requirement to prepare two 39 x 16 m plots (0.06 ha) for grains (mostly maize, and some sorghum in some parts of the country) and a third plot for soya beans, sunflower or another commercial crop for sale. Pits of a certain depth and spacing are required to be dug and mulched, and seeds along with fertiliser (officially, Compound D and AN top dressing) are supplied by government. The whole operation has been supported by over 5000 extension workers with new motorbikes issued and ambitious targets have been set.

Huge claims have been made about the potentials, with expectations of one tonne of maize per grain plot, allowing one tonne for consumption and one for sale to national grain marketing board. But that’s an expected yield of 15 tonnes per hectare, higher than the famed ‘ten tonne club’ of top commercial farmers, so somewhat unlikely.

However, putting aside the wild claims, even modest improvements on very low yield levels experienced in drought years, resulting in increased yield stability, would be good. So despite the excessive hype we do need to take the programme seriously. Can it deliver?

Does it work, can it deliver?

Past evaluations of conservation agriculture have been rather mixed. Some agencies have been so vested in the approach that they have been alleged to suppress negative results, as I learned from a colleague in Zambia. But a quick Internet search of scientific articles reveals dozens of studies that explore the different dimensions – fertilisation rates, pit sizes, mulching practices and more.

I have not done a systematic review of the results, and couldn’t find one that was up-to-date and Zimbabwe focused (although see here, here and here for good overviews), but most plot-focused studies show (perhaps not surprisingly) that it all depends. It depends particularly on soil type (and so natural fertility and drainage), on the type and timing of fertility inputs, and on rainfall levels, and so the risk of flooding or drying of the pit area. It also depends on the seeds used (of course) and the amount of labour applied. Indeed, just what you’d expect from any agronomic intervention.   

Most studies conclude that per area, yield levels can increase in the small intensively farmed area. Given the amount of labour required, returns to labour are low, and so again it all rather depends whether it is farm area or labour that is the limiting factor. And it also depends on what soil you have and what the season is. And even if yields go up, given the total areas are necessarily small, the studies show that such approaches do not deliver food security at the household let alone national level.

In other words, it’s just like any other farming practice…. there is no magic, with or without divine intervention, in conservation farming. Adding caution to the hype makes much sense. Next week, I will look at what happened in our sites over the past season.

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

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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe

I  had the latest long discussion on responses to COVID-19 in our rural study areas across the country on 5 September. Check out the earlier updates from 27 July, 15 June and 27 April The pandemic continues to take a hold in Zimbabwe, and the case numbers are rising (total 6837 reported cases and 206 deaths on September 4), although the rapidity and extent of spread is not as feared – so far at least. As one of my colleagues put it, “we are still the survivors of COVID-19”. That said, the impact of the lockdown measures is far-reaching, but since it’s now gone on for so long, people are (by necessity) adapting, and finding new ways of responding. What was striking about this conversation was the array of innovations happening.

Rural and urban connections

The relationship between town and countryside has been transformed by the lockdown measures. In the past there were frequent visits between rural and urban homes, with people being able to respond immediately to a crisis or just go and visit for a weekend. Now movement requires an exemption letter issued by the police. “You very frequently have to lie”, one of our colleagues noted, “saying you have a sick relative or that there is a funeral; otherwise permission is not granted”. The comedian VaMayaya captured it well in a recent video. The inconvenience and hassle is evident, as villagers try and bluff their way past the police officer.

The restrictions have a big impact when flows of agricultural labour are curtailed. For example, in our sugar-growing site in Hippo Valley, it’s cane cutting season and usually migrant labourers come for short periods, but this year they either haven’t come or they are failing to get back home, causing tensions and family disputes. The lack of labour is also pushing up hiring costs for producers and the resettled farmers are now competing with the estate. Fortunately more resettlement A2 farmers are on their farms these days, especially since lockdown, as the management of labour is increasingly demanding.

The importance of ‘home’

There are large numbers of people who have moved from towns in Zimbabwe back to their rural homes. Some have been away for years and have to find new places to stay. But town has become difficult to live in – there are few jobs and many have lost them since lockdown, prices are high, rents are prohibitive and the lockdown restrictions are harsh. Many are finding sourcing food difficult. Drivers, company workers, civil servants, vendors, sex workers and others who have lost the means to make a livelihood have moved in droves to the rural areas. In all our sites, the population of villages has expanded massively. Added to these local migrations, there are those who have come from abroad, as we have commented on before. ‘Home’ in the rural areas is the social safety net that the state is unable to provide.

Those coming back have to make a living of course, and there has been an expansion of agricultural projects (poultry, horticulture etc.) as well as other farming activities, as land has been subdivided by relatives. In our Mvurwi site some of the returnees have signed up for tobacco contracts for the coming season, acquiring grower numbers through relatives. Teachers no longer working in schools have set up private tuition arrangements in their homes, while mechanics and others are providing services once offered in urban areas. Vending has exploded, as former civil servants and others try and raise money through new businesses and, in some areas such as Matobo and Mvurwi, small-scale artisanal mining provides sources of income for those who once populated offices and factories in town.

Food flows

The last few seasons have been poor in Zimbabwe and there are many areas this year in food deficit. Getting food to the right place when movement is restricted is a challenge. Responding to this has been a massive growth in private transport networks that facilitate the flow of food. There are food relief efforts by government and NGOs, but this is far more significant overall. Relatives with surplus in A1 resettlement farms will often take food to their kin in town in cars, where food is expensive and scarce. Those with significant volumes will sell on maize to traders who will take it to sell to traders in town markets. In local areas where there are patchy food deficits, people must scout around to check out which areas have food so links can be made, and food moved. It’s not like the past when people were always moving; in the COVID time people must actively seek out food and organise to get hold of it.

Some food is transported in larger quantities, with large 20 tonne trucks moving from Gokwe and northern Zimbabwe, for example, where food is plentiful to markets in the south of the country. The larger operations are well capitalised and organised, with ways of dealing with the movement restrictions through connections and payment to officials. Some operators control the whole supply chain, and move food to stores in urban areas where grinding mills are installed and direct sales organised. Other, more informal arrangements must deal with permits and road blocks, often having to pay off the police. Just as with the transport of groceries on trucks from South Africa discussed in an earlier blog, even though there are challenges, food does get through.

Despite the restrictions, the movement back-and-forth between town and the rural areas continues, and is essential for assuring food security and providing much needed goods. Much exchange is in the form of barter, as groceries (cooking oil, sugar, rice) and clothes are brought by people from town are exchanged with maize and other crops. Urban markets for food and other agricultural products are complemented by a huge growth of urban farming and gardening. As noted in a previous blog, nearly everyone is a gardener now.

Within rural areas such as our food insecure sites in the lowveld and Matabeleland South, some can exchange dried mopane worms, for example, with those who have grain nearby. It as a mostly informal system, but complemented increasingly by larger operations. It is far more effective than the cumbersome and politicised food relief systems of government, UN agencies and NGOs. As ever with food supply, even in a drought year like now, it’s about timely supply and access rather than overall availability, as is too often assumed in the ‘food crisis’ narratives about Zimbabwe.

Localising value chains: cars are the new mini-markets

Our team has been visiting local shops and supermarkets from Chikombedzi to Masvingo, Mvurwi and Kezi-Maphisa, and a common pattern is emerging. Retailers are increasingly sourcing locally. They complain that volumes are insufficient, quality is variable and the range of products is limited, but with restrictions on supply, including from South Africa, supermarket buyers are making use of local production. This is good news for horticulture, poultry and other suppliers in the rural areas who are receiving a COVID-19 dividend, despite the other travails.

This applies to other shops too. As stock cannot be sourced, local suppliers are turned to. The trend of South African ‘supermarketisation’ is being reversed due to an informal import substitution policy enforced by a virus. Of course not all products can be substituted and there are shortages of key elements for manufacturing processes. This is having knock-on effects for example in feed supplies, fertiliser manufacture, herbicide provision and spare parts of different sorts. This has definitely having a negative impact on farmers, as prices hike with increasing scarcity.

Shops in town are shifting their focus too. One hardware store in Masvingo, for example, was failing to stock goods and applied for a grocery trading license and is now shifted to supplying locally sourced groceries. But commerce is now not just through shops, as their opening hours are restricted by lockdown measures. The provision of groceries, grain, vegetables and a whole host of products is increasingly being done by local, mobile traders, frequently operating out of their own cars.

Mrs V. lives in Mucheke, a high-density suburb in Masvingo, she formerly has a stand at the KuTrain market in town. But this was closed for renovation due to lockdown and she instead took up trading from her car. “I don’t dream of going back to the kuTrain market”, she says, “I start at 3pm when shops are closing down and park at strategic points in the location and sell until the evening. It’s good business. I source products from local farmers, including those who have plots near Great Zimbabwe, and get groceries from truckers who come from South Africa”. Cars are the new ‘mini-markets’ and business is booming. All this is restructuring the economy towards more localised value chains that a greater diversity of people can benefit from, including farmers.

Working from home

Many formal places of work have closed and to make a living people must now work from home. It’s impossible to travel to work due to movement restrictions and those who are self-employed have shut up shop as rents and rates are high. Moving businesses to home during lockdown made total sense, and they are thriving. There are welding operations happening in living rooms, tailoring businesses in garages, bakeries in people’s kitchens, beer brewing in yards… along with hair salons, photocopy/printing businesses, brick-making and so on. The list is endless.

Working from home takes on a different meaning in Zimbabwe, whether in the townships or in the rural areas. Of course much of this activity is illegal, flouting health and safety rules and avoiding taxes, but as one person running a home business argued, “What can I do? I have to survive! We are learning new skills for survival!”

Finance in the COVID economy

With Zimbabwe’s economy in a mess, and currency swings a daily occurrence, navigating finance in business and agriculture is a challenge. The new Reserve Bank auction system, and the control measures that have limited exchanges, agents and cahs withdrawals has, it seems, brought some more stability of late. The official and parallel exchange rate is now closer, and the queues at shops, fuel stations and so on have reduced, as the opportunity for hoarding and speculation, and gaming the system has reduced. More commodities are now available in large part due to the new supply systems that have evolved in recent months. Instead, as one of my colleagues observed, “the queues you see today are waiting for sanitiser and temperature checks at shops”.

With inflation high and the local currency weak, the economy has by default re-dollarised, but the underlying fragility remains. All this is good for producers and consumers, but not everyone. Our team interviewed a money changer in Mvurwi, once a sight on every street corner: “I used to make US$500 per month, but now I am lucky to get US$80. I used to enjoy good living, drinking every day. Now it’s tough”. As our colleague put it, “rather than see the well- known money changers in the bars braaiing meat, they now go home with a bundle of vegetables like everyone else!”

Alternative health systems

With the near-collapse of the Zimbabwean public health system, and a series of rolling strikes by nurses and doctors who are poorly paid and badly treated, people are more and more reliant on alternative sources of health provision.

Sometimes this is through the family, with particular family members having knowledge about herbal remedies. There is a huge demand for particular herbs, tree roots as well as onions, ginger and lemons, which are seen as important in remedies. Not all of this is directed to COVID-19, but people are very aware of the need to boost immunity, stay healthy and have remedies at hand in case the virus strikes. Those supplying herbs or other agricultural products used as treatments have been experiencing a roaring trade in recent months.

The same is the case for prophets and other religious figures offering spiritual healing of different sorts, through banishing evil spirits and other causes of ailment. Large gatherings led by prophets from a variety of churches have attracted the attention of the authorities and some have been dispersed by the police. These days most are more organised, with effective distancing and requirements to wear masks. COVID-19 has definitely boosted the popularity of particular prophets across our study sites, who now have big followings.

Professional herbalists have also become massively popular. These range from the informal n’anga living in the village to Chinese/Indian herbalists to those African, traditional herbalists who have surgeries and clinics that spread between Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi. One such surgery is in Masvingo. One of the herbalists explained: “We have 300-400 customers a day, and sell herbs as far afield as the UK. There is huge demand. The clinics and hospitals don’t look after their patients, but we can – whether you are young or old. We can visit people at home or they come here. For COVID you must build strength to fight it and our herbs really can help”.

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As elsewhere in the world, Zimbabwe’s pandemic experience continues to evolve, reflecting the very particular context of the country. Innovation, adaptation and learning to cope with a fast-changing, challenging setting are all important. We continue to monitor the situation across our sites from all corners of the country, so look out for another update in October.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from different sites).

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

 

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Is Zimbabwe food secure this year?

A bumper harvest has meant that Zimbabwe is largely food secure this season. Despite the fall armyworm outbreak, maize production was up to an estimated 2.1 million tonnes, thanks in large part to good rains. Government and donor support programmes supplying fertiliser helped too. Total cereal production – including small grains such as sorghum and millet – was estimated to be 2.5 million tonnes. Areas planted expanded significantly, with maize planted on 1.9 million ha, up from 1.2 million ha the previous year. Tobacco production – a key source of income for buying food for many – suffered a bit due to heavy downpours and waterlogging, but a good season was recorded with 186 million kg produced. Grain imports were expected to be minimal – perhaps 5,000 tonnes mostly through informal cross-border exchange – and the GMB and private producers were storing grain in large quantities. The Grain Marketing Board was expecting to purchase about half a million tonnes of maize.

So, with a good season, combined with effective supply of lots of fertiliser, Zimbabwe returned to its former ‘breadbasket’ status. Or so goes one narrative on last season. Certainly output last year was impressive. Everywhere you went was a maize field; green and productive. The government hailed the ‘command agriculture’ scheme as the basis for reviving commercial production (see next week’s blog). And the aid donors were thrilled with their food security programming. But without greater resilience in the agri-food system, this new success is fragile. What if the rains fail again, as they did in 2016 due to El Nino, when only 512,000 tonnes of maize were produced?

Vulnerabilities persist

Even in this year of apparent plenty, the ZimVac study, which looks at food security and livelihood vulnerability nationally, warned that some people, in some places, right at the end of the season were likely to be food insecure. The World Food Programme country director quoted the figure – 1.1 million people will be food insecure in Zimbabwe. As discussed many times on this blog, this sort of statement is dangerously misleading and irresponsible, but of course understandable, as it is wrapped up in the politics of food, and the positioning of large UN agencies, donors, relief NGOs and the state, each reliant on claims about food insecurity for their flows of income.

But there is an important point underlying the headline figure (which really is a distraction, but one the newspapers love each year when the ZimVac report comes out). As the detail of the report shows, vulnerabilities have not gone away. The cash crisis currently gripping the country, the stealth of rising inflation and parallel markets, and the lack of access to food or income to buy it is what is worrying. Pockets of vulnerability persist: on the margins of the country where market connections are poor; among highly marginalised groups (the unwell, disabled, aged, infirm, or child-headed households); and particularly in communal areas where access to productive assets (most notably land) is limited, or in urban settings where employment is fragile and connections to rural homes is weak.

Understanding food systems

With centralised food storage and a boosting of irrigation and production capacity in commercial farms (notably A2 land reform areas), the prospects of overall food balances being met at a national level are improving. But as Amartya Sen argued long ago, aggregate food availability is not the same as access and entitlement; and it is entitlement failure more often than not that causes food insecurity and famine. This is why the debate needs to shift to food systems – and the links between production, markets and provisioning. While getting estimates of total production through the annual crop assessments is vital, it is not enough. Even the relatively sophisticated vulnerability assessments that use this data do not capture everything, as I have discussed before.

The maps of food insecurity that the agencies put out do not reveal the social and political geography of the different colour shades. How are urban and rural areas linked? What is the relationship in the food system between communal areas and new resettlements? Where are markets and how are they linked to producers and consumers, by what infrastructure? And so on. This requires a more connected approach, one that perhaps looks at regional interactions, and especially links between areas.

Land reform areas: central to food security?

My hunch is that at the heart of the new agri-food system, and central to a new perspective on food security in Zimbabwe are the new resettlement areas – to date mostly the A1 areas, but increasingly A2 too. While not everyone by any means, our data from Mvurwi, Matobo and Masvingo shows that there are a significant group (ranging from 60% to 40%, depending on site and season) who are producing surpluses year on year, selling on through local markets, transferring to relatives in town, or storing for future years. More or less everyone produced surpluses this year, but even in bad years, like the last few, this is an unseen motor of the new food economy.

In the generic reports or undifferentiated maps, this dynamic is not revealed. Aggregate pictures do not tell the full story. There is a politics to keeping this from view of course, but also a lack of capacity in data sampling and analysis. We are currently extending our earlier studies that looked at communal areas near our A1 sites to look at links, and interesting stories are emerging, but these will inevitably remain case studies in need of locating in a wider national picture for planning and policy.

It is great news that Zimbabwe is (mostly) food secure this season, and such a massive harvest was reaped. But food and agriculture policy cannot rely on just hoping for a good rainfall season – especially with the heightened variability due to climate change – and must take on board a more nuanced perspective rooted in a deeper understanding of how the post-land reform agri-food system works in Zimbabwe. It is amazing to me that this has yet to happen, more than 17 years on.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

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Will white farmers in Zambia feed Zimbabwe?

 maize-zambia

The El Niño drought has hit southern Africa hard. Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and seven provinces in South Africa have announced emergencies. Coming on the back of a bad season last year, the food situation across the region is dire. Large volumes of food will have to be imported into drought-affected areas, with a regional deficit of 7.3 MT reported. News reports – including one from the Southern Daily that was widely circulated – point to white farmers who fled from land reform in Zimbabwe and now farming in Zambia as the saviours. Is this really the case or, as ever, is it a bit more complicated?

Who is producing Zambia’s food?

As discussed last week, the figures on how much food is needed and where is confused, but the latest on Zimbabwe suggest that up to 4.1 million people will need food aid before the end of the consumption season. While the estimates may be problematic, even adding a large margin of error, the bottom-line is that food must be imported into Zimbabwe in large quantities. The nearest source is Zambia, where good rainfall produced a harvest higher than predicted at 2.8m tonnes (not 3.3m as the Southern Daily reported, which confusingly took figures from 2014 and reported as if this year).

Who then is producing all this maize in Zambia? One of the oft-repeated narratives has been that the food being supplied to Zimbabwe now is being produced by white farmers who were evicted from Zimbabwe during the land reform. In a 2004 piece by Jan Lamprecht on the blatantly racist, white-supremacist site AfricaCrisis.org gloated that white farmers outcompeted 150,000 peasants in Zambia. Even President Mugabe seemed to have been swayed by the propaganda, commenting on the success of former large-scale commercial farmers from Zimbabwe at a rally. This was the narrative too of the error-filled Southern Daily piece (that was sent to me at least four times when it came out, with commentaries not dissimilar to that on AfricanCrisis.org). The evicted-farmers-save –Zimbabwe narrative is prevalent, but is it true?

Certainly there are some former commercial farmers now farming in Zambia – in such places as Mkushi block. Mkushi has attracted South Africans, Tanzanians, British and Zimbabweans, and is a focus for large-scale agriculture in the centre of the country.  Estimates suggest there are perhaps 750 white Zimbabwean farmers in Zambia, rising from 400 following land reform in 2000. External finances, such as through Agrivision Africa supported by the IFC, has allowed the capitalisation of commercial operations, and farms there produce a mix of crops, ranging from soya to maize to beef and dairy. Many commercial agricultural enterprises in places like Mkushi are highly productive, and currently very profitable. In part this results from skill and investment, but also the combination of recent periods of good rainfall and supplementary irrigation capacity that has improved production.

Maize being exported to Zimbabwe in part comes from such farms, but it’s actually – and contrary to the simplistic narrative – primarily grown on smallholder producers across the country. Maize production – and so the ability to export – has been massively supported by a highly-subsidised input support programme over a number of years. For example, in 2011 the Government of Zambia spent US$184 million on 182k MT of fertiliser and 9k MT of hybrid maize seed. This amounted to 0.8% of GDP then, and 30% of total agricultural expenditure. This is an enormous investment and, as in Malawi before, it has boosted maize production massively, but probably unsustainably. Today smallholders in Zambia produce around 2.5m tonnes annually, while large-scale producers 300k tonnes in a good year, like this past one.

In other words, the maize export story from Zambia is driven not by valiant white farmers of the much-promoted narrative (although they of course contribute) but mostly by the efforts of smallholders (including of course black Zimbabwean migrants who came during the Federation era, and have been important producers in central Zambia since then). But in fact the big story too is the role of massive (and fiscally untenable) subsidies from the Zambian state (and its aid donor allies), and big questions as to whether this will continue under the new political dispensation.

White farmers in Africa: mixed fortunes

White commercial farming in Zambia, as Zimbabwe before, and in experiences from Nigeria and Mozambique too, has been one of mixed fortunes. The lack of infrastructure, limited state support and poor finance and other support systems, made many farmers complain bitterly about their new settings. They had been successful farmers in Zimbabwe in the context of a massively supportive environment, with huge subsidies and state support, consistent from the 1950s at least until the 90s. This is not the case in Zambia – or Nigeria and Mozambique. Commercial farming in Zimbabwe was not always an independent, heroic effort by whites in the face of adversity. Of course there is always skill, hard work and entrepreneurial acuity in the mix, but state support, infrastructure and public investment was also part of the picture.

However, despite the challenges – and many gave up – some former farmers from Zimbabwe have become highly successful in Zambia. Considerable private resources from other businesses (some still in Zimbabwe) have been invested to make these farms going concerns, and now in the context of favourable exchange conditions and high demand, they are definitely contributing to the feeding of the region. But there is also other food entering circulation from a range of sources, most notably from smallholders in Zambia, and, as discussed last week, from production not captured by standard crop surveys and livelihood assessments in Zimbabwe itself.

A regional approach?

SADC and COMESA have always tried to take a regional approach to food security, with the expectation that at different times different countries or regions will feed others. An approach to open borders and trade should, ideally, allow low-cost food to move from places of surplus to those of deficit.

Supply of maize from surplus areas in Zambia to the Zimbabwean market has been restricted, however. Controversial restrictions on exports have helped drive the trade underground. Despite the formal limits, there is much that is travelling across the border illegally. The allure of the US dollar in the Zimbabwean economy is attracting much speculative trading activity, including in food (as well as other commodities). With a declining Zambian kwacha due to the collapse in mineral commodity prices, selling food to Zimbabwe in US dollars is an attractive prospect, and formal restrictions are very often circumvented. This of course adds to the liquidity problems and cash crisis in the Zimbabwean economy, as the dollars end up in Zambia, even if food is provided. This cross-border currency exchange politics is creating potentially large problems, especially as the US dollar increases in value against other regional currencies.

As much research shows, trade restrictions damage investment and can undermine food security. An open trading regime by contrast, it is argued, is efficient and economic, and offsets risks, which because of differential patterns of rainfall and the widespread reliance on rainfed production makes sense. Ensuring that there is regional surplus and efficient movement will offset the requirements for shipping from elsewhere in the world, which is slow and expensive. In this respect if Zambia feeds Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique this year (and maybe South Africa too), this is fine, and the reverse may be the case at other times.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Food security in Zimbabwe: why a more sophisticated response is needed

food-aid-1

The food security situation in Zimbabwe – and indeed across large swathes of southern Africa – is serious. El Niño has struck hard and production levels this past season were well down. The UN estimates that in Zimbabwe alone 4.1 million people – 42% of the rural population – will be in need of support before the next season. Aid agencies are raising funds and are involved in a major humanitarian operation (see WFP and USAID, for example).

We are now entering the most difficult period. Between September and March, when early ‘green’ crops become available, the food situation will be tough, and many will be reliant on handouts and purchased imported food. Disposal of livelihood assets is already occurring and FEWSNET predicts that large parts of southern Zimbabwe will be in ‘emergency’ conditions, together with parts of Mozambique and Malawi.

There is little doubt that the harvests this year were really poor. And this was on the back of a bad season last year. This means that stocks are low and funds circulating in the local, rural economy limited. I do not want to question for a minute the severity of the situation, but I do want to challenge the way it is being portrayed, and ask whether this allows for the most effective targeting of those really in need.

Data challenges

For Zimbabwe the basic data comes from the annual ZimVac report, complemented by various crop surveys. ZimVac, as discussed on this blog before, is a major survey based on a sample of 14,434 rural households across 60 districts. Enumeration areas are chosen across districts and samples selected based  on population density estimates from the most recent population census. It assesses food production, cash income, livestock and so on, and comes up with a food access estimate, based on a daily 2100 k Calorie intake requirement during the consumption year to 31 March. Those unable to meet food needs through a range of sources are deemed to be in deficit and in need of support. This is where the 4.1 million figure comes from – the number of people estimated to be in this situation at the end of March 2017 (even if just for a day).

But as discussed before on this blog, these estimates may miss out on certain aspects. For example, In April, when visiting field sites in some areas hit badly by drought, I was surprised how much maize was being produced in home gardens and around settlements this year. While the main field crop had failed, more intensive production near the home. Sometimes involving supplementary irrigation, and certainly higher inputs of organic fertiliser, home garden areas were producing maize, including substantial quantities of green mealies. These crops rarely get noticed in the larger censuses as they focus on the main field crop, but added up these can be significant, although of course totals are way down on other years.

The other missing story relates to livestock. This year there were major concerns that the El Niño drought would decimate livestock. There were significant die-offs early on, but thankfully sporadic rains fell in February. This was too late for most crops, but it did replenish grass and water sources in many parts of the country, including those drought prone areas of Masvingo and Matabeleland that were suffering livestock mortalities. This turn-around will have had major impacts on food provisioning in these areas in the absence of harvests. There were entrepreneurs buying up animals in numbers and this was a ready source of cash for many. Many livestock were moved to resettlement areas where there is more plentiful grass due to (currently) lower population densities. The high livestock populations in resettlement areas, particularly in southern districts, adds to their food security resilience.

Livestock and their movement is often forgotten in food security assessments (ZimVac covers elements of this, but it’s complex, and difficult to capture in large surveys). Along with the importance of green mealies, other ‘famine’ crops, and the range of (often illegal) coping strategies that people employ mean that successful food provisioning is far more extensive than the UN agencies suggest.

While the data is broken down by district, it is not differentiated by the type land tenure and use. We do not get a sense of the differential vulnerabilities of, for example, communal area dwellers, those with A1 or A2 farms, villagised or self-contained, nor workers linked to such rural households. We know from extensive research that rural communities are highly differentiated, both within and between sites. At the moment we get a very blunt assessment, district by district. The report lists the ten best-off and worse-off districts, for example. Some of the districts where we work, where there was more land redistribution, both in the Highveld and further south, are in the better-off areas. Does this mean land reform areas are less food insecure? We cannot tell from ZimVac data as presented.

A more complex pattern: why land reform is not to blame

There are hints though that a more complex pattern sits below the aggregate numbers. The ZimVac summary report (p. 150) shows that nationally only 11% of households will be food secure this year based on their own cereal crop production. This is even lower in drought-prone areas, such as Masvingo, for example. On aggregate 58% of the national rural population will be food secure through the consumption season, but this is made up through access to income from a variety of sources, not just food production. How do these aggregate figures match up with data from the new resettlement areas?

We’ve been tracking food production in our study areas in Masvingo for some years. In our sites in Masvingo and Gutu districts for example across the harvest seasons from 2003 to 2013, between 44% and 69% of households produced enough for household consumption (estimated at 1 MT). In the Wondezo extension A1 site in Masvingo, farmers produced on average 2 MT in 2014 and over 6 MT in 2015, with 85% and 89% producing sufficient from maize alone for household consumption in those years. In our A1 resettlement sites in Mazowe, over 5 years between 2010 and 2014 seasons the average household maize production was 3.5 MT, declining over time as tobacco production increased. This means that on average 78% of households produced more than a tonne of maize in each year, and were food secure from own-farm production alone. This of course does not account for the significant cash income from tobacco in Mazowe (realising nearly $3000 per household on average across A1 farms between 2010 and 14), or vegetable production and livestock in Masvingo, along with other sources of income.

In other words, the ZimVac sample must be very different. 11 per cent this year (and higher but still low figures in other years) having sufficient food from own production is way lower than in our admittedly much smaller samples in the resettlements. In our areas, consistently over time and across sites, we do not see the level of food insecurity recorded by the ZimVac surveys – although of course it exists in pockets, among certain vulnerable people. There are of course communal areas nearby our A1 sites where the situation is quite different, and it is probably from here that the ZimVac data derives. Our comparisons with communal areas showed the contrasts, with resettlement areas outperforming communal areas across the board. But without any differentiated national food security data, it is difficult to make sense of the aggregates generated by standard crop assessments and livelihood surveys.

This food security crisis therefore is not the result of land reform as some would have it (as I keep telling journalists who ask; here’s an example from a Dutch daily that offered a more sophisticated take). Other countries in the region have suffered badly from the same drought, and Zimbabwe has before, long before the post 2000 land reform. In fact, land reform areas are an important part of why the actual underlying situation is better than it might be. My hunch – still not tested despite much encouragement – is that ZimVac’s sampling frame (appropriately for a national sample that is proportional to population density) is focused on communal areas. This means that the dynamics of the new resettlements in the food economy are being missed out on.

As reported many times on this blog, we see significant flows of food and other finance coming from the A1 resettlement areas, both to communal areas and to urban centres, through kin networks and labour migrancy. This is unrecorded and therefore not accounted for. My guess is that it is really significant in the overall food security story in the country, and taking account of land reform in the wider assessment would allow a redirection of effort by humanitarian and development agencies to support production for boosting local food security and economies, investing where the potential lies.

There is no reason for complacency though. Things could and should be much better, with proper investment. For example, the lack of irrigation infrastructure (and its state of repair, and its poor functioning due to intermittent electricity supplies) is a cause for major concern, and undermines resilience

The politics of food aid: why a more targeted approach is needed

Food aid is of course is highly political. It always has been, and accusations of partisan allocations have occurred again this year. Many are happy not to rely on the obligations and patronage that food aid implies – whether to the party-state or NGOs – and seek their own way. But there are some who are really destitute, without the networks that provide support. They are really needy and include a lot of people, but it’s certainly not 4.1 million. They include widows or older parents without living children, child-headed households, farm labourers, those with illness and disability, for example.

They all need help, as existing provisioning and coping strategies are insufficient. They are scattered all across the country – including in the high potential, richer areas within communities who are otherwise prospering, and are difficult to find. These are the people who need food, and would be a better focus for a more sophisticated, targeted approach to relief, which could combine with a more strategic developmental approach to increase production and market led economic development across communal, resettlement and urban areas.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Zimbabwe is food secure this season, but more questions raised

The annual ZimVac assessment based on a national sample survey of over 10,000 households and carried out in May came out a month or two back. Unlike last year, when alarm bells were rung over a potential food security catastrophe, this year the prognosis was good. Excellent rains, including in some of the drier and usually more food insecure parts of the country, resulted in a bumper harvest.

Last year I critiqued the use of the headline figure from the assessment as potentially misleading. The same limitations of the survey apply, but the media reporting is more balanced this year (with some extreme exceptions – see comment string in an earlier blog). The survey is based on the 2012 Zimstat sampling frame and covers a large number of enumeration areas across the country, sampled proportional to population densities. Annoyingly the report still doesn’t separate out communal areas and resettlement areas, and my guess is that there remains some sampling bias. More on this below. Last year fortunately the dire predictions were not borne out. In part this was because the rains came, and a green crop filled the hunger period, but also I hypothesised in an earlier blog that the production from new resettlement areas was being undercounted. I suspect this remains the case.

Anyway, I thought blog readers would like a quick summary of the report, as without an impending disaster the media has largely ignored it. You can read the powerpoint report in full, which covers all sorts ranging from nutrition to sanitation. I will concentrate on agricultural production and food security, and draw text directly from the report.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development estimates that the country will have a cereal harvest surplus of 253,174 MT in the 2014/15 consumption year from a total cereal harvest of 1,680,293MT.

Maize remained the major crop grown by most households (88%) compared to 80% for 2012/13, while groundnuts were the second most grown crop. Generally, the proportion of households growing crops increased except for cotton which showed a decline (due to the collapse in prices) and soya beans which remained unchanged.

Nationally, average household cereal (maize and small grains) production was 529.5kg. This was higher than last season (346kg). In Masvingo maize production averaged 339.7 kg and small grains 126 kg, given a total of 525.7 kg per household. Overall, average household cereal production was highest in Mashonaland West and lowest in Manicaland, and the contribution of small grains to total household cereal production was significant in Masvingo, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South.

While improvements, these average figures are still low. And compared to the production levels from new resettlement households minute. Our studies in Masvingo, even in the poor rainfall years of between 2010 and 2012, show much higher averages (although with variations). Gareth James’ studies from Mashonaland shower higher outputs still. Again in the poorer rainfall years, he recorded average outputs of maize some 12 times these average national figures for all cereals for the good rainfall year of the past season. Of course the new resettlements have proportionately fewer people and so appropriately in a national representative sample this should be reflected. But, without data broken down and without indications of variation, the ZimVac study still fails to capture this story. As I have argued before (many times!), this is important for policy, and for thinking about national food security.

The ZimVac survey showed that for the 2013/2014 agricultural season approximately 45.2% of the households benefited from the Government Input Support Scheme, which was the main source of inputs. The proportion of households accessing maize inputs through purchase remained unchanged (39%) from 2013. About 2.3% of the households accessed their maize inputs from NGOs which was a decrease from 4.0% in the 2012/13 season.

Given the higher levels of production, the national average maize price was $0.37/kg down from $0.53/ kg during the same period last year. This pattern was also reflecting at the provincial level. Matabeleland South recorded the highest maize price ($0.65/kg). This was the same pattern during the same period last year.

Livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) were in a fair to good condition when the survey took place. Grazing and water for livestock were generally adequate in most parts of the country save for the communal areas, where it was, as is normal, generally inadequate. However, the report notes, there are marginal parts of Matabeleland North and South, Midlands, Manicaland and Masvingo provinces which had inadequate grazing which may not last into the next season.

According to the report, around 60% of the households reported not owning any cattle. Mashonaland East had the highest proportion of households not owning any cattle and Matabeleland South had the least. Nationally, only 14% of the households owned more than 5 cattle with Matabeleland South and Matabeleland Matabeleland North having a higher proportion of households owning more than 5 cattle.

Like the cereal production data, these national and provincial figures are very different to what we have found (and Gareth and others) in the new resettlements. Here cattle ownership is far higher, reflecting the richer, more capitalised form of farming found. Of course the ZimVac study may suffer from under-reporting, as in many large-scale surveys with huge samples, but the contrasts are interesting – and again potentially important.

In terms of food consumption, Masvingo had the highest proportion of households consuming an acceptable diet (75%) and Matabeleland North had the lowest (54%). This showed increased local availability of foodstuffs, and improved off-farm opportunities. However, nutritional indicators remained low, including a high prevalence of stunting. As commented on before, this mismatch between food intake and nutritional indicators remains puzzling.

So, following the food balance methodology the assessment adopts (see discussion of the methodology and its limitations in an earlier blog), the report estimates that for the 2014/15 consumption year at peak (January to March next year) is projected to have 6% of rural households food insecure. This is a 76% decrease compared to the (disputed) estimate the previous consumption year.

This proportion represents about 564,599 people at peak (which may of course be people suffering deficits for only a few days), not being able to meet their annual food requirements. Their total energy deficit is estimated at an equivalent of 20,890MT of maize; actually a very small amount, and not suggesting any urgent need for food aid, given the margins of error in the estimates. Matabeleland North (9.0%), Matabeleland South (8.3%) and Mashonaland West (7.7%) were projected to have the highest proportions of food insecure households. By contrast, Manicaland (2.7%) and unusually Masvingo (3.4%) provinces were projected to have the least proportions of food insecure households.

So in sum, a good harvest results in a good food security situation. This is of course good news, and no surprise. But the report and the analysis still raise many questions. I hope that those working on food and farming in Zimbabwe can join forces and think harder about questions of sampling, the contributions of the new land reform areas to production, and the complex dynamics at the heart of the food economy that underpins food insecurity prevalence and distribution. The ZimVac annual survey is a major contribution, but with some thought and adaptation it could be contributing much more to our understanding of changing livelihoods and food economies in the post-land reform era.

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

 

 

 

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Millions at risk of food insecurity in Zimbabwe? Or not? How the dire predictions were confounded by a good harvest

Last September I critiqued the assumptions behind the prediction that 2.2 million people would be needing food aid. In order to raise funds and galvanise attention, international agencies, local lobby groups and the media were using an extreme worst case scenario figure, based on a variety of assumptions, many of them highly questionable.

As it turned out, the rains arrived and a good season has followed (with some exceptions of course). In the section below, I offer some extracts from the most recent USAID-funded FEWSNET update on the food security situation in Zimbabwe. Good rains have boosted production and the current food security projections to September are largely very positive.

It is amazing what a change in the weather can do. But it also adds to my earlier plea to be cautious about headline figures and assumptions in forward projections. There is no harm in being cautious – this must be the sensible stance – but overblown figures and dramatic proclamations that serve particular interests should be guarded against.

Unlike the portrayals of imminent doom, the relatively good news about a reasonable harvest does not hit the headlines, or raise aid money, and the bad news stories from Zimbabwe persist. So for a change, and in case you are not regular readers of FEWSNET bulletins, I thought you would like an update on a good harvest and a reasonably positive food security situation

Here is a summary edited from from the May update:

The majority of very poor households across the country including the traditionally food insecure southwestern districts, will experience Minimal (IPC Phase 1) acute food insecurity outcomes between May and June owing to the projected above average 2013/14 harvest. Similar outcomes will continue from July through September as most households will still be consuming cereals from own production.

Markets will continue functioning but most of the cereal supplies are likely to be locally procured with a few imports by private traders. As households begin to access cereal from their own production there have been significant reductions in monthly maize grain price trends. Since March, national maize grain prices have dropped by 11 percent, but in comparison to national averages during the same period last year the prices are still 16 percent higher. For maize meal the national average stands at $0.66 and has decreased by 2 percent in comparison to the same time the previous month, but remains 4 percent higher than the national average for same time last year. Month-on-month maize grain prices fell by 26 and 16 percent in Manicaland and Masvingo Provinces, respectively.

Casual labor opportunities are projected to increase by up to 20 percent throughout the outlook period as a result of ongoing harvesting activities. Additional incomes, particularly in the northern areas, will be earned through tobacco preparation, sales and casual labor for poor households. However given cash constraints, most casual labor will likely be paid by in-kind.

The first round results of the Ministry’s crop and livestock assessment indicate that there are increased chances of an above average harvest, especially for maize, millet, and sorghum. This assumption is based on an estimated 16 percent increase in cropped area for cereals this season in comparison to the 2012/13 season. Maize alone this season accounts for approximately 1.6 million hectares, which is an 18 percent increase from the previous season. This increase in area planted for cereals is due to fairly well distributed rainfall patterns this season.

Ongoing tobacco curing and sales are boosting household income, particularly in the northern areas, where production levels are projected to have significantly increased. Based on the first round assessment, this year’s production levels has surpassed the 2012-13 season by about 21 percent. At the household level, higher than average tobacco production will increase farmer income levels and opportunities for casual labor opportunities (i.e. curing, processing, transportation) for poor households. Households benefiting from this labor will therefore receive additional income for food purchases and other livelihood needs.

Cotton production this season is 16 percent below last year’s levels. The processing of cotton is ongoing in cotton growing areas but incomes are likely to remain low. The reduction in the area under cotton is due to marketing price uncertainty given the low marketing prices offered during the previous season.

The increase in the availability of water due to the good rainfall this season will increase gardening activities from May through September. Vegetable production will provide both food and cash to very poor households.

Livestock body conditions in areas including Matebeleland South and Masvingo Provinces have significantly improved and are in good shape. Despite the improved pasture and water access for cattle, the calving rate included in the recent first round crop and livestock assessment report remains low at 49 percent, and only 2 percent higher than last season.

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The FEWSNET report provides the assumptions it uses in this analysis, along with some useful graphics. The second assessment report is due shortly and this will update the situation. Certainly the tobacco harvest looks promising, and reports from many parts of the country shows grain production is good.

So, thankfully 2.2 million people in Zimbabwe didn’t need food relief assistance, and the agricultural production has prospered in a good season. This however should be no reason for complacency. Droughts strike hard in a system where irrigation is not widespread, and improving resilience to such shocks must be a key part of future investments.

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

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