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Young people and agriculture: implications for post-land reform Zimbabwe

‘Youth’ have recently become the centre of development debates, particularly around African agriculture. A poorly defined category of young people – maybe adults, sometimes children – youth are presented in relation to a dizzying array of policy narratives. To get a sense, just dip into recent reports by AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), FAO and IFAD (the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development), the ILO (International Labour Organisation), the World Bank or IFPRI (International Food Policy Institute). Building on earlier commentary, in this series of five blogs I want to unpick some of these, and reflect on them in relation to new data from Zimbabwe, grounding the often very generic debate in context.

A central policy concern, in Zimbabwe and beyond, is who will be the next generation of small-scale farmers. This is particularly important in relation to land reform. With a major redistribution to one generation, what happens to the next? Are they going to do what their parents and grandparents did? Or will they leave agriculture for other livelihood options? Or are they going to transform agri-food systems, in ways unimagined by their parents?

Competing narratives

In this hot policy debate, narratives compete with each other, depending on the positioning of the commentator. A doom-and-gloom narrative of exit is a frequent one articulated in policy debates. Admonished for not being committed to agriculture, young people are seen as a problem – creating a demographic ‘threat’, a ‘youth bulge’ of the unemployed, migrating to towns or abroad, and becoming a burden on society, and in some cases a potential source of disruption through civil upheaval or even terrorism. Other narratives present youth as victims of accelerating scarcities – of land and livelihood options – prevented from getting on by ‘tradition’, ‘elders’ or state policy that is failing to provide for them. This in turn leads to a ‘wasted generation’; often of educated youth, unable to contribute, limited by structural constraints of society, economy or politics.

Contrasting these pessimistic narratives are others that offer a positive spin. Here the ‘entrepreneurial’ youth is celebrated. Tech-savvy, business-oriented, educated young people can, so goes the argument, contribute to agriculture in new ways, across value chains. Rather than their peasant parents, enslaved to a life of drudgery in agriculture, the new generation can make agriculture a business, and unleash the economic value of land and agriculture, especially in areas where land is abundant. As a route to modernization and technological transformation, youth are seen, in these narratives, as the vanguard.

Many influential organisations supporting agriculture in Africa – as in the reports highlighted earlier – adopt the positive, young person as entrepreneur narrative, while at the same threatening the worst (migration, civil strife and more) if nothing is done. As with all narratives – possible stories about the world and its future – there are grains of truth in each. However, too often in the current policy debates they are not located in context, and so broad, high-flown policy proclamations are too often floated without grounding.

In a number of important interventions, colleagues at IDS and across the Future Agricultures Consortium have critiqued and nuanced these positions, offering a more sophisticated perspective on youth and agriculture, including foci on youth aspirations, perspectives, opportunity spaces and imagined futures. Other work has looked at the ‘life courses’ of young people, showing how varied and non-linear young people’s life trajectories are. Still other work has tried to locate a rather narrow ‘youth’ debate within a bigger picture of economic and demographic transition, with changing opportunities for accumulation influenced by shifts in the political economy of rural, agrarian spaces and wider economies.

Changing life courses in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe the ‘youth’ debate is especially heated, but also conditioned by a particular context. What will happen to the next generation post land reform? Will they demand their rights to land as their parents did in the land invasions of 2000? Or can they find off-farm employment in a highly depressed economy? Which farming areas and what types of farming – and linked activity – can support more people, and how will youth be involved? These are the sort of questions that have been exercising us in our work in Mvurwi, Masvingo and Matobo over the last few years, as we seek to explore the consequences of land reform on people’s livelihoods across the country. There are some major changes afoot, and our understandings of livelihoods after land reform must certainly take generational questions into account.

Past patterns of demographic transition, linked to a classic southern African pattern of circular migration, have changed. In the past, a young man would leave home (often after marriage following the establishment of an independent home, but still economically reliant on parents); they would send remittances home to their wife/parents, and build up assets (notably cattle); and then return home later, following a period of stable employment in towns, in the mines or on the farms. Some women would follow the same route, but patrilocal marriage arrangements, and a highly gendered labour economy would restrict options, and women would move on marriage to their husband’s home, often remaining in the rural communal area, committing to social reproduction and farming.

Today, things are totally different. Patterns of migration have changed, both in terms of destination and who goes when. Men and women migrate, but often only to temporary, more fragile employment, with just a few gaining access to stable employment, often abroad. This is highly dependent on education, and so the resources of parents, restricting social mobility. Otherwise, the local economy, at least since the mid-1990s, has been precarious, offering only short-term work. The so-called kukiya kiya economy involves trading, panning, vending, and overall dealing and hustling. This is the new form of jobless work of the informal economy, as described by James Ferguson for South Africa, with multiple, fragmented classes of labour, as observed by Henry Bernstein. Such work is for survival. It creates vulnerability and precarity, and so little opportunity of accumulation. In the last 20 years, and particularly recently, this is the alternative to farming and land-based livelihoods for most.

New questions

In our on-going study across our sites, we have been interested in exploring how young people have been responding to these conditions, and asking what difference land reform makes. Those who were born at the time of land reform in 2000 are now in secondary school, approaching ‘Form IV’, when the majority leave. What are they thinking about what the future holds? Those who were at school at land reform, between around 5 and 16, are now in their 20s and early 30s. How have they fared after school in practice?

We have been looking at these two groups of ‘youth’ in A1 resettlement areas in three sites across country – Mvurwi (an high potential commercial hotspot), Wondedzo (in Masvingo district, but with reasonable rainfall and not far from a medium-sized town) and Chikombedzi (a remote location on the border of South Africa, in the marginal, dry far south of the country). These are areas we have been working in for a while, so we know the areas, and have been researching the lives and livelihoods of those who gained land through land reform.

So what have we done so far? First, we explored the perceptions of today’s Form IVs – nearly all aged between 16 and 19 – in three schools in or close to A1 resettlement areas, asking about what they imagined they would be doing in 20 years, and what constraints they thought were in the way. This was done through a combination of a ‘Q sort’ exercise and focus group discussions. Second, we sampled a cohort of those now between 20 and 31, who were kids of people in our long-standing sample. This group has (mostly) left school, and allowed us to explore what actually happened to a group of people (half men, half women) in the age group immediately above those we discussed with at school settings. Through a simple questionnaire we examined what happened to all children in this age cohort in the sample households, and pursued in detail their experiences, perceptions and life stories through a series of in-depth interviews, mostly of those who were resident or visiting their parental homes.

Aiming to go beyond the simplistic narratives, with this data we have an opportunity to explore not only imaginaries of the future but also emerging life courses, and examine how outcomes related to, for example, gender, location (high to low potential areas), the wealth status (including asset ownership) of their parents and the educational qualifications, both of the young people and their parents. In turn, we explored what our sample of young people were doing, how they had been surviving, and how they were establishing homes and families, and how they were striking up relationships with land and agriculture, including what opportunities for accumulation existed, and how the prospects for and experiences of entering adulthood appeared.

The analysis is on-going but in the coming weeks, I will share some of the emerging findings, and begin to explore some of the implications. Feedback on our emerging in analysis will be much appreciated.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Nutrition puzzles: the shit factor

A few years ago I posted a blog titled ‘Nutrition Puzzles’. Today, the puzzles seem a bit nearer to resolution. And the answer may be shit.

The earlier blog was prompted by the huge and massively expensive nutrition survey that was sponsored by a range of international aid donors. It showed to everyone’s surprise that, despite the crisis, nutrition indicators across Zimbabwe, including in rural areas, were not as disastrous as expected. Indeed, they were better than most neighbouring countries, including South Africa.

Why was this? I suggested a number of reasons. First, the availability of food was higher than many had assumed – and this was due to underreporting, and especially the production that was occurring in the new resettlements. This line of argument was reinforced in the discussion about the mismatch between ZimVac assessments of food insecurity and realities on the ground, commented on in another blog.

Second, and perhaps most intriguingly, it could also be due to the level of sanitation in Zimbabwe, reducing the effect of diarrhoea, but also crucially many other often subclinical and continuously debilitating faecally-transmitted infections, including environmental enteropathy, other intestinal infections and parasites. In a 2009 article in the Lancet, Jean Humphrey, working in Zimbabwe, argues that a combination of poor sanitation and poor nutrition can have major effects, resulting in effects on growth, even though nutritional intake remains high. The massive investment in toilet building – dating from the colonial period – has meant that protected toilet coverage is large in Zimbabwe, including in rural areas. The famed ‘Blair toilet’ -nothing to do with Tony, but the product of Zimbabwe’s Blair Institute from the 1970s (and the work of Peter Morgan) has had a major impact, providing cheap, sanitary toilet options across the country, reducing open defecation to a minimum.

Shit makes a big difference to nutrition, as work by the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) initiative and others is showing. As Robert Chambers puts it “shit stunts”. CLTS is a global movement pioneered by Kamal Kar to encourage community-led behaviour change around sanitation. It has facilitated major unsubsidised investments in toilet building, and changed behaviours around shitting outside on a massive scale across particularly Asia and Africa.

Asia in particular is an enigma. Despite the Green Revolution, growing incomes and better metrics on all sorts of counts, nutritional deprivation is widespread. This, Chambers and colleagues argue, may well be due, in significant part, to poor sanitation. The puzzle for southern Africa is different. Zimbabwe may be an enigma in its own region but in reverse: it has higher nutrition indicators than perhaps would be expected. But the explanation may be the same: shit (or the lack of it) counts. Zimbabwe’s sanitation revolution has happened over many decades. Maybe the impacts on nutritional status are being seen in its seemingly anomalous comparative statistics.

The CLTS research, published as an IDS Working Paper by Robert Chambers and Gregor von Medeazza, argues that nutritional indicators have to be understood as a combination of food intake and health status. 5 As must be addressed – the traditional indicators of food availability and access. But also three other less understood As: absorption, antibodies and allopathogens. Clearly genetics matter too, and often confound some of these data (including I suspect in Zimbabwe, given the anomalies in height to weight ratios in different parts of the country). But taking only ‘environmental’ influences for now, the focus on food intake (quantity and quality – and so availability and access) may miss a big part of the story. If nutritional uptake by the body – and so how tall, fat/thin, and healthy you are – is significantly affected by environmental enteropathy, as well as micro-parasites and pathogens, then forgetting this dimension is a big mistake.

The paper has a striking graph from India correlating the percentage of households practising open defecation in different Indian States (both urban and rural) and stunting (below 2 SD).

shit blog

This focus on food availability and access, rather than a more holistic assessment of food, environmental health, sanitation and nutrition is almost universal. Take the Global Nutrition Report, a new initiative from IFPRI, and involving my home institution IDS too. This compiles reams of statistics on every country, inevitably of varying quality (they seem to draw from the joint UNICEF, World Bank and WHO database, and so Zimstat data, for Zimbabwe). The report presents the data in a series of graphs and tables, but does not offer an integrative analysis.

A comparison across countries though is instructive – although it may be influenced by uneven data. For example, if we compare Zimbabwe with its now economically successful neighbour Zambia, nutritional indicators are better for Zimbabwe. For example, stunting of under 5s is 29-36% for the data shown in Zimbabwe (from 1994-2012), while in Zambia it ranges from 46-58%. And this despite Zimbabwe’s lower GDP growth rates, an ailing economy and assumed food insecurity rife across the country.

As before, both explanations may be required: there’s more food than we thought, and there’s less shit. But as with the wider commentary about nutrition, the Global Nutrition country reports don’t make the link and stick to an aggregate picture. The bigger puzzle lurks within and across these data. Work on shit and nutrition suggests an important hypothesis though, but despite the obvious policy implications this has largely been ignored. Maybe Zimbabwe is more like Kerala, and Zambia more like West Bengal (see graph above)? According to the data presented in the Global Nutrition country reports, 43% of people have unimproved facilities or openly defecate in Zambia, while this figure is 33% in Zimbabwe.

I heard recently that new work on nutrition in the new resettlement areas of Zimbabwe is being proposed as an extension of the earlier ZHRDS survey carried out from the 1980s. This is excellent news, and will fill an important gap to our knowledge of the impact of land reform, exploring a dimension that our team hasn’t been able to tackle. Earlier work on old resettlement areas showed intriguingly that, despite improved indicators of production, income, asset ownership and the rest, resettlement households often had poor nutrition indicators compared to their communal area counterparts. The research put this down to higher household sizes and the need to share food and income among more people. This is certainly a plausible explanation – and one that we have discussed for new resettlement households. But perhaps there was another reason – a lack of toilets and poor sanitation.

In our work in Masvingo and Mvurwi we have looked at toilet building since settlement. Certainly in the early years as people carved out homesteads and villages toilets were few and far between, but the numbers have grown rapidly (completely unsubsidised by government, donors or NGOS, and often using the classic Blair design). 83% and 63% of households in the A1 sites in Mvurwi and Masvingo had built a toilet by 2014 and 2012 respectively in our sample. Because these facilities are often shared in villages, basically everyone has access to a toilet. Resettlement households definitely value toilets. Toilet building has been a key part of the investments in new resettlements. Based on estimates of the cost of building (materials, not labour), we worked out that households in our sample had spent on average the equivalent of around US$150 since settlement on toilet building.

The impetus of CLTS programmes is not it seems needed to build them, and people have recognised the importance of sanitation over many, many decades of exposure to various programmes. I have no idea whether this cultural and social history of toilets has affected attitudes to shit in different ways to other countries in the region, but it’s an interesting question worthy of some comparative research, along the lines of the India study mentioned earlier.

As new work on nutrition in new resettlements is undertaken I hope the ‘shit factor’ is added into the hypotheses and research design. Working this out and establishing the evidence base may have major implications for policy – not only in Zimbabwe, but also the region. If addressing poor nutrition is a goal for sustainable development – as it should be – then building more toilets may be as important as growing more food.

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



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Small farms, big farms

There is a classic debate in agricultural economics and development policy about the relative efficiencies of small and big farms. It is centred on what is known as the ‘inverse relationships’ which posits that as farms become smaller they become more productive per unit area, as costs – such as the supervision of labour – get reduced (or at least passed on to cheaper family labour arrangements). The argument is that small farms are the ideal, efficient solution to agricultural production.

Of course there are qualifications – and these are important, perhaps increasingly so in a globalised world. Very small farms, fragmented in different ways, are clearly not ideal, and suffer from many inefficiencies. Yet, what is ‘small’ and ‘very small’ is often not clear in the literature. Equally, there may be economies of scale in certain production-marketing systems, making larger farms more efficient. For example, getting high value products into international markets may mean complying with quality standards which small farmers would find difficult to adhere to.

This discussion remains at the centre of the debate about agricultural development in Africa. The African Union’s Comprehensive Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) makes a strong case for smallholders being at the centre of agricultural growth, as does the Gates-funded  Alliance for  a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In a new book, Gordon Conway, of Imperial College in the UK, argues that smallholders must be at the centre of strategies to feed 9 billion people.

For decades, then, smallholder agricultural production has barely been questioned as the central pillar for agricultural development in Africa. But now there are some dissenting voices; and influential ones too. In a provocative paper for an FAO meeting on African agriculture in 50 years, Paul Collier – author of the best-seller, ‘The Bottom Billion’, and professor at Oxford University – and Stefan Dercon – now Chief Economist at the UK’s Department for International Development, and a well-respected research economist who has worked extensively in Africa – make the case that the advocacy of smallholder farming was sometimes wildly overblown, often inappropriately romanticised. They argue that the inverse relationship debate was misleading, and did not provide the definitive evidence sometimes supposed for smallholder farming, and that large farms are increasingly the way forward, for some commodities and in some places.

The arguments presented certainly have merit and deserve scrutiny, but they are also potentially flawed in important ways. The arguments for large farms are that economies of scale in today’s globalised world are such that smallholder farming can never really be expected to generate sufficient growth to facilitate the necessary transition out of agriculture into industrial-led growth trajectories. In Africa in particular access to global markets, and so positioning of agriculture near road infrastructure and ports is seen as crucial, if comparative advantages in a highly competitive market setting are to be realised.

Yet the argument ignores some key facts. First, smallholders have been very successful at producing a range of key commodities. In a review for a World Bank study on competitive commercial agriculture in Africa, Colin Poulton and colleagues found that “Large-scale agriculture has proven more competitive in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, whilst smallholders dominate in cotton, cashew and food staples. For tea and burley tobacco there are mixed stories. Second, markets are not all global, governed by highly stringent standards. Niche selling into such markets may offer good returns, but the costs of entry are high. Perhaps better is to produce for growing domestic and regional markets, and here the flexible strategies of smallholders in feeding urban Africa have long been seen to be effective. Third, the negative effects of large scale farming on local economies, food security patterns, environmental conditions and labour and employment conditions are not factored into these arguments. Large scale commercial farming does not have a universally good track-record, frequently resulting in enclave economic operations, with poor labour conditions and high externalities, focusing on single export-oriented crops, leading to negative impacts on the local food economy.

What are the implications of this debate for Zimbabwe? Following land reform, Zimbabwe has a radically reconfigured agrarian structure. Gone is the dualism of the past – with tracts of very large scale farming, separated off from the small-scale farming areas in the communal lands and resettlement. The limited ‘Purchase Area’ land was anomalous, fitting neither model, but not integrated either. Today, we have a huge mix of farm sizes, as Sam Moyo has described. Large-scale farms and estates remain, but the majority is now a mix of small and medium scale farms.

Crucially these are much more integrated, both spatially in terms of their proximity and economically in terms of their connections, of labour, marketing, skill and knowledge transfer and so on. The economic apartheid of the past, divided by racialised social and economic barriers, has given way to a more complex, integrated patchwork. While smallholder farming dominates, it is not the only farm type. It is the mix that is important, which is different in different parts of the country, depending on agroecology, market access, infrastructure and, of course, politics.

Getting to grips with this new farm size configuration, and the implications for economic development is an important challenge. Yet it is one that policymakers have yet to get their heads around. So fixated are people on the small vs large dichotomy, often with an implicit assumption that small is backward and big is better, that the potentials of the new agrarian structure are not being grasped. The small farm populists argue for peasant efficiencies, while the big farm advocates claim business and growth opportunities.

In my view neither is correct. But where the gains are to be had is in the mix: in the economic multiplier linkages between farm sizes, in the capturing of the comparative advantages of different farm configurations, in the growth of district level economies, in the sharing between groups of equipment, skills and knowledge, and in the flexible movement of labour in a certain area. None of these opportunities could be realised in the old dualistic agrarian structure, but today there are many potentials.

But it requires a different mindset: rather than thinking about the ‘ideal type’ farm (small or large), and fixed and outdated notions of what is ‘viable’, we should shift to thinking about processes of economic development based on agriculture in an area. A territorial approach to local economic development, as we argued in our book, is the way forward, and will help us shed the often unproductive and diversionary obsession with farm size.

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


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