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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 and is based on conversations with our team based in Masvingo, Mvurwi, Matobo, Gutu, Wondedzo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi. Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba for compiling and supplying the photos.

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FAO recognises farmer-led irrigation as a major contributor to agricultural development

Buried deep in a long report on water and agriculture by FAO – the flagship state of food and agriculture report of 2020 – there is a really important section, signalling a big shift in mainstream thinking about irrigation and the use of water in agriculture.

It focuses on farmer-led irrigation, a theme discussed on this blog quite a few times before, and central to research in our field sites in Zimbabwe’s resettlement areas. Farmer-led irrigation is not a new phenomenon of course, but it has not been central to discussions about irrigation, seen as peripheral and not following ‘proper’ engineering recommendations. That FAO has addressed this in its major report is therefore a significant moment. They argue:

“Small-scale farmer-led irrigation systems can have lower unit costs than those managed by government agencies and offer much higher internal rates of return (28 percent) than does large-scale, dam-based irrigation (7 percent). They also improve yields and income, and reduce risks from climate variability. Governments should support these initiatives….”.

What is farmer-led irrigation, and how important is it?

As the FAO report comments:

“In sub-Saharan Africa, only about 3 percent of cropland is irrigated, and small-scale farmer-led irrigation systems are rapidly expanding. Farmers invest their own resources and access water from shallow groundwater, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. These are an attractive option to small-scale farmers because they use simple affordable equipment, including buckets, watering cans, treadle pumps, drip systems and conservation agriculture technologies, such as terracing and in situ rainwater harvesting. More than 80 percent of farmers who use irrigation employ manual lifting and watering using buckets and cans, although demand for more mechanized options is growing.”

Of course, the statistics on ‘irrigated land’ are massively upset by an acknowledgement of farmer-led practices, as they don’t normally count as ‘irrigation’. When we produced our paper on farmer-led irrigation in Zimbabwe for Water Alternatives, one reviewer was highly dismissive. Coming clearly from a conventional irrigation background, they argued that what we were reporting from our study sites was not significant, and that investment in effective and efficient small-scale irrigation schemes was the way forward. We begged to differ.

As noted in the paper, our findings were not unusual and are replicated elsewhere. Box 10 in the FAO report highlights research from Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Zambia, quoting a 2012 IMWI report by Meredith Giordano and colleagues, Water for Wealth and Food Security:

“In Burkina Faso, 170 000 farmers – mainly small-scale farmers – irrigate 10,000 hectares of vegetable crops using buckets, watering cans and small motorized pumps. This tripled vegetable production between 1996 and 2005, raising dry season incomes by USD 200–600. In Ghana, 185 000 hectares are under small-scale irrigation, primarily cultivating vegetables in the dry season, benefiting half a million small-scale farmers. This adds between USD 175 and USD 840 annually to household income. In the United Republic of Tanzania, more than 700 000 farmers lift water from rivers and wells using buckets and cans to irrigate vegetables on 150 000 hectares. Half of small-scale farmers’ dry season cash comes from irrigated vegetables. In Zambia, 90,000 hectares are under private irrigation, and the 20 percent of small-scale farmers who grow dry season vegetables earn 35 percent more than those relying solely on rainfall.”

In our two sites in Masvingo district in Zimbabwe, the farmer-led irrigated area represented on average 2.02% of the total arable and non-arable area. Extrapolating up to the provincial level, if the same extent of farmer-led irrigation is seen across the whole province (estimated at 5.15 million ha, excluding Gonarezhou national park), this would represent 104,056 ha of farmer-irrigated land. Assuming that the proportion of land that is arable is the national average of 10.3%, this would represent 19.6% of arable area, a very significant proportion. By contrast, formal irrigation through government schemes in Masvingo province is estimated to cover 4,176 ha in total, across 60 schemes, ranging size from eight ha to 625 ha. This represents only 0.08% of the total area of the province (again excluding Gonarezhou national park) and 0.8% of estimated arable area. Under these, admittedly extremely rough, assumptions, this is only 4% of total farmer-led irrigation. Given that many of these formal schemes are not functioning to full capacity, farmer-led irrigation, by any calculation, represents a very significant contribution to the provincial agricultural economy.

Policy support to farmer-led approaches must be central to irrigation development

In a way the specific figures don’t matter: what is important is that those promoting irrigation – so central to agricultural productivity and boosting incomes for farmers – recognise farmer-led practices in all their variety and provide support for these. As discussed in our paper, this must include:  

  • improving security of land tenure and access to water, and adaptation of environmental rules excluding use near rivers and wetlands;
  • regulation of water supply to avoid over-use of groundwater in particular;
  • support for market development, particularly for horticultural products to avoid seasonal and local gluts;
  • credit support for investment in irrigation development, and
  • enhancement of technology provision for cheap pumps, pipes and other water lifting and distribution systems, including having preferential import arrangements for basic kit and spares, especially from China.

Why then do policymakers and donors still focus on irrigation ‘schemes’, when their track-record has been so bad? At Independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had about 150,000 hectares under ‘formal’ irrigation schemes; about 3% of the arable area. However, only 3.5% of this area was under smallholder schemes. This area increased over the following decades, with investment in ‘block’ schemes, with irrigators usually being allocated small 0.1 ha areas under centrally controlled schemes. Many of these schemes failed.  Economic analyses highlighted that all capital costs and 89% of recurrent costs were covered by the government, and when this support dried up, the scheme collapsed.

Following the land reform from 2000, the talk has once again been investment in ‘schemes’ to support the new farmers. Various programmes during the 2000s invested in the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure on former large-scale farms. Election manifestos promoted ‘modern’ irrigation as central to a new push to upgrade and commercialise agriculture. From 2016, ‘command agriculture’ included investment in irrigation facilities. Foreign donors, from the Brazilians to the Chinese, have offered irrigation equipment, mostly suited to large-scale production. And most recently the minister, Anxious Masuka, announced that $57 million had been allocated for rehabilitating existing schemes, with strict requirements for sustainable use. As part of a new statutory instrument issued in February there are also big plans to boost state-led irrigation capacity, with an irrigation development fund, the assignment of district irrigation engineers and so on. And of course the controversy around land use changes in the Chilonga area is all about a massive, high-profile irrigation investment. Today, as in the past, hydrological transformations and images of modernist progress are closely tied with a project of state-building and shoring up political support through high-visibility investments.  

There is nothing wrong with formal irrigation schemes for supporting smallholder agriculture, particularly in the drier parts of the country, as long as they remain supported and the infrastructure is maintained. But they need to be seen as part of a more integrated, flexible irrigation policy, where farmer-led approaches are given greater prominence. For sure, the mention of farmer-led irrigation in the FAO report was a small element of a much larger report (just on page 64 and box 10 for those wanting to point to it), but it does signal that farmer-led irrigation can now be announced as mainstream (because the UN’s FAO said so….).

Maybe in the future, national governments and donors – all members and supporters of FAO – will shift their focus and catch up with what farmers have been doing for millennia.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland and is based on conversations with our team based in Masvingo, Mvurwi, Matobo, Gutu, Wondedzo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi. Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba for compiling and supplying the photos.

Update (h/t, Gert Jan Veldwisch): I hadn’t spotted it when I wrote this, but both the World Bank and the African Union have shifted their focus, with respectively a new training guide and a change in WB investment priorities and a commitment to making farming-led irrigation development one of four pillars of AU irrigation and water management. It seems that at least some have already started to catch up with farmers. Let’s hope these shifts filter through to practice in Zimbabwe soon!

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

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

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

Tractors: the symbol of mechanisation

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

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

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

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

Small-scale pumps: opportunities for farmer-led irrigation

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

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

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

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

Rethinking agricultural mechanisation policy

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

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

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

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

Silent, hidden green revolutions

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

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

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

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



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Farmer-led irrigation in Africa: driving a new Green Revolution?


A new open access review paper is just out in the Journal of Peasant Studies on farmer-led irrigation in Africa. The authors, led by Phil Woodhouse, define farmer-led irrigation development as “a process where farmers assume a driving role in improving their water use for agriculture by bringing about changes in knowledge production, technology use, investment patterns and market linkages, and the governance of land and water”. Covering a huge array of literature and many cases (although surprisingly very little from Zimbabwe), the paper offers a fantastically useful overview of the debate about what form of irrigation is most likely to support increases in smallholder production and livelihoods in Africa.

The paper in particular identifies furrow systems in mountainous areas, valley bottom/vlei systems, small-scale pumping from wells/open water, and peri-urban agriculture, as areas where farmer-led irrigation is important. All of these are important in Zimbabwe, whether the famous furrow systems of Inyanga, the ‘wetland in dryland’ vlei or dambo cultivation in the miombo zones, small-scale pump systems everywhere, and the massive growth of cultivation in and around towns and cities. Yet such forms of irrigation are often not acknowledged, nor counted in the statistics or supported by donor investments and government policy. This is of course not a new argument, but it’s one that has become more pertinent given the rise of small-scale, informal irrigation systems, with the decline of state support for formal schemes and the decline in costs of pumps in particular allowing informal systems to expand.

There was one statistic that really struck me in the paper, based on work by Beekman and colleagues in Mozambique. They estimate that over 115,000 ha are irrigated by farmers on a small scale. Accounting for this area, this would nearly double the national total irrigated area. Perhaps not to such an extent, but the total area irrigated in Zimbabwe is surely a gross underestimate too. This is a pattern increasingly seen by more detailed satellite-based estimates of irrigated areas globally. Estimates vary but there are approximately 150,000 hectares of irrigation land in Zimbabwe, mostly in large-scale schemes, including the sugar estates. The irrigation infrastructure in Zimbabwe, however, is in a sorry state, but people are compensating by digging boreholes or pumping from open water bodies directly. Earlier blogs and some of our films profiled ‘irrigation entrepreneurs’ operating small-scale farmer designed and managed irrigation systems, mostly for market-oriented horticultural production.

Our data from Mvurwi area in Mazowe district in 2014-15 showed that 34% of A1 households in our sample of 220 had pumps, with 0.44 on average being bought per household in the five years from 2010. Around 12% of households have irrigated plots on their main fields, while all households have gardens, either at the home or by a nearby river/stream. Even former farm workers living in compounds are buying pumps, as they branch out into farming (see earlier blogs), with 0.2 pumps on average bought per household in the same period. Pumps now cost only around $200 for a cheap Chinese make, and these can irrigate small gardens. Some are upgrading to larger engines, while others are expanding production areas through storage systems, and having a series of pumps. The extent of such irrigated areas is not known, but just taking our study areas in Mazowe, Masvingo and Matobo districts, my estimate is that it’s considerable.

The JPS paper highlights five characteristics of farmers’ investment in irrigation. They all apply in Zimbabwe, and each has important policy implications.

  1. Farmers invest substantially. Whether this is in new pumps or pipes or furrow systems in mountain areas or in vleis, irrigation requires investments of cash and labour. This is significant, and as we saw in our survey data from land reform areas in Zimbabwe, pumps in particular have become a priority investment, across social groups and geographical areas.
  2. Interactions among farmers, external agencies and the rural economy are crucial. Too often studies of irrigation focus just on the technology, but not on the interactions required and generated. In Zimbabwe, most new irrigation is spontaneous, independent of the state, NGOs and projects. But connections with the rural economy are important. There is a whole new set of businesses emerging for selling, maintaining and repairing pumps. And the production generated from new irrigation is transforming markets, as we showed in our earlier work, highlighted in our SMEAD films.
  3. Innovation occurs in broad socio-technical networks and complex agricultural systems. The classic engineering approach to irrigation focuses on flat areas, large water supplies and fixed technology. This is the form of standard irrigation schemes. But farmer-led irrigation manages water in different ways, making use of water within a landscape. Slopes, pits, valley bottoms and so on all become significant in maximising irrigation potential. The late Zephaniah Phiri was perhaps the most famous of Zimbabwe’s farmer irrigators, and was a master of harvesting water in landscapes. Technologies – in Mr Phiri’s case, a combination of pits, check dams, pumps and contour ridges – are constructed in a social context, and must always be seen as ‘socio-technologies’, part of ‘networks’, as the paper suggests.
  4. Formal land tenure is not a prerequisite for irrigation development. As discussed many times on this blog, ‘formal land tenure’ (such as freehold or leasehold) is not a prerequisite for investment in farming, including irrigation. This is especially so with mobile, flexible irrigation. Communal tenure or the permit/offer letter system found in A1 areas is not a constraint, as we have seen. This seems to be the case across Africa too, as the paper shows.
  5. Many benefit, but others are adversely affected. Highlighting the benefits of farmer-led irrigation must be tempered by an assessment of who wins and who loses. As discussed in respect of the new pump based irrigation systems in Masvingo, downstream impacts can be severe, and second-generation challenges of water management are emerging. The investors in these new irrigation systems are usually men (able to buy the pumps) and the losers may be women and other family members, who often have to supply the labour (a theme largely ignored in the review). Gluts of production are common in such systems too, so those surviving along market chains may be affected. As the paper argues, an overall assessment is necessary, but the benefits are significant – and underestimated.

There is a much-repeated narrative about Africa’s agriculture – that it missed out on the ‘Green Revolution’ due to the lack of irrigation. The comparison with Asia is always made, where approximately 20 per cent of land is irrigated, while in Africa it is supposed to be less than 4 per cent. As discussed above, this contrast is probably not accurate, and far more land is already being irrigated in Africa, but through different systems. Because of rainfall, topography, markets and a host of other factors, Africa and Asia are never going to be the same, and such comparisons are often rather futile. But nevertheless, we should learn more about what is happening with water and agriculture on the ground in Africa. This paper identifies farmer-led irrigation as an important trend, and one that may well be driving an unnoticed Green Revolution in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs III: irrigators

Gardening has always been part of farming practice in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. Usually a small river bank plot, or an area near the home, has been planted with vegetables for home consumption. Few farmers in the communal areas scale up to more commercial operations, as horticulture requires inputs – notably water – and marketing at scale is always a challenge given the perishability of most vegetables. However in recent years in the new resettlements there has been a growth of small-scale commercial horticulture. This has arisen due to changes in the costs of irrigation technology, the availability of water, and the opportunities that changing markets post-land reform offer.

In the dryland settings of Masvingo, irrigation – particularly for horticultural crops – is essential. Yet state-led irrigation investment in Zimbabwe has been limited in recent years, despite the universally recognised priority. Instead, people have taken things into their own hands and are making use of low cost irrigation technology to set up irrigation systems in their farms and gardens. The expansion of small-scale irrigation has been substantial, and with this a variety of new horticultural production businesses.

In 2014 we undertook a survey of such commercial horticulture enterprises across our sites in Masvingo province. We identified 15 such enterprises of varying scales. Unlike the small ‘womens’ gardens’ that dominated vegetable production before, these were largely run by men, although always with strong involvement of their wives and other family members. There was often a gendered differentiation in roles, with women often engaged in processing of vegetables, including drying, while men oversaw the transport and sales of vegetables to town. There was a cluster of such enterprises discovered in the Wondedzo area, making use of the availability of water in the Muturikwi river and the proximity to Masvingo town for marketing.

One such irrigation entrepreneur has previously been profiled, and appears, along with his wives, in one of our films produced under the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development project. Below we offer two more case studies, illustrating some of the common patterns and challenges observed.

Case 1: I live in Clare A1 resettlement area. My irrigated area is about 1.5ha. I started this project early 2004. We used to have a co-operative garden back in the communal area, before we came to the resettlement, so I carried the project from there. I invested a lot in this business. We sold our one oxen which costs $700 and two sheep costing $80 each giving me a total of $860 from livestock sales. The other money came from my husband`s basic salary, as he is an extension worker. I started this project with capital of $3000. There were various costs including: land clearance ($200-00), pump purchase and its transport from Harare ($1200-00) and pipes including transport ($250-00). Later I also improved most of my structures and managed to construct a tank (costing $1105) and purchased another engine. I use my 10 horsepower diesel engine and 5 horsepower petrol engine in case of emergency. I bought them from Harare at ATM. I also bought some of my pipes in Masvingo at Irrigation Services in 2011 when I finished constructing my tank.

My plot has green maize (0.5ha), tomatoes (0.25ha), Potatoes (0.25ha), Onions (0.3ha) and Okra (0.2h). Costs include seed, fertiliser (both top and basal), pesticides, trellis and fence wire, and transport to get the inputs, from Masvingo or Gutu growth point – Farm and City or Masvingo Farm Supplies. I use family labour and one permanent worker who is paid $90 per month, but lives as a member of the family and eats with us, and he is provided accommodation too. At peak times I also hire in labour. For my temporary labourers I only pay $5 per day, and when weeding maize I pay them $1 per line of about 50m. For health and safety precaution I bought protective clothing like overalls, gloves, raincoat, masks, gumboots, when using chemicals at some time I also bought milk to drink after using chemicals. For protective clothing I supply my worker with a work suit for performing his duties.

My major products are sold to the local farmers and some to the nearby Rufaro boarding school, as well as at Chatsworth Township. It is very difficult for me to calculate the numbers sold per crop but what I really know is the cash I got from each crop is at least $500-00, meaning I earn about $2000 each year from the business. I usually produce crops at off-season to take advantage of increased demand and better prices.

Case 2: Presently I am using an area of about 0.8 hectares of my A1 farm in Wondedzo area for irrigation purposes which I started in August 2013. My water source for irrigation is the nearby Mutirikwi river. Currently I have one petrol pump – a 6.5 horse power Nexus model – which uses 75mm pipes and I use flood irrigation. So far I have only managed to grow two crops which are green mealies and tomatoes because I am still in the process of learning from others who have been irrigators before. But as time goes on and through exposure and training we get from Agritex (the extension agency), I shall venture into other crop production such as butternuts, potatoes, cabbages and carrots. The major market for my previous crop produce was Masvingo’s Chitima market, where I sold the bulk of produce. The next most important market was individual buyers in Rujeko township.

I invested about $600-00 into the project. I am a retired soldier, so I used my pension. The operations which include land clearance as well as fencing, was done by me and my family. I have one labourer who I pay $70 per month. Other benefits which we give to the employee include free accommodation and free food. I take him as my son because he shares accommodation with my sons. He eats what he wants to eat as a family member. For his health and safety, I give my employee gumboots, a work suit and face masks /respirators which he uses during production operations in the field. The costs for the project were barbed wire ($195), pump ($220) and piping ($380). I bought all these materials from N.J in Masvingo town.

Inputs for my 0.25ha maize (green mealies) crop include:

Seed-5kg =$12-00   source = Farm and City

1 x 50kg-AN=$36-00   source=Farm and City

Combat 250g=$5-00   source= Musa Hardware

Fuel 30 litres=$37-00 source= Service Station

Total expenditure – $90-00

For basal fertilizers, I use livestock manure to save cash. We sell green mealies in Masvingo Town`s Chitima market (5000 cobs), as well as vendors who come to the farm (1000 cobs) and about 750 cobs were sold locally. This fetched a gross income of about $2250, with the marketing period only lasted about 2 weeks at $1-00 for 3 cobs.

Inputs for the tomato crop include:

Seed 3400 seedlings=$75-00, source =Empire seed-Harare

Compound D 1x50kg=$33-00, manure, source=Farm supply- Masvingo

Top dressing 1x50kg =$36-00, source=Farm supply-Masvingo

Chemicals 50g Mancozeb=$7-00, source=Farm supply- Masvingo

400ml Lamdercure =$12-00, source=Farm supply-Masvingo

200g Acetamac=$4-00, source=Musa Hardware- Masvingo

Fuel 60 litres =$75-00, source=Service station

Total expenditure =$164-00

I managed to sell 49 crates in Masvingo Chitima market and earned a gross income of about $1135 and on average a crate of tomatoes was going for $23.

Some of the income obtained from the irrigation project we use it to pay children`s school fees as they learn in boarding schools which are a bit expensive. From the time we started the project we also got a little extra money to buy food during the drought and also for re-capitalisation purposes.

There are several challenges which I encounter in the project cycle which negatively affect my profits which include charges imposed by the city council for one to market produce at Chitima market; for example $1 per two hours for outside vendors. Transport here is also eroding much of our profits; for example $30 per single trip charged by local transporters. There are no storage facilities where we can rent over-night at the market, so sometimes we have to ship produce back to the farm.

In the future, I need to expand the size of the irrigable plot to about two hectares such that I will divide the land into four portions of 0.5 ha each in order to practise good rotation as well as increase production. I also need to buy another engine of a bigger size – 9.5 horsepower – to lessen the challenge of engine breakdowns. In order to market my produce I will need my own pickup truck.

A number of themes emerge from the examples of irrigation entrepreneurs we interviewed, highlighted by these two case studies:

  • Operations are relatively small, usually on 1-2 ha of land. Production is intensive, and often using significant amounts of chemicals
  • Irrigation is essential, but pressure on water sources is intense as horticulture takes off in an area.
  • The availability of cheap (Chinese) pumps has revolutionised the opportunities for irrigation. No longer is a ‘group garden’ approach required with a donor paying for the pump. These are all individual enterprises.
  • Entry costs (because of low pump prices especially) are relatively low, and can be afforded by a wide array of people, using crop/livestock sales or retirement/remittance income to get going.
  • Most are providing new employment, both permanent and temporary, although family labour dominates.
  • Crop diversity is limited (green maize and tomatoes dominate), with problems of production gluts, although some more established enterprises have begun to diversify, seeking out niche markets, and managing production to take advantage of seasonal production and price cycles.
  • Advice is sought from neighbours – particularly in the Wondedzo irrigation cluster – but also from Agritex, the government extension agency, who seem to be quite involved in horticulture production support.
  • Processing and added value sales (drying, pickling etc.) is limited, and sales are mostly fresh (with big problems of perishability at peak times)
  • Market access is crucial and it is the sites with smaller distances and good road connections (and relatively low transport costs) that take off.
  • Marketing includes sales at ‘town markets’ (both informal and those regulated by municipal councils), to vendors (who come to the farm to buy), to supermarkets (relatively few, and only those with transport who can provide in bulk in a timely manner), and to local consumers in the area.
  • Net income varies, but exceeds $1000 per annum in all cases, rising to perhaps $10000 or more. This income is significant in the wider livelihood portfolio.

The three blogs in this series have shown how the new resettlement areas post land reform are providing the context for a new dynamic of agricultural commercialisation. It is small scale, but is generating profits, supplying markets and providing employment. It does not involve everyone, as there are entry costs to each of these enterprises. Men certainly dominate pig and larger scale horticulture production, but broiler production also involves a significant number of women. In contrast to the ‘project’ focused development support of the past, these are mostly individual enterprises run by families, but hiring in labour. Technological innovation (and changing cost structures) – most dramatically around irrigation pumps – is important, as are input supply networks, product markets and transport linkages to ensure that produce is sold at good prices. Market connections often remain underdeveloped, and market costs (notably transport) and other challenges were frequently mentioned in interviews. Opportunities for added value production remain limited, and most entrepreneurs are only involved in primary production, rather than processing etc. Upgrading of enterprises is ongoing, and we have seen these grow over the years, and particularly since the stabilisation of the economy in 2009, when market interactions with a dollarized currency became possible.

The new agricultural entrepreneurs on the new resettlements are definitely a group worth watching, as the agrarian landscape continues to change in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. The new commerical agriculture is small-scale, dynamic and highly entrepreneurial, and is changing both production and markets.

This work was undertaken under the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development project, and the field research was led by BZ Mavedezenge and Felix Murimbarimba.

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


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The new irrigation entrepreneurs: commerical horticulture in Masvingo

This week, we are releasing the next video in the ‘Making Markets’ series. This time it focuses on vegetable production in Mavingo (if you’ve seen the other ones, you can skip the first 1 min and 30 secs, as it’s the same intro. The total length is 11 mins. Also, if your internet connection is slow, there’s a lower resolution version too).

Mr Mahove of Wondedzo extension A1 resettlement area and his wives appear on the video, shot in 2014. He is an example of a new farming entrepreneur, focusing on irrigated horticulture for local markets. He was a pioneer in the area, but many others are now following his example, making often significant money from selling vegetables. We interviewed him in 2012 as part of the ‘Space, Markets and Employment in Agricultural Development’ project:

“I am 30 years and originate from Chikombedzi. I am married to six wives and we have a total of 11 children. I belong to John Marange Apostolic church which emphasizes self-reliance. I used to survive using my hands as a tin smith based at Bhuka Irrigation scheme some 20 km south of Masvingo town. While there I was impressed by the fact that people were prospering through irrigation. I am the elder son. My father passed on in 2004 and left behind a large family of 20 on this 28 hectare plot who had to be taken care of. I had no option but to inherit the plot and the responsibility over family.

“In 2006 I decided to practise what I had seen at Bhuka Irrigation scheme in order to make money and cater for family needs. We started irrigating with buckets from a small dam near the homestead from 2006 to 2007, selling vegetables locally and a bit to Masvingo town. The funds allowed me to buy a water foot pump. In 2010 I bought a 5 HP diesel water pump for USD $220. Members of the community who were irrigating using buckets started complaining saying I was finishing the water in the small dam. I was irrigating just 0.4 ha, but they still evicted me in 2010.

“I approached the councilor, also from my same church, who gave me part of his land (0.3 ha) close to Mutirikwe river to do my horticulture pumping water from the river at the start of 2011. The area proved too small to satisfy increasing demand for my produce. I approached the councilor again who allowed me to use part of state land allocated to the cattle dip. My total irrigable area was now 1.5 hectares. All along I was renting irrigation pipes from Mr Madzokere, a plot holder, for USD$ 17 per month. In 2011 I bought 46 irrigation pipes from Mbare/Magaba in Harare at USD$46 per pipe. I was now irrigating full time and making good money which made people jealous.

“The struggle to evict me started again. I was accused of invading the dip area. First I was reported to Vet Department. They came and were impressed by my irrigation and allowed me to continue because I was using only a small part of the dip area. I was reported again to   Zimbabwe National Water Authority ZINWA) for abstracting water without a permit. They came and again were impressed and advised me to get a permit which I did. ZINWA gave me a permit for domestic use which means I was not using amounts that warranted payment for water use. I was then reported to the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) . The allegation was that I was cutting trees during land clearing which caused deforestation. They came and made assessments and concluded there was no environmental threat in what I was doing. I was then reported e to the Ministry of Lands for using state land without a permit. The District Administrator, chief, councilor, Committee of Seven and other players became involved. They came to the conclusion that I was actually doing the community a service because I am the one who pumps water into the dip using my engine. The people who wanted me evicted had failed and as a last resort they physically confronted me at the irrigation plot. I stood my ground and they left humiliated up to now. I produce rape, tomatoes, cabbages and green mealies. I sell most of my rape and cabbbages to OK supermarket, Tsungai supermarket and the local market also buy rape and cabbages. The bulk of tomatoes is bought by 5   women vendors from the kutrain market in Masvingo. Supermarkets want tomatoes in bulk – the whole of 1 ha. I cannot supply that amount.

“I hope to manage the seasonal pattern of supply. For rape I supply 500 bundles twice per week. January to June is the highest production. It sells at 25-30c per bundle. The main season for cabbage February to September. I sell 300 heads/once per week at 50-65 c per head. I sell green mealies for $1 for 10, sold at Roy Business Centre along the highway. For green leaf vegetables we prepare dried vegetables (mufushwa) from poor quality plants and trimmings. This is sold at Masvingo kutrain market at $5/20 litre bucket.

“For transport I hire Mr Ruchanyu’s two-tonne truck. He’s a fellow Apostolic farmer nearby. It costs US$25 to town Also Mr Mugabazhi has a smaller 1 tonne truck. He is extension supervisor. He goes to work in town and will carry produce [since 2012, Mahove has bought his own from the proceeds of his sales]”.

Mahove is one of a number of new irrigation entrepreneurs in the Wondedzo area of Masvingo district. Each has invested in pumps and pipes and are making good use of available water supplies. All have developed market networks linking to Masvingo town and beyond, as well as supplying the local area. They are also employing people for a range of tasks. With a limited capital investment in irrigation equipment, the returns are significant, and many have, like Mahove, bought vehicles to assist with their marketing, as well as improving their homes, sending kids to school and so on.

But there are clear constraints to this form of production. Water is the key limitation, as the water sources are limited, and under increasing pressure. While extraction is not massive with the small pumps, as more and more join this form of small-scale commercial irrigation, seasonal water scarcities are emerging, along with conflicts over who has access. The authorities have not thought how to regulate such water access, as the Water Act offers only large-scale catchment management solutions geared to large scale irrigation. Policy innovation in this area will be important to ensure that people have equitable access to water, and that the resource is not permanently depleted. The other challenge of course is marketing. Mahove was a new entrant into the market, establishing early connections with supermarkets and traders. But there is intense competition, and major gluts at certain times of year. Tomatoes in particular are a favoured crop, and diversification is essential. This makes managing production in a market-sensitive way essential, as well as expanding out into processing to add value. Mahove and family are involved in drying vegetables, but other options will need to be explored in order to maximize income.

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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What should be on a new Zim dollar note? Two nominations

There have been repeated rumours about the return of the Zimbabwe dollar, even ones that they were being printed. There was no hint in the recent budget, and for the time being Zimbabwe’s economy is tied to the US dollar exchange rate, and it is the greenback (sometimes rather brown and dirty) that circulates through the economy.

But some time, when the time is right, a separate currency may be desirable, allowing more flexibility in monetary policy, and help ease the near permanent liquidity crisis. When that happens there will have to be a redesign of the notes. What should be on them? Of course there will be all sorts of ‘national heroes’ and famous places in contention, but what are the real symbols of the Zimbabwean economy today?

I want to nominate two candidates, both of which I believe should be recognised on a redesigned currency. The first is the one tonne truck. Most likely Chinese built, nearly always white, and full of people and produce, trailing the roads of Zimbabwe. I don’t know if anyone keeps statistics of how many are manufactured and imported, but it must be a lot.

In the new resettlement areas where we work, they are ubiquitous. They have revolutionised the way farming as a business is done. Marketing is now possible in much more flexible ways. Supply of inputs doesn’t have to rely on a NGO or a government delivery. Instead, private entrepreneurs, many of whom are farmers, hire out their trucks, or share deliveries with friends and neighbours. I thought there were lots of them in Masvingo, but it wasn’t until l I visited Mazowe district at the end of last year that I realised how many had been purchased on the back of the tobacco boom. So, nomination 1: the Chinese (sometimes Japanese) one tonne truck.

The second nomination is the small horsepower water pump, again very often Chinese made. They have become incredibly cheap in the last few years. US$200 or so will get you a pump that can deliver a steady flow of water to a garden from a well or river bed. They are not the most fancy, nor the hardiest of pumps, but they are cheap. A small profit on a garden enterprise can mean you can buy a new one – or a replacement if they break down. Again, no need to wait for an aid agency to come with a ‘project’ and corral you into a gardening group; instead you can just go to Harare or Bulawayo – or more likely Musina – and buy one (or even two) and do it yourself. No project, no group, no waiting for the NGO. As we have found out in our studies of small scale horticulture in the resettlement areas near Masvingo they too have revolutionised production possibilities, through irrigation, for even the poor, small-scale farmer.

These two pieces of kit, now standard issue for any aspiring farmer, along with the indestructible Nokia classic mobile phone (not on the nomination list as a bit passé now), are definitely my top nominations. They equal the contribution of any national hero in my view, and without government or donor support, they allow farms to be productive, output to be marketed, people to become that bit richer, kids to be sent to school, investment to happen. And none of this would have happened without them.

What are your nominations? Please add to the comments, and I will happily forward to the minister of finance, Mr Chinamasa.

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


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Planting water: sustainable agriculture in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a long tradition of ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’ agriculture. There are many organisations, perhaps most notably PELUM, the participatory ecological land use management association, that have supported low external input sustainable agriculture initiatives over many years. A new blog has also been started to document some of these experiences, and it includes videos, case studies and more. It is well worth a look, as the examples highlighted show how smallholder agriculture can move ahead, often without the type of inputs and investments that are often assumed to be essential.

One of the first people I met when I went to Zimbabwe in the 1980s was Zephaniah Phiri Maseko of Msipane area in Runde communal area near Zvishavane. Through the connections with Dadaya School, where his father had worked, and his earlier association with Ken Wilson, he came to work on the growing array of activities that became linked to the PhD projects that Ken initiated and I joined in nearby Mazvhiwa communal area. Visiting his home was a revelation. Here was a lush, green land in an area that received barely above 500mm of rainfall. He had broken every rule in the Rhodesian handbook of agricultural practice (like farming in or near a vlei and water source, avoiding traditional contours and more), and it was working amazingly effectively.

In 1987, thanks to support from Oxfam and the EEC, Phiri founded Zvishavane Water Projects. Its mission was to share the experiences of ‘planting water’ that Phiri and his family had developed at their home over the years to a wider community in Zvishavane and beyond. As NGOs, farmer groups and individuals have taken up these ideas – harvesting water in a variety of ways to improve soil moisture and agricultural production – the impact has been incredible. The now famous ‘Phiri pits’ can be seen scattered across the landscape.

Mary Witoshynsky documented the remarkable life and work of Mr Phiri in a fantastic book published by Weaver Press, The Water Harvester. There are also numerous articles profiling his work (for example, here, here and here – the last from 1988, written by Phiri, with Ken Wilson and myself). Many such articles were collected together for the ‘book of life’ presented at the UZ lifetime achievement award ceremony in 2010. Here too is a video of him explaining his water harvesting systems at his home. Phiri certainly has been an inspiration to me, as many others. The possibilities of dryland farming, without complex technologies but with an ecological understanding of water and land, are extensive.

Now in his mid 80s, Phiri is now old and infirm, suffering badly from the injuries inflicted at the hands of the Rhodesian regime when he was under house arrest and in leg irons. But his work continues through ZWP and many other initiatives. Indeed when I was at his home last year, his visitors’ book was full of comments from people from across Zimbabwe, and indeed beyond.

As more and more of the country is farmed by smallholders following land reform, Zimbabwe needs more Mr Phiris, and more similar initiatives to exchange ideas, technologies and practices. The new blog will be an important source for many, and hopefully will encourage others to experiment and innovate.

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


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Irrigating Zimbabwe: time for some new thinking

In 1952, a major report on large-scale irrigation made the case for a substantial increase in investment in irrigation in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. The reason was growing concerns about national food security and the need to improve the production of land recently settled by war veterans. Of course 60 years ago, such support was for white war veteran settlers who had come to the colony following the Second World War. Such new settlers often displaced local populations (without compensation) as the Land Apportionment Act was implemented more vigorously. Expanding populations and the failure of agriculture to meet food security needs in periods of drought (notably 1947, but others too), had resulted in concern at the highest policy levels to do something about agricultural investment.

The arguments made then are just as relevant today – and with some intriguing parallels. Back then, the investments that followed, particularly in what were designated ‘European’ farming areas, provided an unparalleled infrastructure, including dams, schemes, river diversions and more. This became the backbone of the commercial farm economy. The report also advocated investments in the ‘African’ ‘native’ areas, but these were limited by comparison, and focused, particularly in the UDI period on schemes linked to a growth point development strategy led by TILCOR.

By Independence, Zimbabwe had about 150,000 hectares under ‘formal’ irrigation schemes; about 3% of the arable area. 68% of this was in the large-scale commercial farming areas, another 20% linked to commercial estates, 7% part of ARDA estates and outgrower schemes and only 3.4% smallholder irrigation schemes. The distribution of irrigation capacity was even more unequal than that of land and other resources.

So is the answer to the challenges of agriculture, especially following land reform, to take a leaf out of the colonial book and invest in irrigation? The answer is yes, in part. But it depends on what type of irrigation, with what type of support.

Irrigation of course has a much longer history in Zimbabwe than the 60 years sketched above. The ancient systems of Inyanga for example have attracted archaeologists’ attention for many years, as they offer an example of highly intensive and sophisticated small-scale systems. Dambo or vlei cultivation dominated the agriculture of the nineteenth century, as farmers farmed intensively in valley bottoms in the hilly areas, often hiding from raids. In the early colonial era, missionaries encouraged irrigation at times of famine and set up a few schemes near mission stations. Early attempts at government support from late 1920s built on local systems, with support to small irrigation plots under farmer control. The famous agricultural extensionist E.D Alvord supported such efforts and was very keen on irrigation as part of his modernisation project (see an interesting article by Mandi Rukuni on this history).

However the approach took a dangerous turn in 1935 when Alvord visited Native American reserves in the US and he came back with ideas for a much more technical, top-down approach. From then on irrigation development in Zimbabwe in the smallholder sector at least has been dominated by a dirigiste approach to management – highly subsidized schemes require farmers to following particular cropping patterns on standard plot sizes under the direction of an irrigation officer. In some settlement schemes, no off-farm work was allowed. In the 1980s, economic analyses showed that 100% of capital costs and 89% of recurrent costs were covered by the government. This provided little incentive for local control and management – aspects that characterised the success of early initiatives, and still do on informal schemes.

Extensive studies by the University of Zimbabwe and colleagues at Wageningen University in the Netherlands through the 1990s showed the variety of experiences of irrigation in Zimbabwe, ranging from the formal Agritex-run communal area schemes, of which there were around 70, to the much more informal set-ups, involving usually fewer people on smaller areas, with less elaborate technology and infrastructure. This research confirmed earlier findings around some of the key requirements for effective collective action, asserting rights over water and land and sustainable economic management, and chimed with international experience.

A key theme through all of these studies was the argument that a standardised one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and more flexibility and adaptability is required. Since Independence there have been numerous attempts at reviving irrigation in the smallholder sector. An ambitious irrigation fund was established in the 1980s but it went unused; FAO and GTZ invested in new policy frameworks and some investments; small-scale schemes were supported by the EU, and so on. The impact of all of this, both in terms of policy and impacts on the ground, has been desultory. What study after study has found, is that the formal schemes (with some exceptions) have not worked well. And it very often it is the small-scale informal set-ups – more akin to the traditional dambo irrigation of the past – that work best (a theme that I will pick up in next week’s blog). These can be supported through developments in water harvesting, including small dams, storage tanks and soil pits and contours, and also small-scale drip irrigation kits that allow greater water use efficiency in piped or channel systems.

Under the right conditions in the right places, irrigation pays. By smoothing production variability it addresses challenges of food security, felt increasingly since the 1990s, and especially in the last decade, much as was the case in the 1950s. For high value crops, such as horticulture, irrigation is essential, and much of the private investment by commercial farmers from the early 1990s was in these sort of facilities. Yet irrigation infrastructure and technology cannot just be transferred from one system to another. With a different agrarian structure, with different farmers on different farm sizes the old configurations do not make sense. A massive centre-pivot set up is not much use to small-scale farmers, and few new resettlement farmers could afford sophisticated computer synchronized, satellite-linked drip irrigation systems.

Clearly the investments made from the 1950s in the large-scale commercial sector paid dividends. But any government today would balk at the cost, and especially the long-term subsidies, and a consistent policy for handover to farmer control following establishment is required. Today a rethink in irrigation strategy and policy is urgently needed. Perhaps a new high level task force should be convened, with a similar impetus to that of 1952, but with a rather different political and distributional mandate. What is clear is that in order to get agriculture moving in the new resettlements, up-front government or donor capital investment is needed, but tying irrigators into a standard approach with high recurrent subsidy makes little technical or economic sense.

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


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