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‘Living under contract’: reflections after 25 years

Contract farming in different forms has become increasingly common in farming systems across the world, not least in Zimbabwe, but does it benefit smallholder farmers or exploit them?

Contract farming rose to prominence globally as a proposed solution to ‘market failures’ in the extension of commercial agriculture. Farmers offered their land and labour while contract companies, more often than not linked to multinational capital, provided credit, extension advice and other inputs, as well as direct access to markets. In contexts where finance was short and markets difficult to link to, contract farming seemed like the win-win neoliberal solution to extending capitalist agriculture, without relying on land dispossession to create estates and plantations.

Twenty-five years ago an important book was published – Living under Contract: Contract Farming and Agrarian Transformation in sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Peter Little and Mike Watts. It offered a much more critical political economy perspective on contract farming based on case studies from across Africa (including Zimbabwe, with the chapter written by Jeremy Jackson and Angela Cheater). It proved an enormously influential book, as it countered the simplistic win-win narrative of contract farming advocates. The book argued that contract farming necessarily was embedded in political and social relations, which were often deeply unequal. While providing opportunities for some (mostly relatively wealthy smallholders), the result was the creation of a ‘disguised proletarianisation’ of the countryside, whereby farmers effectively laboured on behalf of the contracting companies on very unequal terms.

The current state of play: insights from a new special issue

With increasing integration into global value chains, smallholder agriculture in Africa and elsewhere has increasingly become reliant on contract farming for a range of commodities. Contract farming is strongly advocated by aid agencies, development banks and private companies as part of an ‘inclusive’, ‘pro-poor’ business agenda for agriculture. The win-win narrative is very much alive, 25 years on.

So what is the current state of play? Has contract farming lived up to the expectations of its advocates or has it resulted in the problems predicted by its critics? A great new special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change edited by Mark Vicol, Niels Fold, Caroline Hambloch, Sudha Narayanan and Helena Pérez Niño offers some answers. The issue includes diverse cases from China to India, Indonesia, Laos, Mozambique, the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

What is striking is the diversity of contract farming arrangements – sometimes large schemes, some very informal, some with very direct state involvement, some without, and across a whole range of crops and livestock. No simple story emerges; the response to both the advocates and critics is that the outcomes are not totally clear-cut. Contract farming clearly generates new relations of power, new labour regimes and very often accelerates existing processes of differentiation. But is this all bad? The answer of course is, it depends, and particularly on the social, economic, political and historical contexts for contracts.

State and private-led contracting in Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwe contribution to the issue – Private and state-led contract farming in Zimbabwe: accumulation, social differentiation and rural politics – by Toendepi Shonhe and myself draws on extensive household surveys in Mazowe and Hwedza districts and looks at private and state-led contract farming, respectively for tobacco and maize. The consequences for social differentiation, accumulation and rural politics are in turn examined. As with other recent studies of contract farming in Zimbabwe by Freedom Mazwi and colleagues (also here and here) and our earlier study from Mvurwi, a complex story emerges. Our new paper clearly shows how contract farming adds to existing patterns of differentiation, building off unequal power relationships – and that a political economy analysis is essential to understanding outcomes.

So in private tobacco contracting, it is those who are neither rich (and can finance and sell their tobacco independently) nor poor (who cannot afford the risk of loans and dependence on a contract) who are involved. And it’s mostly men who have the contracts. Across both sites, and particularly in the A1 resettlement farms, these farmers are benefiting from contracting, and accumulating significantly; but perhaps not as much as their richer counterparts who can go it alone. Poorer farmers are left out, and must engage in tobacco farming through joining others on their contracts, often on very poor terms, while women either join their husbands or opt for other farming activities.

While tobacco contracting clearly fulfils a need for agricultural financing (which is spread beyond tobacco to other crops) in the absence of any bank finance for smallholders, it also reinforces existing patterns of differentiation. Contracting farmers are not completely dependent on the company as in some other schemes, and many wish they could contract more area than the one hectare usually offered for tobacco. On the other areas of the farm, other family members lead the growing of other crops and so overall there is a more diversified approach both to production and market engagement than the vision of ‘labouring for the company’ sometimes portrayed.  

By contrast, state-led contracting (supported by the military) under the ‘command agriculture’ programme, targets the already well-off, very often in the larger A2 farms; again nearly all relatively older men. The programme aims to boost cereal production in particular, including on irrigated plots. Far fewer farmers in our sample were recipients of such loan financing, and those who gained access were often well-connected politically. Recipients certainly produced more and were able to accumulate, benefiting from the very favourable terms, with loans often not paid back. Those who are less well-connected also have benefited, but often from partial packages and many were disgruntled with the programme. Again, while benefiting production, contracting added to patterns of differentiation – including along gender and age lines – and reinforced political differences and allegiances.

In both cases, we see how contract farming is not a simple ‘win-win’ solving ‘market failures’, but it is the wider socio-political context that affects outcomes. Contracting is not just a route to the selective penetration of private capital, but also a route to leveraging state presence and forms of political patronage. Contracting is thus very much bound up with rural politics and the post-land reform landscape of politicised negotiation over resource access. With both tobacco and maize being crucial ‘political’ crops, the state has a keen interest in the terms of contracts and in the case of command agriculture intervenes directly to favour certain producers and political ‘clients’ over others. As we note in the paper, this is not so different to how the Rhodesian government intervened to influence contract terms in favour of (certain) white farmers in the colonial era, but today allegiances to the ruling party become crucial in defining state-led contracting.

Political economies matter

Just as Living under Contract argued 25 years ago, understanding contract farming requires attention to political economy, including gender and age differences, as well as history. While the outcomes of contract farming may not all be negative, and a simple argument for forced but disguised proletarianisation and simple exploitation by capital doesn’t hold up, at least in the Zimbabwe case, the terms of negotiation around contracts are always uneven, power-laden and intensely political.

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

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Tobacco and contract farming in Zimbabwe

 

How does commercial agriculture – and particularly contract farming – affect agrarian dynamics? We have been looking at this question in work in Mvurwi area in Mazowe district over the last few years. New work under the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa project of the Future Agricultures Consortium will pursue this further.

An open access paper is just out in the Journal of Agrarian Change – “Tobacco, contract farming and agrarian change in Zimbabwe”. (PDF here). This looks at the influence of tobacco farming (both contracted and independently grown) on patterns of social differentiation and class formation within A1 resettlement areas. Tobacco production is one of the big post-land reform stories, but how is this driving different patterns of accumulation, with what implications for livelihoods, labour and politics?

Lots of data are presented in the paper on contrasting production, asset ownership and investment patterns across our sample of 220 households. Towards the end of the paper, we offer a simple typology of different classes of farmer, resulting from differential accumulation due to tobacco production.

Social differentiation and class formation

The Accumulators: This group are those with sufficient resources to grow tobacco and sell it on their own. In the recent past they may have had contracting relationships with companies, but many have found it possible to operate independently because of sufficient resources accumulated. Tobacco income has been invested in tractors and transport vehicles, allowing households to cultivate effectively and transport tobacco to the auction floors. They balance tobacco farming with commercial maize farming, so they spread their risk in terms of agriculture. Many also have other businesses, including tractor hire and transport, but also house rental, as some have invested in real estate in Mvurwi, Mazowe and Harare from tobacco proceeds. This group is generally older, male, more educated, and sometimes with jobs in town, or at least pensions and other resources – sometimes remittances from children abroad – to draw on, which helps the path of accumulation. This group hires permanent labour, and also uses a temporary workforce hired from the locality as well as from the compounds. Links to state officials, agribusinesses and political networks become important for gaining access to some resources, notably fertiliser, and so accumulation from below combines with accumulation from above for this group.

The Aspiring Accumulators: This group includes a number with formal contracting relationships with companies. They do not have enough resources to produce and sell independently, but are prepared to commit significant land areas to tobacco to fulfil contracts, and take on the associated risk. They generally have a larger proportion of their farms allocated to tobacco, and so less to other crops, including maize. However, on average, they still manage to produce more than a tonne of maize per year, and so, even on smaller areas, have enough for self-provisioning. Many also complement tobacco production with small-scale commercial horticulture, often run by women, and so have diverse sources of income. They hire labour, both locally and from the compounds, but have a smaller permanent workforce compared to the accumulator group. In terms of off-farm income sources, this group combines traditional local occupations, such as building or brickmaking, with cattle sales, and some with small transport operations. While aspiring to greater things, this group is certainly ‘accumulating from below’, and shows a significant level of purchase of assets, including cattle, solar panels, cell phones, as well as agricultural and other inputs.

The Peasant Producers: Not everyone is accumulating to the extent of these other groups, and for some a more classic peasant production system is evident. This does not mean ‘subsistence’ production, as all are engaging in the market, but the production system features a dominance of own-family labour (although some hiring in of temporary piece work), and production that is spread across a variety of crops, including tobacco. Most in this group will not be in a contracting relationship with a company. They instead sell tobacco, often as part of a group, independently. There has been a large movement from this group to the other two accumulator groups in the past few years.

The Diversifiers and Strugglers: There are a number of households who are not producing in the way the peasant producers manage, and are clearly struggling. This group does not engage in cropping for sale (or if so very little, and not usually tobacco, but mostly maize), and often produces insufficient maize for self-provisioning. Such farmers have to diversify income earning activities, often with a clear gendered division of labour, across activities including building, carpentry, thatching, fishing and some craft making (for men) and vegetable sales, trading, pottery and basket making (for women). They rarely hire labour, and will often be the ones labouring for others, as temporary labourers on nearby farms.

Dynamic agrarian change in tobacco areas

These categories are far from static, and the drive to accumulate, with contracting seen as an important route to this end, is ever present, both in people’s own commentaries, as well as in observed practices. Everyone can see success around them, and tobacco is the symbol of this, although some are having their doubts about its sustainability and diversifying into other high-value crops. These categorisations of also miss the differential trajectories of accumulation within households, across genders and generations. As seen in the recent blog series, some youth are failing to make it, and often remain within increasingly large accumulator households as dependents, even after marriage. Some women may be tobacco farmers in their own right, but tobacco accumulation is predominantly a male phenomenon, with men often taking on the tobacco business, and associated investments from the proceeds.

What do these patterns tell us about likely longer-term patterns of agrarian change? The tobacco boom has provided a significant group of land reform beneficiaries the opportunity to accumulate. This has had spin-off effects in the rural economy – generating employment, resulting in investments of different sorts, and changes in the local economy as small towns like Mvurwi grow.

It has also generated class-related conflicts and dependencies both in relation to compound-based farm worker households and with others in the A1 areas who are struggling to reproduce. The weak kin-based social relations within new resettlement communities limit the redistributive effects of a ‘traditional’ moral economy, and means that there are genuine losers, as well as winners, from the land reform.

There are inevitable limits to accumulation, set by environmental factors (and especially the supply of wood for curing), market conditions (and changes in the world market, health concerns, the demand for higher quality leaf and price shifts), social-political relations (and the ability to negotiate within markets), and limited land areas.

In the A1 areas, successful households attract others, particularly from the communal areas, and household sizes expand as others are taken in. Surplus income can be invested in basic social reproduction – including maintaining rural homes, investing in education, health care, marriage of children and so on – as well as production – including livestock, farm equipment, inputs, transport and so on – but again there are limits to the herd sizes and capital items and other inputs that can be bought.

A key question will be where the next round of investment will end up. Here the relationship between countryside and towns, especially small towns, becomes important, as accumulators build urban/peri-urban housing for rent, private schools as business ventures, and sink capital into other urban-based businesses, potentially a source of employment for the next generation. This is only beginning now, but the data show that this is a trend to watch.

These economic transformations also feed into and are built upon social and political dynamics. Successful A1 farmers – very often well educated, and with links to urban areas – are important social and political actors, often seen as leaders in local political formations (mostly within the ruling party, ZANU-PF), but also in other groupings, such as churches and business associations. How alliances are struck with farm workers – in all their forms – as well as those A1 farmers who are struggling will be significant, as new forms of agrarian politics emerge on the back of the tobacco boom.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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Class and rural differentiation after land reform

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

A new paper in the Journal of Agrarian Change by the team that wrote the Zimbabwe’s Land Reform book examines the processes of rural differentiation that have occurred following land reform in 2000, and their political and economic consequences.

The paper points out that “acquiring land through reform processes… and allocating it to a mix of largely land and income poor people from nearby rural areas is not the end of the story. As new livelihoods are established, investments initiated and production, business, trade and marketing commence, processes of differentiation begin – within households, between households in a particular place and between sites”.

A simplistic, populist back-to-the-land narrative is therefore insufficient. Rural economies are always dynamic – some win, some lose. So what happened across the 16 sites studied over a decade in Masvingo province?

The story is interesting – and complex. The paper shows how, among 400 households, 15 different livelihood strategies are observed, classified into four broad groups (stepping up, stepping out, hanging in and dropping out, following Andrew Dorward and Josphat Mushongah). These can be broadly associated with rural classes. These include an emergent rural bourgeoisie, and a larger group of petty commodity producers doing quite well by stepping up through agricultural production and stepping out through diversified livelihoods, and often a combination of both. There are worker-peasants who farm but also sell their labour, and the semi-peasantry who are struggling.

Linking the diversity of livelihood strategies – what Karl Marx in his treatise on the method of political economy called ‘the rich totality of many determinations’ focusing on real life on the ground – and broader patterns, tendencies and class formations (‘the concrete – the unity of the diverse’) is not an exact science, but the paper makes an attempt.

Why is this important? First, it is vital to realise that the new resettlements are not static or homogenous. The instability of class formations, and the overall fluidity of social and economic relations is emphasised. Efforts to support the new resettlement areas must take this into account. Who to back? The new emergent middle farmers or the poor and struggling? Second, the dynamic formation of class – cross-cut by differences of gender, age and ethnicity – has implications for political dynamics in the countryside. Again, who will have the political voice in the future? Will it be the ‘chefs’ who are small in number but who have grabbed land, or a larger group of emerging farmers who are doing well? And will workers, poorer peasants and others ally with them in pushing for a better deal?

These political dynamics are discussed at the close of the paper. Much is speculation, but informed by an understanding of emerging patterns of socio-economic differentiation. If political parties in forthcoming elections want to know a bit more about their constituencies, then the paper offers some food for thought.

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

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