Important changes are afoot in the size structure of farms in Africa. The rise of ‘medium-scale’ farms is often pointed to. From studies in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and elsewhere, carried out by Michigan State University, a pattern of consolidation of land holdings is observed, with an increasing proportion held in medium-sized farms, owned often by ‘outsiders’ to local peasant farming communities – including retirees, local investors and urbanites wanting a foothold in the countryside.
These people are investing in this new farmland, and sometimes (but far from always) making it more productive, and commercially-oriented. In Ghana and Zambia, for example, such medium-scale farms now account for more land area than small-scale (under 5 ha) farms (see new work by Thom Jayne and colleagues, for example here, here, here and here). Land concentration in such farms, under new ownership and land tenure arrangements, occurs through different routes – either through accumulation of land by those who earlier had smaller plots via local land markets, or acquisition of land by ‘outsiders’ through political and other connections.
Patterns vary across countries and locations within them, and the MSU studies are rather crude relying as they do on existing datasets, taking a huge range (from 5 to 100 ha) to constitute ‘medium-scale’. Farm size survey data too can only tell us so much. While such data indicate an important shift in overall pattern, the implications for the dynamics of rural class formation, labour regimes, gender relations patterns of dispossession and displacement, markets in land and agricultural commodities, for example, are not revealed. This is why complementary in-depth analysis is required, that probes the implications further.
In our studies in Zimbabwe, we are examining the fate of A2 farms, where allocations of land following the 2000 land reform ranged from 20 ha to upwards of 500 ha in drier parts of the country, with an average of around 70 ha. As discussed in previous blogs, this has resulted in a major restructuring of farm sizes and overall agrarian structure in the country, with this category of ‘medium-scale’ farm being significant, and by comparison to the old dualism of the large-scale and small-scale communal sector a new phenomenon. Although as the previous weeks have discussed, while not on the scale of A2 farming areas (representing now nearly 2 million ha or about 6 percent of the country’s land area), former ‘purchase areas’ or small-scale commercial farm areas (around 1.4 m ha or 4.4 percent of total land area) offer some hints as to some of the future challenges of broadly-defined ‘medium-scale’ commercial farming.
In our studies, highlighted in the case studies covered last week, we found four possible outcomes emerging over time in the former Purchase Areas, highlighted to varying degrees in the case studies presented in the last blog in this series.
- The ‘villagised farm’. Here the land is seen as belonging to a family, across generations. Children can establish homes, often across several families, and a village area is created. Sometimes these family units operate independently and have their own patches within the farm where they cultivated; in other cases they contribute collectively to what is usually the fathers’ farm. His brothers, sons, and their wives and children, all provide a collective labour force. Some members of these families may not be resident, and may work elsewhere, but they regard the farm as ‘home’ and do not have other residences in the communal areas (although some joined land invasions and gained land through land reform). These villages – formerly seen as ‘squatter’ settlements – may include others, incorporated into the farm over time, such as labourers, or other relatives and their families. Over years, numbers can increase significantly. In our study areas in Mushagashe, we estimated that on one farm of this type there were perhaps nearly 50 living there, including at least 8 ‘households’, and several families of workers. Some sons without jobs stay on the farm with their families, while others who are working away have homes where sometime wives and children stay.
- The commercial farm. This is the imagined ideal, and sometimes occurs. But often only in certain time periods, linked to generational changes. As mentioned in a previous blog, in the late 50s and early 60s, some Purchase Area farms operated as serious commercial enterprises. Their owners were resident, often retired, but not too old to run and manage a farm. In subsequent years, the commercial orientation died off, as older parents no longer could manage the farms, and sons and other relatives were not around to reinvest. However a generation on, these sons are now moving back to these farms. The economic crisis of the 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s meant that abandoning jobs in town, such as poorly paid civil service employment, and taking up farming was attractive, even if the family farm was remote and often by this stage run down. Limited retrenchment packages may have assisted, but after a period in the doldrums some farms are seeing a revival. Commercial farming in this scenario is not a life-long investment, but something that happens at a certain life stage, and is intimately linked to fortunes in the world of urban work, or patterns of income from remittances, now spread across an increasingly global diaspora.
- Subdivision. Rather than reinvesting and scaling up, some choose to subdivide and sell off. This may prevent the possibilities of villagisation, and the often troublesome reliance of potentially endless relatives, sometimes with remote connections seeking out a ‘family’ farm as a place of refuge and support – and a place to farm. If sons (usually, rarely daughters in our case studies) are not able to come ‘home’ and farm commercially, then raising income through the land market can provide a source of income. This mirrors the period in the 1950s when fragmentation of farms occurred and squatters were evicted. This also happens today and, although there are often family disputes over whether the farm can be sold (either completely or in part), the use of title deeds (very often not touched for decades, and often formally invalid because not updated in the registry) can provide a route to realise the value of the family asset. Disputes emerge among family members especially if there are some siblings who are resident at the farm, and do not have jobs. Many Purchase Area farmers’ children however are well-educated, and part of the increasingly international Zimbabwean middle class. Like their parents, they were educated in the elite schools of the late colonial/early Independence area, which were as good as any in the region. With such qualifications, access to skilled job markets were plentiful and they ended up comfortably in jobs in Harare, but also Johannesburg, Cape Town, Gabarone, London and Birmingham (with not a few academics amongst their number). While the family farm has an emotional appeal, the idea of going to farm there like their parents did is not on the radar; and their children ion turn may have visited for a few Christmases as kids but have no intention of starting a rural life.
- Projectising the farm. For those who are absent, and with parents still alive and living on the farm, there is one common option that emerges, as we have seen in the case studies profiled last week. This is to ‘projectise’ the farm. Discrete projects are envisaged, and invested in. These commonly involve livestock, with dairy, piggeries and poultry projects common in our study areas. Sometimes these projects are financed by NGOs and aid projects, as part of ‘development’ activities; more commonly they are self-financed, with funds coming via Western Union from the UK or elsewhere. These remittance investments need some management and if the parents are not up to it, local people are employed as resident farm managers. Some are able to raise external loans and finance by virtue of their jobs, and in a few cases joint venture/partnership arrangements are brokered with external investors. The trouble with most Purchase Areas is that road and market infrastructure is poor, and the costs of marketing is high, making commercial agriculture tough going. The projects that we have seen break even just, but are backstopped by external finance if the going gets tough. This allows sons, but in this case also daughters, to have a stake in the family farm, but without committing to run it. The areas used and the scale of operations invested in are often very small. They provide a small supplement to keep their now ageing parents in groceries and allows for the paying of school fees of some poorer relatives who may be resident at the farm. Most importantly such projects keep a psychological link with ‘home’, and a sense of commitment and belonging, however limited. This is far from the image of the commercial farm, merely a collection of projects, with focused investments, on a farm that otherwise has limited activity – with some mixed farming and some gardens, but little else. Similar in many ways to the Purchase Area farms of the past that were accused of not being the images of modernity that were planned.
There may be other patterns and trajectories that we have not yet picked up, but these four are repeated in varying combinations across the study areas where we have been working in Masvingo Province. Are these potential scenarios for the A2 farms, and for the much touted medium scale farming more broadly across Africa? In many ways, I suspect they offer important glimpses of potential futures. As the diagram below, at least four different scenarios could be envisaged, depending on patterns of financing and farm productivity.
Only one of these is ‘proper’ commercial farming, as envisaged by planners and policymakers. The others respond to changing life cycles and demographic shifts, as well as the inevitable shift to urban and even diaspora life as people become educated, and gain opportunities elsewhere. In many ways these are more realistic, and represent accommodations between farming, life cycles and livelihoods. The Zimbabwe case is of course peculiar as the economic hardships over several decades – from structural adjustment (ESAP) in the 1990s to the economic crisis of the 2000s, returning again today – have meant that urban employment as a focus for accumulation and social reproduction is often not feasible. Many flee the country in search of a better life, but this does not always turn out well. So perhaps unusually the attraction of a farm – a place to live, to call home, to invest in and be part of – is more prominent for Zimbabweans today.
Although the A2 farms have failed to take off in ways that were hoped for, maybe this is because of false expectations and misplaced assumptions about what land is for and what farming entails. Farming has always been part of diversified urban-rural livelihoods, now increasingly internationalised. Of course this applied to so-called ‘white’ farming too, but in different ways. The imagined ideal of the sole owner-operator of an individual farm, always resident and doing nothing but farming was very rare indeed.
My guess is that, if like the SSCFAs, the A2 farms are neglected in policymaking and not made the focus of local and regional economic growth strategies, with secure tenure, finance and basic public good investment (which currently seems likely given the lack of policy imagination in government, the failure of donors to grasp the challenge and so a complete lack of finance), then in 20 years, these scenarios seen today in the former Purchase Areas are quite likely in the A2 areas. If you go to visit the farms in a former Purchase Area today, you could be seeing the future of the A2 farms in a generation’s time.
Indeed, nearly 17 years after land reform, we see many of these patterns already – with small villages of relatives, large under-used areas complemented with small, intensive projects, and informal subdivisions, rentals, and joint ventures/partnerships emerging attempting to get things moving. Perhaps by reversing the policy neglect, and getting the A2 farms moving (and this will require a shake out with a politically-contentious audit process), more vibrant, productive commercial trajectories will be possible, but these too will have to accommodate changing demographics, diverse livelihoods, and shifting aspirations.