Tag Archives: Rural and Urban Planning

Small towns and economic development: lessons from Zimbabwe

At Independence in 1980, the new government set about investing in new infrastructure aimed at redressing the imbalances of the colonial past, as described by K.H. Wekwete. This included a focus on small urban centres. The 1982 Transitional Development Plan stated:

“Existing discrepancies in the ordering of urban settlements will be corrected by balanced investment in growth and rural service centres. The intention is to bring the rural population into close contact with services and markets, thus forging linkages with the national economy and stimulating the development of local markets with regional specialisations and a multitude of informal employment opportunities”

The Department of Physical Planning proposed a seven tier hierarchy of urban areas – consolidated villages, business centres, rural service centres, district service centres, growth points, towns and cities. This built on attempts from the 1970s to create ‘African’ towns in ‘African areas, and the emergence of the first set of ‘growth points’ supported by TILCOR, the Tribal Trust Land Development Corporation. This was aimed at maintaining the dual economy, and racial separation, while encouraging economic growth in ‘African’ areas.

Urban and regional planning theory had long argued for a distributed approach to infrastructure development, in order to generate balanced growth and effective service delivery. New urban areas should be aimed at facilitating economic activity through ‘linkage’ and ‘multiplier’ effects, while providing sites for markets and services. This might involve significant infrastructure investment to encourage industrial activity (as in ‘growth poles’) or a more incremental approach through planning support for the growth of ‘nodes’ of economic activity – as in the arguments of ‘central place theory’.

However in the context of a highly uneven economy, with spatially concentrated populations – the legacy of colonial land allocation and racialized settlement policy – simply investing in infrastructure and services was not enough. In the colonial era towns grew where there was economic activity. There were the mining towns, such as Zvishavane, Mashava, Hwangwe, Shurugwi, Kadoma and Kwekwe; there were the estate towns, such as Chiredzi and Triangle; and there were the white farming towns, such as Chinoyi, Bindura or West Nicholson. These had their own growth dynamic; but expecting similar patterns to emerge simply through planning edict and limited investment in infrastructure was bound to fail.

The TILCOR growth points that included Sanyati, Maphisa, Gutu, Mrewa, Nkayi, Wedza and others were incorporated into the post-Independence investment strategy. District centres and growth points were placed under the control of local government, with all districts across the country having investment plans that included the supply of water, electricity, feeder roads, sewage systems, and the establishment of government offices. But these centres suffered many problems. They were not necessarily integrated into local economies, and the dualistic pattern of economic development continued. Some prospered, but many remained more in planners’ imaginations than in reality. Those that grew significantly included Gokwe, which prospered due to the cotton boom. Meanwhile, Gutu-Mupandawana took advantage of its location at a distance from other larger towns and in a communal area that had agricultural potential. Mrewa and Mutoko similarly grew through the links to farming and particularly as staging posts for small-scale horticultural marketing to Harare from the communal areas. Meanwhile places like Chivi, where I spent a lot of time in the 1990s, and many others like it languished.

The lesson of course was clear. You need things happening in the economy around an urban centre, and this cannot be conjured up by grand plans and infrastructural investment. For it is the wider structural constraints that hold economies back. In Zimbabwe of course this was substantially to do with access to productive land. Gokwe had plenty of land nearby, and new migrants profited from cotton and Gokwe boomed, but at the same time, peasant farmers in Chivi communal area were barely surviving on small plots and without access to resettlement and the economy remained depressed; more so from the early 1990s with the squeeze on the economy due to structural adjustment policies, and the decline in off-farm opportunities and remittance flows.

At Independence there was much policy discussion about reshaping the economy, and investing in ways that created a ‘rebalancing’ from the skewed racially-defined economy that Zimbabwe inherited. Despite the high rhetoric and the impressive plans little of course happened, and the ambitions of new small town growth were largely dashed. Following land reform post-2000 however the economy has been substantially restructured, with new areas of economic activity – combined of course with declines elsewhere. This requires new thinking, and a new set of ambitions. Not based on the false promises of planning, but linking new investments to existing dynamics of economic activity. Lessons today should not draw on the (largely) failed growth point approaches of the 80s and 90s, but focus on how to capitalise on the new economic activity prompted by land reform through an integrated regional economic development approach.

For sure, growth and economic activity is tentative, and much of it is informal but it is certainly there – and in places like Mvurwi or Chatsworth covered in previous blogs in this series, and often not in those places that the old economy worked for. Comments on the blog series on various platforms over the last few weeks have offered a number of critiques. People have said, look at my town, it’s declined and it’s not like you describe. Well that may be the case, as the restructuring of the economy has resulted in the collapse of certain industries, and the spatial redistribution of economic activity. Those reliant on large-scale commercial agriculture have unquestionably suffered, but in areas where land redistribution has occurred there has been a growth in other activities, as the blogs have shown. Equally, some large mines have closed in some places, while others (often smaller, more distributed) have opened elsewhere. This all means economic activity has a new spatial pattern, one that investment needs to be linked to if the multiplier effects are to be realised. While the economy is certainly depressed currently, and issues of cash liquidity and lack of investment are restricting growth seriously, it is not without potential, but the future spatial pattern of economic development will certainly not be the same as the past.

Others have argued that the new growth is not ‘real growth’ because it is informal. This is a common refrain, and one that needs more than this blog to tackle. But we must not simply dismiss the informal economy because it’s informal. It is massively important in Zimbabwe today and the basis of significant employment and generation of substantial numbers of livelihoods. It may not result in huge tax revenue streams, which is a problem, and it may be fragile, poorly remunerated and operating with poor working conditions, which is a problem too, but it is unquestionably the basis for significant accumulation and wide economic activity, linked to wider economic growth, and must not be ignored. Informal economies across Africa are huge, but poorly understood. This is perhaps especially the case in Zimbabwe, where research and statistical data and so much policy commentary seems to ignore the new dominant pattern, and the places – including the growing small towns and the new (mostly A1) resettlement areas – where things are really happening.

As the economy restructures – painfully, slowly and with all sorts of hardships resulting – there is an urgent need to rethink how we look at issues of economic development – and especially where. Small towns in new farming areas, I have argued in this blog series, are a good place to start.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

For further information on the history of small town planning and policy in Zimbabwe, see Wekwete, K. 1991. Growth Centre policy in Zimbabwe: with special reference to district service centres, in: Mutizwa-Mangiza, N. D., and A. H. J. Helmsing. Rural development and planning in Zimbabwe. Avebury.



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Small towns in Zimbabwe are booming thanks to land reform

Small towns near resettlement areas are booming. New business opportunities generated by a change in rural production systems has transformed opportunities. In the past these were very sleepy service centres for the surrounding large-scale commercial farms. Somewhere where farm workers would come on days off to drink, or where people living on the farms would buy basic provisions.

But with wages low and food and other rations sometimes offered by farm owners, business was limited. Most such towns had a few general supplier and a bar at most. There were also usually a few farm suppliers, providing inputs such as seed and fertiliser; in some cases a formal marketing outlet run by a company or parastatal; and a few repair shops for farm vehicles. Transport connections were limited, as farm workers were largely resident on farms, and the owners had their own vehicles. In sum, they were rather depressing places.

But today they have changed. There are many more shops, bars, butcheries, and service providers of various sorts from tailors to hairdressers. Outlets from major chains are opening operations, and there is a general buzz of activity, especially at harvest season when people are selling produce. Transport connections have multiplied too, with buses and Kombis departing regularly to larger urban centres, as well as traversing the rural areas.

There have been many attempts over the years to encourage such growth. Rural and urban planners often designated such places as ‘growth points’ in the 1980s. But this was more an aspiration than a reality, and many failed to grow at all, surrounded as they were by rural areas that were the inheritance of the colonial ‘reserves’. The reorganisation of district administrations created Rural District Councils too, and these were supposed to link the large-scale farming areas, with the communal areas, and encourage economic activity, particularly in small towns. Again this failed as the two economies never integrated, with communal areas being largely domains of poverty, and the large-scale farming areas exporting profits in vertical value chains without local spin-off benefits.

So it was only with land reform that a major reconfiguration of the rural economy occurred. With new farmers on new land in need of output and input markets, as well as cash to spend on services and other consumption goods. The linkage and multiplier effects have been tangible. This did not emerge from municipal town planning, but from a reconfiguration of the whole rural economy. With value chains now more locally rooted, and linked to local businesses there was more money flowing in the economy, and profits to be made.

This has attracted external investors. From large supermarkets to small-scale entrepreneurs, people have been setting up businesses in such towns, as well as in the more conventional and larger towns nearby. Many beneficiaries of land reform have profited too. They have started stores, repair shops, transport businesses, and more. They have also started investing in real estate. The new landlords in these towns are the farmers with profits from farming to invest, and this has seen a growth in building on plots made available as part of long planned town growth by the municipal authorities.

This process was in many ways not expected, and took a time to emerge. When we started our work after the land reform in 2000, the economy was not in a good shape, and it only got worse in the following years. As hyperinflation struck, any business involve the exchange of cash was out, and there was simply no business finance available. So it was only after 2009, when the economy was stabilised, and the US dollar became the currency of choice, that business started. It took a while, but today, things are moving.

And this despite the wider economic woes of the country as a whole. Yes, there is still limited bank finance, and loans for anything are hard to come by. Yes, business is small-scale, mostly based on a limited array of goods and services. And yes some investment is perhaps only speculative, and not that productive, like building houses (although most are rented, so there is a demand). But all of this is happening without a sense of a plan. This is the market economy at work, generating a surprising economic momentum that over 46 years since Independence has failed to happen through plans and formal investment. But in order to make the most of it, more has to happen: plans are useful, when things are happening, and investment in roads, sanitation, electricity, health care, education and so is vital. Just as is financing for everything from the smallest market stall to a major business operation. But municipal authorities sitting on a tax base for the first time ever must not be greedy, and take advantage. Building sustained growth requires care, and corrupt political manoeuvres or over-zealous regulation can stifle everything. But the small towns of Zimbabwe, as the small towns of Africa more generally, are definitely places to watch.

In the coming weeks, I will explore these dynamics, and pose some questions for planning and policy. As the countryside has reconfigured following land reform, so have the towns that link to the new areas of rural production. But there has been vanishingly little thinking post land reform on the new dynamics of rural-urban economies, and the connections being forged. This short blog series is a first attempt to provoke some thinking in this area, based on our research.

In the 1980s there was much work, largely through the Department of Rural and Urban Planning at the University of Zimbabwe, which highlighted the importance of small towns and urban development, including some important Occasional Papers and an influential book. Researchers then asked what the changes of policy priorities that Independence brought would imply for urban development in rural areas. New thinking is urgently needed today that asks what land reform implies around the same issues.

In the forthcoming blogs I will profile two small towns in the heart of new resettlement areas – Chatsworth and Mvurwi – from our study areas in Masvingo and Mazowe areas. They are very different in origins and character, but illustrative of the dynamics. The final blog will return to some of the bigger policy issues, and ask what needs to be done.T

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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