Tag Archives: urban agriculture

The changing face of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe

Over the last four weeks, the blog has explored the changing face of urban agriculture across our sites in Chikombedzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa, Masvingo, Chatsworth and Mvurwi. We have explored the growth of urban agriculture and its different forms (backyard, open space and titled) and examined the changing relationships between rural and urban production. A photo story captured some of the dynamics, including the patterns of investment that are on-going. The role of urban agriculture in food security in an economy with few other options, currency chaos and rising inflation was also explored.

A number of themes emerge:

  1. Urban agriculture is not just backyard cultivation, but a much more significant endeavour, with often large areas planted, sometimes with significant intensification through irrigation and mechanisation.
  2. Urban/peri-urban production is essential for food security. This was especially so in the pandemic when the trend to urban cultivation accelerated, but is also important in the context of Zimbabwe’s economic situation where inflation is high and other jobs scarce. Self-provisioning not only for ‘relish’ but for staples and selling surplus is a feature of urban agriculture today.
  3. The relationships between the rural and urban are being reconfigured, as production (of some crops) moves to town. This means adjusting marketing practices for rural producers as they cannot compete with those in town. Rural producers must switch to different crops, new forms of transport and new marketing strategies.
  4. For towns in largely rural areas, many have access to plots in both town and in the rural areas. Investment in land and housing in town has been an important feature of investment from the proceeds from agricultural production, especially for those with larger land areas in the land reform areas. Shuttling between rural and urban production sites is important, with equipment and investments being moved between sites.
  5. Access to land and water for urban agriculture is vital, but is unevenly distributed. Political patronage and brokerage plays an important role in governing land access in urban areas. Municipal by-laws and town planning regulations often formally ban urban agriculture, putting officials in an invidious position, where they have to police the laws, while recognising the importance of urban agriculture in straitened circumstances (including for themselves).
  6. Urban farming is important for men and women, rich and poor. But different people gain access to different types of land thanks often to political connections and can invest in different ways, depending on existing resources and access to capital.

In case you missed them, links to the four blogs are below, with the most recent first.

Urban agriculture: surviving in a collapsing economy

Urban agriculture in Zimbabwe: a photo story

Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe

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

Thanks to the team – Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Felix Murimbarimba, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi – who have contributed the research material for this series from across Zimbabwe.

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Urban agriculture: surviving in a collapsing economy

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at urban agriculture in different parts of Zimbabwe; from a city like Masvingo to small towns and growth points like Chikombedzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa, Chatsworth and Mvurwi. In all cases we see the massive growth of urban agriculture. This takes many forms from intensification of backyard plots to open space farming in insecure, but extensive patches to more regularised small farms in urban settings.

Responding to economic chaos

This growth of urban agriculture is a response to the economic chaos that has enveloped Zimbabwe. Rising inflation, diverging exchange rates across multiple currencies and the collapse of the formal sector, with massive lay-offs has put people living in towns in extremely precarious positions.

People have to find ways to survive and nearly everyone has a small plot to provide food, offsetting the escalating costs of purchasing. Small-scale backyard vegetable growing, perhaps with a few mealies, has always been part of urban life, but today urban agriculture is different.

There is greater investment (many new wells, pumps, solar power) and areas planted have expanded massively, outside backyards to nearly every available space, as the photo story last week showed. Competition for urban land is intense and brokers and officials are making money from deals as people struggle to claim plots.

With both intensification and extensification, urban agriculture has become much more commercialised, with people selling to traders, supermarkets and engaging in contracting. This in turn is having an effect on rural agricultural supply and marketing, the traditional source of agricultural products in towns, and so patterns of food security.

New jobs in town

Urban agriculture is also creating jobs in town, both formal and informal. Informal jobs in the hustle economy are known as kukurokoza or kungwahva ngwahva (the latter a 2021 single from Qounfuzed). From providing labour for production to offering agricultural support services, employment is being created. This is especially important for young people who may not have land and who have no jobs.

Piece work employment for production starts from land clearing and preparation through to planting, weeding and harvesting. People may be employed to help with sales and marketing too. Others are employed to build pig sties or fowl runs and then feed and even market pigs or chickens for example.

Growing urban production has resulted in huge demand for transport, whether push carts or vans to move crops to markets. As areas cultivated expand, tillage services are in demand, and those with tractors offer ploughing across the open spaces in town. Pest control services are also being offered, with individuals buying knapsack sprayers and chemicals and moving around offering to spray crops in people’s backyards.

As people intensify, the need for water expands, and those offering well digging or borehole installation services are in high demand. Sellers and installers of irrigation equipment are also experiencing a brisk trade, although such products and services are only available for those with money and are only suitable for those with secure plots.

State involvement and politics

As urban agriculture expands, public services are getting involved. Urban agriculture presents a dilemma for town planners and council officials, as a comment on a recent blog in this series noted. They know it’s important and many may have plots themselves, but outdated by-laws from the colonial era notionally make much of such farming illegal.

Meanwhile, agricultural extension agents are beginning to work more in urban areas, offering advice and support to urban farmers. Farmer-to-farmer exchanges are happening as new urban farmers share experiences. Pfumvudza plots can be found, and those engaging get free inputs. As elections near, such subsidised programmes become more important and urban constituencies become significant for the incumbent party who have lost much support to the opposition over the years.

Economic linkages

As with all agriculture, forward and backward linkages associated with intensifying economic activity become important in generating employment opportunities. Urban agriculture not surprisingly shows many similar characteristics to what we seen in rural areas, where agricultural growth since land reform has had spin-off linkage effects in the wider local economy, including small towns situated in rural areas.

With the growth of agriculture in towns themselves, these linkages are being transformed, often to the detriment of rural production and marketing. Some are shifting operations from rural areas to urban areas, moving irrigation equipment, vehicles, grinding mills and so on to towns. With these changes come new patterns of (mostly informal) employment, and new opportunities especially for young people. As demand for urban land spirals not only for building but also farming, those who control land in and around towns become more and more powerful.

As we have discussed in this short blog series, urban agriculture is the centre of both a new politics and a new economy linked to land and agriculture, as well as a new dynamic of food security, with major implications for how people are able to navigate and survive in a collapsing economy.

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

Thanks to the team Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Felix Murimbarimba, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi working across Zimbabwe.

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Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

Last week’s blog discussed the massive growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe. How is this affecting the wider food system? What are the impacts on traditional sources of production in the rural areas? And what was the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in precipitating these changes?

With transport costs rising and inflation hitting hard again, the incentive to grow locally and self-provision grows. For farmers in rural areas, this has always been possible, which is why they have weathered the compounding storms of economic collapse and the pandemic relatively well. As we have reported a number of times on this blog, the supply of food to towns from the resettlement areas where surpluses are produced fundamentally shifted the food supply system across the country since land reform.

The importance of resettlement areas in food flows

Over the last 20 years, those living in town have become increasingly reliant on food from those producing in the land reform areas. I was talking to a colleague in Zvishavane recently and, as in previous years, the resettlement areas to the north of the town along the Gweru road are supplying maize and other produce to town dwellers, both through informal exchanges between relatives and the market. Where rural food supplies are close and transport is possible – in this case along a major road where buses and other vehicles move frequently – the flow of food to urban areas remains key.

This avoids the costs of the centralised food system of the past where maize and other staples were sold to the Grain Marketing Board and then on to millers and those in town bought processed flour for consumption. This route is now expensive and inefficient. Today there are many more flows of food within the system, most of which are unrecognised and unrecorded – which, as discussed here before, is why the national food security data are so problematic.

However, the high and secure production from the De Beers resettlement farms near Zvishavane does not mean that town residents are not investing in agriculture. The same colleague told me that many are moving mobile grinding mills from the rural areas to town, where crops are being grown in ever larger amounts. This is not just small-scale vegetable gardening to provide ‘relish’, but significant amounts of grain for basic food provisioning. This is an important change, and one that has accelerated during the pandemic.

Pandemic transformations

Through the pandemic, as we have documented many times in our two-year blog series on COVID-19 experiences in rural areas, lockdowns prevented the transportation of agricultural goods to urban areas. Roadblocks, complex permit arrangements and incessant requirements for bribes made normal agricultural market expensive and full of hassle.

Over time, as we have documented, some found ways round these restrictions by moving and selling at night or making deals with the authorities, but it was not easy. This meant that the cost of rural produce increased relative to that produced in town. In the past, because of the limitations of land, the costs of water and labour and so on, this was not the case. Through the pandemic, the comparative advantages of crop production – including of cereals, oil seeds, livestock, as well as the usual vegetables – increased in urban areas. For example, today urban producers can supply a bundle of rape to the market for a dollar, while a bucket of maize from town is US$5-6, while in the rural areas it’s US$7-8. The same goes for broiler chickens, with a rural one costing US$5 compared to one in the rural areas being US$7. This reverses the price differentials of a just few years ago, and this is having major consequences.

We asked about changes through the pandemic in all our field sites, and a rough-and-ready estimate was derived from a number of informants. This is not hard science but reflects the reality that we have all seen. The results are shown below, which show the approximate percentage of residents in different towns in our study areas who are farming in open spaces (meaning beyond just backyard vegetable gardening) in two periods.

SitePrior to COVID (2016-2019) (%)During COVID (2020 to date) (%)
Mvurwi2540
Masvingo3570
Triangle/Hippo Valley4555
Maphisa2050
Chatsworth3055
Chikombedzi2545

Since the onset of COVID-19, many lost their jobs and while some returned to rural areas, others had to make ends meet in town. The lack of transport possibilities during COVID meant that town residents also had assure supply, once offered by exchanges with rural relatives and others. Shops became expensive as the economy declined further and inflation crept up. This was made worse by the unstable local currency (RTGS, Zimbabwe dollars) and many preferred to barter and exchange or produce their own food.

With schools closed and sports, church and other activities cancelled there was a greater supply of labour for agriculture in town. Even urban-based young people shifted attitudes towards farming, seeing it as an option to make a bit of money and help out their families. The array of crops has expanded too. Farming involves producing staple crops, vegetables, but also responding to the demand for COVID-19 treatments (garlic, ginger, chilli, lemons) as well as ornamental trees for the development of new suburbs being invested in.

The result has been a sharp increase in demand for land in urban areas, particularly those where the rural hinterland is further away, as reflected in the higher percentage engaging in farming in the city of Masvingo compared to other small towns, where residents have closer connections to nearby rural areas, with many having access to their own plot.  

Consequences for rural production: permanent or temporary?

This shift towards urban farming was an important adaptive response to the combined challenges of economic meltdown and the pandemic. It is having profound effects on the wider food system and putting pressure on rural producers who now must compete with lower cost urban farming where market access is assured, with urban farmers able to capture markets in timely fashion given their proximity. Rural farmers, particularly those who managed to capture lucrative contracts with supermarkets in town, are complaining bitterly.

With the breaks in supply during the pandemic, contracts were lost and tomatoes, vegetables and other crops sold regularly to urban wholesalers and retailers rotted. Rural producers are having to think of their own solutions, including the drying and processing of vegetables for later sale, when urban production is lower. However, others are leaving land fallow and reducing agricultural output as it’s impossible to sell surpluses, returning to a more subsistence pattern of self-provisioning.

Will this be a permanent change, or is this only a temporary shift responding to particular circumstances? It’s difficult to tell. The prospects for economic renewal in Zimbabwe look bleak, even if the pandemic restrictions have gone for now. The connections between rural and urban in changing patterns of food production – and associated issues of water and land use – will be themes to watch in the coming years. And this nexus definitely must become a key focus of future efforts to assess food insecurity and address vulnerability across the country.

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

Thanks to Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi for their contributions and to Felix Murimbarimba for both researching and coordinating.

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The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe

The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe has been phenomenal. Every space seems to be cultivated, with a huge array of crops. Today you see tractors, irrigation pumps, trucks carrying produce to markets, with significant investments in commercialised agriculture happening alongside traditional backyard farming and opportunistic cropping in open spaces around towns and cities. What explains this growth, and how is it affecting the wider food system?

Over the last couple of months the Zimbabwe research team has set out to explore these questions in diverse urban settings – from Masvingo town to Chatsworth, Chiredzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa and Mvurwi. As this short blog series will explain the patterns are different, but the trend is the same. Agriculture in towns is growing and becoming an increasingly important source of food for consumers. This in turn is putting a squeeze on rural producers in our study sites who must compete with higher transport costs and lack of access to markets.

Urban and especially peri-urban agriculture of course has a long pedigree in Zimbabwe. In the colonial era, Africans in town were allowed to grow food crops in their backyards. However, the townships and high-density suburbs were only expected to be temporary residences for Africans who were expected to return home to their ‘reserves’. In the colonial era urban food production was heavily controlled and restricted to compounds where vegetables could be grown. Attempts to expand to other areas was illegal, and banned crops were slashed and destroyed by municipal authorities. This restrictive approach continued after Independence with urban agriculture being seen in terms of the supply of ‘relish’ rather than a key source of food production and so urban food and nutrition security.

Today urban residents are much more permanent; although in recent decades many are unemployed or reliant on temporary piece work as economic conditions in the country have deteriorated. While uncontrolled urban agriculture remains illegal according to planning laws, over the last decades – out of necessity – there has been much more accommodation of the practice. With the retrenchments of the structural adjustment era from 1991, the level of urban food insecurity grew making urban agriculture essential for survival. The need for urban agriculture has grown over the last 30 years, with economic chaos bringing real hardships to urban residents across Zimbabwe. COVID-19 accelerated this as movement restrictions and the closing of businesses made stable employment even less likely. Some decided to return to the rural areas seeking out land for farming. As some other African countries, the growth of urban areas has been slow in Zimbabwe and connections to rural areas is essential. Some suggest that urban populations have declined as migration switches from rural to urban to the other way round.

COVID-19 arrived in the midst of an on-going economic crisis in Zimbabwe and many sought refuge in the rural areas. However those in town needed access to food production especially when they couldn’t travel to the rural areas during lockdowns.

Economic conditions have made matters worse. The failure of the local currency has meant that parallel currency systems exist and inflation is rising. The costs of household food provisioning rises daily and with the challenges of finding gainful employment, this means that growing food for urban families is essential.

With a poor harvest this year, urban food insecurity is graded as ‘stressed’, with a number of donor programmes focusing on vouchers and cash transfers to support people. But cash these days can lose value quickly; much better to have some food directly on the table from your own urban plot or garden.

Three types of urban agriculture

Our studies across our sites have shown that urban agriculture takes on a variety of forms but is virtually universal, with its contribution today being highly significant, perhaps far more so than in other urban settings in the southern African region due to the particularly harsh economic conditions in Zimbabwe. Three main types of agriculture are seen:

Backyard farming – This is the most common form of urban agriculture, and nearly every compound has a few beds for vegetables of different sorts, but also maize, sweet potatoes and other staples. Those renting rooms may also have a garden bed as part of their rental package. While space is extremely limited – plots in the high-density suburbs are regulated and as the name suggests there’s not much room. The result is that every square inch is exploited. And not only with crops: broilers, rabbits, turkeys and more are common in backyards. Some have invested in boreholes to supplement municipal water supplies, while others have intensified with various forms of irrigation.

Open space farming – While notionally still illegal, such farming has expanded massively in recent years. In areas designated for future building, in now disused industrial areas, along roadsides, by streams and rivers, every available area it seems is cultivated. Allocations of land in such areas are not formally controlled, and indeed such farmers can be evicted at any time. Environmental regulations (such as around stream bank cultivation) can be enforced, and municipal police can come to destroy crops. However, in recent years there has been a decline in regulatory capacity and enforcement, and sometimes bribes are paid to allow farming to continue. In some sites, land barons who control housing developments may be involved. Such urban land is highly contested, and land access is extremely politicised, with land being handed out for housing schemes as part of political patronage, particularly in the larger towns and cities.

Negotiating with authorities of different sorts, whether municipal, environmental or political chefs, barons and brokers, makes such open space farming highly insecure. Nevertheless, the demand for land and food in urban areas is so high that people will try their luck. A process of what people describe as ‘self-allocation’ occurs and people carve out an unused portion at the beginning of a season. Disputes over boundaries and claims are common, and negotiation with farming neighbours is always on-going. Many people have multiple, scattered plots, fitted in amongst other farmers where spaces open up. These plots may be 0.1 ha or less, but together can add up to a decent holding where production can be significant. Those with money and political clout may be able to command larger areas in one location, with cultivation expanding to allow mechanisation, with tractors and other equipment brought in. These larger farmers may have formal deals with supermarkets and other contractors, while others with smaller plots sell in local markets when they have surplus. As others have noted, unequal access to land for urban agriculture is generating new forms of injustice.

Formal plots – In some towns, including Masvingo, titled plots were offered for purchase by town authorities during the colonial era. These small plots, usually around 6 ha, are on the town periphery and were occupied by both whites and blacks. Today they are much sought after and, given their proximity to markets, provide real opportunities for intensified commercial agriculture. While some have merged into the suburbs that continue to expand through diaspora and other investments, others have invested in irrigation equipment, stall feeding systems for animals and increasingly sophisticated systems of intensive crop and animal production. Some engage in contract farming for particular crops (like chillies for example), others have deals to supply supermarkets in town. As the economy becomes more and more localised – again a trend accelerated by COVID-19 – such producers have an advantage compared to their rural neighbours.   

Next week, we will explore how this growth in urban agriculture is having an effect on the wider food production system, and especially how the pandemic has restructured food systems both in towns and in the wider rural areas. The final blog in the series will offer some case studies of urban agriculture from different towns in our study areas and across the types outlined above.

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

Thanks to Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi for their contributions and to Felix Murimbarimba for both researching and coordinating.

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