Tag Archives: Wageningen

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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Conservation agriculture: the problem of donor fads

Conservation agriculture has become all the rage in Zimbabwe. It sounds like a good thing. Who could object to ‘conservation’, you ask? The particular version of conservation agriculture that has emerged in Zimbabwe involves a no-till approach to farming, involving digging shallow pits or planting basins. Intensive mulching should occur to protect the soil, and without tillage by oxen and tractors soil erosion is reduced. Since the pits concentrate water and nutrients higher yields are gained too. Sounds good?

Well, there are some important qualifications. Of course this takes a huge amount of time and effort. And it’s hard work. The programmes in Zimbabwe are nick-named by farmers, ‘Dig and Die’! Beyond the labour costs, for some this shift from extensive cultivation to small-scale gardening is regressive. Surely ‘real’ farming involves ploughing, clearing the land and creating clean fields, they say. And the mulch from crop residues is vital for livestock as a feed in a mixed farming system, livestock keepers argue. Since the famous agriculturalist E.D. Alvord was the chief instructor for ‘native agriculture’ in the 1930s, a mixed farming model, involving tillage had been the ideal. This was the science of ‘civilised’ agriculture. Why, then, have the NGOs, donors and the extension agencies changed their mind?

The answer lies in the complex politics of funding for agriculture in Zimbabwe, and the enthusiastic advocacy of ‘conservation agriculture’ by the FAO in particular. A no-till system has proved very popular in the large-scale agricultural systems of the Brazilian savanna, where reducing the use of herbicides and intrusive tillage makes much sense. But how does this translate to the Zimbabwean setting? Certainly, assessments show increased yields within the small areas where pits are dug. But how about labour and other costs? And what about total output, contrasted with a more extensive system? These answers are less clear, and evaluations from Zimbabwe tell a variety of stories.

However, much of this debate is not fought out around the technical-economic questions of costs, returns, yields and outputs, but in the arena of donor-led funding to NGOs. With a number of important donors (including DFID) backing conservation agriculture, this is an importance source of funding for NGOs who, due to ‘sanctions’, are the ones through whom aid money is channelled. Such NGOs are in the business of surviving in a difficult environment, carving out their project territories and implementing what the donors will pay for. Few have the technical capacity to assess the efficacy of such interventions, and monitoring and evaluation remains week. For some, conservation agriculture has become part of a prosletysing religion, linked to church organisations who see this as part of God’s work. Former white farmers in need of consulting income have been enlisted too, as part of EU support to the farming unions. And inevitably too government agencies are dragged into these programmes, as it is Agritex who has the personel on the ground. And without funds from elsewhere they must comply, as they see this as a route to carrying on some form of extension support. No questions – at least publicly – are asked (although privately many Agritex officers are bemused if not outraged by this recent obsession by the donors with conservation agriculture).

Farmers, as ever, are caught in the middle. In our study areas, we do not have the frenzy of NGO activity that is seen in the communal lands, as most donors do not allow operations in what are seen still as ‘contested lands’. But some do operate, perhaps not knowing that these are A1 schemes! Farmers are of course grateful for the attention. Having been ignored for so long, they are keen to engage with these new NGOs, in the hope of getting support for what they really need. But, in conversation, they are often deeply sceptical about conservation agriculture (hence the variety of nick-names!). As a way of gardening, pits and focused planting and fertiliser application, has long been part of soil and water management, so in many respects it’s not new. But as a way of creating significant output in their new lands, with very large amounts of hard labour and without oxen cultivation, the approach is seen as plain bonkers.

The pragmatic compromise is to accept the projects, but find ways around them. These are well practised techniques of Zimbabwe’s farmers, when top down measures are inappropriate.  Accept, thank the donor gratefully, and do something different. These are in Jim Scott’s terms, the ‘weapons of the weak’.  I have heard of cases where pit digging occurs near the road and the business centre where the NGOs congregate, but not further away. In other places, there are instances where communities come together to help older members so they can comply with the number of pits required to get the inputs. And of course, as with most input schemes, people will not necessarily apply the inputs in the places where they are supposed to, but elsewhere, arguing that concentrating fertilisers in small places can result in the ‘burning’ crops in such dry areas.

Jens Andersson, Ken Giller and colleagues have been having a proper scientific look at conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe, and remain, like farmers, sceptical. Have a look at http://www.pps.wur.nl/UK/CA/ for a short (4 min) video that introduces the scientific debate surrounding Conservation Agriculture for smallholder farmers in Africa, as well as a wider selection of publications. A recent set of assessment in Zimbabwe published in Field Crops Research concluded: “CA does not seem to overcome constraints on low-external-input systems”. Instead, “Good agronomy, and in particular timely planting and weeding, and adequate fertilisation and crop protection appeared central for obtaining high crop productivity rather than tillage and mulching”. In other words, good farming makes the difference. This is something farmers of course already know.

Going beyond the advocacy rhetoric of conservation agriculture, these are important results, which hopefully will be heard by the NGOs and donors. One of the many negative consequences of the withdrawal of aid support and a switch to an ‘emergency’ regime, has been the lack of rigour in assessing different intervention options. Conservation agriculture, while having important benefits in certain settings and for some people, has become a mantra, and a way of shifting funds via NGOs supposedly to benefit poor people. In the process, farmers and the government technical agencies have often been sidelined. They need to be brought back into the picture, and a far more rigorous debate about farming options developed.


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