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How does agricultural commercialisation affect livelihoods in Zimbabwe?

The question of how agricultural commercialisation affects livelihoods has been central to the recently completed APRA programme (Agricultural Policy Research in Africa), which, along with Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, had work going on in Zimbabwe. A core part of the Zimbabwe work was major repeat panel surveys of smallholder A1 resettlement farms in Mazowe district. The surveys were undertaken in 2018 and 2020, reflecting on the previous season’s performance, with a repeated matched sample of 533. A cluster sample randomly chose 11 A1 (smallholder) resettlement schemes in Mvurwi and 7 in Concession and then all households in those areas were included. The panel design allowed for confounding factors to be controlled for and analysis of effects of different variables could be discerned, even though the seasons were radically different.

The team, led by Chrispen Sukume and involving Godfrey Mahofa, Vine Mutyasira and others – supported by a large team of enumerators and others drawn especially from Agritex – explored some key questions at the top of policymakers’ minds. Does commercialisation (i.e., regular sales) of tobacco, soya and maize result in improved incomes and accumulation of assets, and so reductions in poverty? How does the focus on cash crops influence seasonal hunger and food insecurity? Do women benefit from this process of commercialisation?

A1 farmers generating income and investing in assets

As discussed many times on this blog, these A1 areas are at the forefront of a new agricultural revolution, particularly in the high potential zones of the country. They are a significant supplier of marketed crops contributing 36 per cent of all soybeans sold on formal markets, 26 per cent of all maize registered a6s sales and they constitute 41 per cent of registered producers of flue-cured tobacco in the country, with the remainder made up by A2 medium-scale farms and remaining large-scale farms. Even though this is only the formally recorded sales (there are many, many more, including informal exchanges), this is a major contribution to the core of Zimbabwe’s formal economy. But how do farmers themselves fare? This was the question for the research, now reported in a series of APRA Working Papers.

In terms of income and accumulation (or rather the value of asset ownership, as the studies do not look at trajectories over time), the results shared in an APRA paper show that those households engaging in tobacco, soya and maize sales all gain more income and own more assets. Income is measured as volume of sales x the cash gained as reported by farmers and assets are those reported by farmers valued according to replacement costs. Tobacco producers fare best, followed by soya and maize producers. However, it’s those who combine tobacco and soya that have the best incomes, and it is the tobacco producers in particular who see the most impressive asset ownership levels. Econometric analysis suggests that selling both tobacco and soya will result in an increase of income by 194%, “all else being equal”. Positive outcomes in terms of farm income are also correlated with spending on inputs, livestock ownership, area of land planted and tractor usage.

Farming pays: returns to land and labour

The results are of course not surprising – cash crops provide cash and cash can be invested in assets – and the pattern seen from the surveys confirm what we and others have found before. Further questions are raised, however. Of course, getting cash from sales is one thing, but what about the varied expenses of production? This is tackled in another APRA paper that looks across countries at ‘gross margins’ (incomes minus expenditures) and so calculates returns to land and labour for different crops in different settings. For Zimbabwe, the results show (again) that farming tobacco results in good returns, especially to land (US$1053/ha), but also to labour even though labour costs are high (US$6.4/day). The returns to land for maize are less spectacular (US$781/ha) but returns to labour are higher (US$19.4/day), as maize returns are boosted because of the artificially high value of maize in Zimbabwe (compared to international border prices) and it is a less labour-intensive crop.

Returns are of course highly sensitive to changing prices, with major swings in returns resulting as prices increases or decrease. Intensification – increasing costs on inputs – however may not always be a good idea, as returns may not be sufficient, and this appears to be especially the case for the already high-cost production of tobacco in Zimbabwe, facilitated by contract arrangements with companies. Contract arrangements and facilitation and intermediation of value chains by brokers of different sorts, however, can bring bigger returns for commercial crops such as maize. As the paper concludes, overall, it pays to be a small-scale farmer these days, even with relatively low levels of intensification, as these returns represent reasonable overall incomes for a family, especially if higher than world prices are paid for maize.

Does cash cropping increase seasonal hunger?

How does commercialisation affect seasonal hunger? One of the arguments against cash cropping is that such crops divert effort away from food, leaving people vulnerable. But is this the case? Can people use the cash they earn to buy food and so offset any food deficits? The results from the surveys in another APRA paper show that overall cash cropping reduces seasonal hunger and that this is especially the case for tobacco and food crops (but not soya), and the effect is greatest for asset poor households. ‘Hunger’ during six months of the lean season (November to May) was assessed in relation to people’s recall of whether they had enough to eat during the day for each month and various commercialisation indices were also used (by crop and overall), representing the ratio between sales value and total value. Here, the timing of payments from the tobacco crop is crucial as this happens at the time when food deficits are at the peak.

Other variables that had a positive correlation with reduced seasonal hunger were being a male head of household, having larger cropped area and having access to remittances and off-farm work. Of course, there is variation across households, but the overall conclusion drawn is that supporting cash cropping is not a route to food insecurity. This supports earlier findings in cotton-growing areas, such as Gokwe where in the boom cotton years, people did well.

Who benefits from agricultural commercialisation?

Another important question is who benefits? This basic distributional question requires delving into cross-household comparisons. The averages and median figures presented in these papers do not tell us much about distribution, and especially the implications for particular groups of people, such as women or younger farmers. Here there are wider questions raised about equity in commercialisation trajectories.

Another APRA paper looks at how commercialisation of different crops was related to ‘women’s empowerment’. This was imputed through an aggregate indicator from assessments of whether women primarily managed agricultural plots, decided on how outputs are used, decided on sales and involved in decisions around how crop sales revenue was used. Those households with high levels of commercialisation of tobacco and soya in particular tended not to show indicators of women’s empowerment. As many have pointed out before, these crops are male-dominated, as value chains are highly gendered in Zimbabwean agriculture as an earlier APRA paper discussed.

Longer-term trajectories

A further question not really tackled by these papers is how the surpluses from high returns from commercial agriculture (for some) are spent over time. This is important as the way assets are accumulated affects the wider economy and the broader trajectory of development in an area. Here more longitudinal studies beyond two snapshot panel surveys, as the processes of change are slow and intermittent, and affected by wider political-economic dynamics.

In our historical studies, which overlap with these survey sites in Mvurwi, we see periods of accumulation – associated with good rainfall years and more stable economic and political conditions, such as during the Government of National Unity – and periods of stagnation (such as now), with different impacts on the local economy, household accumulation and also the environment.

Also, over the 20 years since resettlement, the forms of accumulation have shifted. At settlement there was initial investment in land clearing and preparation and the building of homes; this shifted after establishment to investment in transport, mechanisation and intensification of farming, including well-digging irrigation; and more recently there has been a move by some to invest away from the farms in businesses and houses for rental in town. This pattern is important because different people gain from such shifts at different times, with the linkage effects of land reform increasing over time.   

While none of these papers offer anything hugely surprising – (male) farmers in Mazowe all well know that tobacco is profitable but has high inputs costs yet can provide good income and potential for investment – the confirmation of the patterns across sites with in-depth, rigorous quantitative analysis, complemented by econometric models, helps reinforce our understanding, suggesting some important policy directions for the future.

So, do delve into the papers, there’s lots of rich information contained in them all – and some complicated econometric equations too!

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

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Ethnic minorities in rural Zimbabwe: identities and livelihoods

Another new book from the ever-impressive Unit of Zimbabwe Studies at Rhodes University, led by Kirk Helliker, is now out. It is called Livelihoods of Ethnic Minorities in Rural Zimbabwe and is edited by Kirk Helliker, Patience Chadambuka and Joshua Matanzima with 11 excellent chapters based on in-depth research along with the introduction. It’s (again) horribly expensive, but hopefully you can lay your hands on it via a library.

Despite the dominance of the Shona and Ndebele in popular and political constructions of Zimbabwe, there are many ethnicities within Zimbabwe’s borders. Some have come relatively recently; others have been there for centuries. The ethnicities covered in the book include Chewa, Tonga, Tshwa San, Shangaan, Basotho, Ndau and Hlengwe.

Ethnicity is described in the introduction terms of features such as “common descent, history or national origin; familial ties or kinship relationships; similar cultural and/or spiritual arrangements; and shared linguistic attributes”. And all intersecting with race, class, gender and other dimensions of difference. As the editors argue, an ethnic minority is not one that may be demographically small in size, although this is often the case, instead “the key question entails the relationship between ethnicity and power in a particular nation-state or even within a sub-region of a nation-state…. As a general trend, then, ethnicities excluded from power or incorporated into power in a subordinate manner are minority ethnicities.”

This is certainly the case with all those listed above in relation to the Shona or Ndebele. However, of course, as the book explains the there are multiple sub-categories within the Shona for example, notably, the Manyika, Zezuru, Ndau, Karanga and Korekore. And ‘the Shona’ just as with ‘the Ndebele’ was a construct, reinforced by colonial administration, Christian missionaries and subsequently a nationalist state.

The construction of ethnicity

As the book’s introduction explains, colonial power was exerted through a a divide-and-rule strategy: “This involved the emergence of political programmes, administrative structures and territorial spaces focusing on ethnicity. Hence, colonially constructed ethnic identities were mapped onto fixed territories (initially called the Reserves) and this took place alongside the reinventing of tribal or ethnic polities regulated by way of the dictates of British-inspired indirect rule, overseen by salaried and appointed chiefs.” Christian missionaries reinforced this through the translation of the bible into different sub-dialects of ‘Shona’.

The creation of Shona power has been a feature of nation-building since colonial times. Sometimes refracted through particular identities – most notably Zezuru in the Mugabe era and now perhaps Karanga under Mnangagwa – the assertion of a particular authoritarian ethno-nationalism has sometimes been brutal, most notably the Gukurahundi massacres of (mostly) Ndebele in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

As discussed in the introduction to the book, during the struggle for Independence, the nationalist movement became closely aligned to the revival of ethnic-cultural nationalisms, carefully mixing a nationalist rhetoric with enlisting people into the struggle by drawing on (often reinvented) pre-colonial histories and appeals to cultural and linguistic identities, a theme explored by Ndlovu-Gatsheni in his 2009 book “Do ‘Zimbabweans’ exist?” During the liberation war, as Schmidt explains for the Honde valley in her 2013 book “Colonialism and violence in Zimbabwe’, grievances against the colonial state were expressed in ‘vernacular mode’, not in terms of standard nationalist discourse.

Fluid and transitory ethnic identities

Ethnicities and identities are of course not fixed. Fluidity, transition, reinvention and reinterpretation characterise practices. As the editors explain there is always the “possibility of multiple forms of belonging existing simultaneously.” Indeed, this is almost always the case, as the cases explored in the empirical chapters of the book nicely show. This is not surprising as ethnicity must be negotiated in relation to livelihoods and particular political contexts. This is especially so where ‘minorities’ live, often in more marginal places away from centres of power and frequently on borders, where others with similar ethnic origin may live in a neighbouring state.

For example, in Zimbabwe, the Tonga have close links with Zambia and the Manyika and Ndau with Mozambique. Numerous studies of these borderlands show how ethnicity and livelihood practices are intertwined, as for example in Hughes’ study of Vhimba on the border with Mozambique. Here, a ‘flexible citizenship’ exists because people continuously move across the border. The mixing of different ethnicities has occurred continuously across Zimbabwe, in particular because of labour migration. The movement of many workers to farms and mines during the Federation era resulted in some areas being settled by those whose origins are from Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia. Displacement from the war in Mozambique had similar effects.

In the book, Chadambuka looks at Chewa people, originally from Malawi, who lived and worked on white commercial farms in Zimbabwe since the 1950s. During the land reform many former farmworkers were displaced with some moving to communal areas or others being incorporated into the post-land reform settings. Many had lost all connection with their parents’ or even grandparents’ homes, but did not have true ‘Zimbabwean’ identities. The case study of Bushu communal areas in Shamva District, looks at how ex-farmworkers had to reinvent themselves in these new spaces in struggles over land and resources.

Those who remained on farms or moved to urban areas and remained in larger groups were able to draw on their original cultural identities to support their ‘community’, as Daimon explains for those with Malawian ancestry and who practise their Nyau/GuleWamkulu cultural dances as a form of self-identification and support in harsh times. In the same way, as Mujere explains, the Basotho migrants who were allocated freehold in ‘African Purchase Areas’ had to seek new ways of belonging, becoming integrated in a relatively elite ‘master farmer’ class of Shona farmer in Masvingo, and later becoming involved in nationalist movements with their new compatriots.

Many rural areas across Zimbabwe have had long histories of migration, with Gokwe being a case in point. Here ethnicity becomes crucial as newcomers clash with indigenes over land, religion and cultural practices, while the state tries to impose strict ordering through resettlement and land improvement schemes. In a number of papers, Nyambara, for example, explores how the Shangwe and Madheruka fought over differences in farming and religious practices, with the former following traditional religion and the latter adopting Christianity.

Ethnic conflicts and development

Ethnicised conflicts arise during the implementation of rural development in areas where there are mixes of people. A number of chapters highlight this for wildlife related development – which occurs on the margins of the country where such ethnic diversity is pronounced. The CAMPFIRE programme, for example, has seen many such disputes, for example between the Tshwa San and Kalanga/Ndebele in Bulilimangwe and Binga, as described by a while back by Madzudzo and Dzingirai. In the book, Jani looks at another part of the country – Chapoto Ward in the north of Zimbabwe- where the Doma and Chikunda compete for resources in the context of wildlife use. The Doma are deemed to be subservient because of their ethnic position and lose out. This affects their livelihood opportunities in relation to rural development programmes.

As the editors note, “Just as ethnicity may condition livelihood strategies, changes in livelihood options likely affect ethnic identity”, resulting in shifts and compromises in how people present themselves, at least publicly. As McGregor has shown, in Binga, Tonga people voted en masse for the opposition, as the ZANU-PF rhetoric about land reform did not resonate, as they wanted land back that had been taken for conservation and the flooding of the Kariba dam not white commercial farming, as Matanzima and Marowa explore in the book.

Land reform and ethnic contests

Fast-track land reform was explicitly not aimed restitution but was seen by the state as a national project of redistribution for all Zimbabweans. However, this did not prevent ethnic conflicts arising in parts of the country where resentments arose from the imposition of Shona or Ndebele settlers in ‘their’ land.

As Wolmer explains in his 2007 book, Shangaan people were motivated by ancestral-ethnic claims, and have argued strongly for restitution including in the sugar estates. As Ndhlovu shows in his chapter, the history of the Chisa people is a story of endless displacement but combined with resistance. While benefiting from land through the land reform programme, their claims to ancestral land within the Gonarezhou national park has not disappeared.

In the same way, Ndau identity was significant for those occupying plantations in the Eastern Highlands or commercial farms in Chipinge as shown in studies by Marongwe and Zamchiya. As Nyachega and Sagonda show, those who took over land – in their case the Aberfoyle/Katiyo tea estates – new livelihoods linked to new identities had to be generated. With tea in decline, they had to generate new options, resulting in the massive ‘banana boom’ in this region, with claims staked on often questionable claims around cultural-ethnic belonging.

In many areas, including our own sites in Masvingo, this reinvention of ethnic origins has fuelled multiple disputes over land and authority, including numerous on-going contests over chieftaincies and headman positions. Claims to land through past residence, the presence of grave sites and so on is often tenuous, but reflective of the power of ethnic histories in current land politics.

Land, livelihoods and ethnic identity

This is an important book as it uncovers the diversity of ethnicities and identities in Zimbabwe, rescuing Zimbabwe’s story from one that focuses only on the contests between the Shona and Ndebele. The ethnic landscape – and senses of belonging, identity and cultural association – is much richer and more contested and fluid. And importantly, this landscape shapes and is shaped by livelihoods and the ways land is used. For those concerned with land and livelihoods this is a crucial issue, and the book is an important resource.

Lead photo of Jacob Mahenehene and family from Chikombedzi

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

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The neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa: two new books

Two important new books have come out on the neoliberal restructuring of land and agriculture in Africa recently. Both take a radical agrarian political economy stance on the theme, but from different angles. Such analyses have important implications for thinking about agrarian reform, the role of contract farming and the place of land and agriculture in African economies.

Processes of neoliberalisation

The first book Capital Penetration and the Peasantry in Southern and Eastern Africa is edited by Freedom Mazwi, George Mudimu and Kirk Helliker, respectively from the Sam Moyo African Institute of Agrarian Studies, PLAAS at UWC and the Zimbabwe Studies Institute at Rhodes University. The collection has contributions on South Africa, Uganda, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Mozambique and Eswatini, and two on Zimbabwe and makes the case that “the hallmark of the neoliberal agenda, for agrarian spaces, has been the entrenchment of landed property rights and the push for market-led land reforms”.

Neoliberalism, the editors explain, is characterised by “unequal exchange on global markets, large-scale land dispossessions, underfunding of the agricultural (particularly smallholder or peasant) sector, and macro-economic initiatives such as the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).” The contemporary form of financialised, globalised capitalism in particular allows capital to penetrate places that had previously been ignored, resulting in significant extractive profits. This they argue results in marginalisation, impoverishment and increasing differentiation alongside elite capture.

In this book, neoliberalisation is seen as a process, not a singular state – a useful point that gets away from some of the very simplistic and polemical treatises misusing the term. As the introduction to the book explains, the processes of neoliberalisation are variegated, uneven, contradictory and subject to repeated crises and moments of rupture. Interests associated with neoliberalisation are pushed by class interests, which are allied globally with monopoly capital and western powers aligning with national elites in Africa, but there are equally forms of resistance, locally and nationally.


This process seen across Africa and illustrated across the chapters of the book is very much centred on processes of extraction, which serve the needs of metropolitan states. This includes “land concentration and grabbing (by private, domestic and international capital), monopolistic control over natural resources, and new forms of production arrangements (for example, contract farming) involving agrarian capital— in which there is corporate control over flows of commodities, credit and value.”  As Ye Jingzhong and colleagues explain, extractivism has moved from a pattern of single sites of mining, land grabbing to a more generalised process, encompassing whole agrarian systems.

Several case studies in the book (e.g., Sakata, Mhlanga and Bruna) home in on ‘contract’ farming as a globally-driven agricultural production and marketing strategy that, they argue, reduces the autonomy and livelihood opportunities of the peasantry. The result is, they argue, increasing impoverishment and differentiation and a reinforcing of the international division of labour, with value extracted elsewhere.

While there is a much wider debate about contract farming, including some (such as our work) that highlights its immediate benefits for the relatively (but not extremely) poor, situating the growing phenomenon in a wider historical and political frame is definitely useful. It is the contingent political economy that influences whether contract relations ‘upgrade’ and so support local production or ‘capture’ the peasantry through extractive relations, as Kojo Amanor has pointed out.  

Overall, the book argues that sustaining the neoliberal project is in the interests of metropolitan powers and capitalist interests globally, with strong alliances across nations, drawing on ‘theories of imperialism’ as articulated so effectively by Utsa and Prahbat Patnaik. Those countries that challenge the neoliberal tenets are isolated, and sanctions are imposed to get them into line, the book argues.

The case of Zimbabwe’s land reform is of course the example given, but there are others. As they argue, following Sam Moyo, Praveen Jha, Paris Yeros and others, “this raises complex questions about state autonomy vis-à-vis global capital as well as the importance of resolving the national question through pursuing relatively autonomous development paths”, a theme picked up especially in the second book.

An Afrocentric perspective?

The second book for this review is edited by Vusi Gumede and Toendepi Shonhe, respectively from the University of Mpumalanga and formerly of UNISA in Johannesburg, and is called ambitiously “Rethinking the Land and Agrarian Questions in Africa” (available as an e-book and a hard copy), again with a number of case study chapters from across east and southern Africa.

Developing the ideas of the great thinkers of African agrarian studies including Samir Amin, Archie Mafeje and Sam Moyo, the book makes the case for an Afrocentric perspective, where ideas around agrarian change – and land reform in particular – are recast, away from a Eurocentric epistemology. Such standard Eurocentric views “underscore the preoccupation with property rights and thus the need to remain in harmony with global capital, enabling colonial systems to persist.”

Instead, the book argues for an alternative way of thinking about land and its value that decolonises the land and so provides “a basis for creating new platforms for social change and broadened accumulation”.  This focus on constructions of knowledge around land, law, policy, property and so on is a really useful intervention, and opens up new areas of debate not framed in a restrictive way by conventional thinking.

Delinking and autonomous development

In arguing for a radical departure from neoliberal, colonised thought and practice and a liberation of the mind towards ideas that are rooted in African initiative and local economies, the work of Samir Amin on delinking comes to mind (whose work is drawn upon in both books). His 1987 short note on delinking encapsulates many of the ideas being revisited by African scholars of agrarian settings today, inspired of course by the important mentor to many, the late Sam Moyo (who the second book is dedicated to and whose work informs much of the thinking in the first).

“The development of countries at the periphery of the world-capitalist system, consequently, passes through a necessary “break” from this world capitalist system – a “delinking” – that is to say, the refusal to submit national-development strategy to the imperatives of “globalization”. But the meaning we give to the concept of “delinking” is not at all a synonym for autarky. We mean the organization of a system of criteria for the rationality of economic choices based on a law of value, which has a national foundation and a popular content, independent of the criteria of economic rationality that emerges from the domination of the law of capitalist value that operates a world scale.”

Amin goes on to suggest a model of national and popular auto-centred development, which “does not consist of rejecting all relations with the outside, but in submitting the external relations to the logic of an internal development that is independent from them.” This means accepting trade relations, market exchanges, technologies and aid/external support on different terms, resisting the extractivism of neoliberalism and the imperatives of a particular style of agrarian policy.

In this sense, the vision is different to one of localised, autonomous ‘food sovereignty’, but accepts that a break with hegemonic power (and as Gumede and Shonhe argue, ideas and styles of knowledge-making) allows for liberation, even if ‘western’ technologies, external trade and so on are part of the solution. As Amin and others argue, a key question is who can benefit from such popular, nationally-determined development? Questions of class and the dangers of capture once again come to the fore. As with neoliberalisation, struggles for alternatives must be seen as a process.

In the Zimbabwean context, the “break” with the West occurred following land reform and the imposition of ‘sanctions’ and the subsequent lack of investment and finance. This perhaps should have offered some of this opportunity. Indeed, in some of the land reform settings we work in a sense of autonomy and independent economic activity on farmers’ own terms is evident. And during the pandemic, due to force of circumstance, this accelerated as people generated resilience and capacities to survive the effects of lockdowns in a collapsing economy. However, as we have discussed many times on this blog, these opportunities remain constrained. This is why Amin argues that delinking is not just autarky, instead a progressive national state needs to support such endeavours and this has been lacking.

Resisting imperial impositions from metropolitan powers and transforming the depredations of neoliberalism requires more than just getting by as farmers in rural Zimbabwe are incredibly good at doing, but requires a mobilisation, across classes and with allies in the state and beyond, for liberation to be realised. These books help us think about this process, but (as ever) there are no easy answers.  

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

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The future of Zimbabwe’s agrarian sector: a new book

A new book on land and agriculture Zimbabwe – The Future of Zimbabwe’s Agrarian Sector – is just out with Routledge and edited by Grasian Mkodzongi. It’s fiendishly expensive, but a paperback version is promised soon. Meanwhile be in touch with authors for copies of chapters or look out on Researchgate or other platforms for pre-print versions, as there’s lots of good material.

The ‘new dispensation’: a failure?

The book takes the post-‘coup’ transition to the ‘new dispensation’ after 2017 under President Mnangagwa as its starting point. It asks, how has the ‘open for business’ rhetoric made a difference to the agrarian sector following the land reform in 2000? The introduction argues that “the post-Mugabe era is characterised by a neoliberal macro-economic agenda which has intensified land grabs and resource thefts to the detriment of peasants and other vulnerable groups.”

It is this shift towards a business-oriented, large-scale farming discourse and away from a peasant-centred one that characterised the Mugabe era that has reframed the debate, the book argues. An alliance with Chinese capital (and others) linked to a ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ class connected to ZANU-PF political and military leadership has resulted in resource grabbing on a large scale, undermining the gains of land reform, Mkodzongi argues. The result is intensified class struggle over land, as political elites ally with international capital and foreign powers to acquire resources, using political influence to remove land from those who are out of favour politically or who cannot resist, as in the case of the notorious Chilonga communal area land dispute.

While many recognise the inequities that persist following land reform, with demands for land from youth, women, former farmworkers, displaced urbanites and others, instead the current government’s focus appears to be on improving production efficiencies in more commercial operations through subsidy and other loan schemes (such as the ‘command agriculture’ programme). This shifts the political dynamics of the post-land reform era away from redistribution, reinforcing the power of those who gained land in the reform in medium-scale A2 farms, and supporting the process of consolidating land holdings through joint ventures.

Diverse outcomes

Chapters cover a broad range of themes, highlighting once again the richness of empirical work on-going in Zimbabwe. The book is dedicated to the late, great Sam Moyo, and he would I am sure be impressed by the breadth of work on-going, represented not only in this book but also others (which I will review soon too).

Felix Murimbarimba and I delve into the politics of A2 (medium-scale) farms based on our survey and interview work in Masvingo and Mazowe, looking at the mixed fate of A2 farmers and the influence of political alliances on rural politics. Meanwhile, others look at patterns of investment, particularly in the A1 areas, notable the chapters by Tom and Chipenda, who looks at joint-ventures.

A focus on particular crops is taken by Ncube, Kamuti and Ncube (tobacco) and Taringana (coffee), who all show how smallholders are now growing what were deemed to large-scale commercial crops. As Ndhlovu speculates new forms of locally based agriculture in A1 farms may offer prospects for ‘food sovereignty’.

The new agrarian dynamic is also creating conflicts, displacements and patterns of exclusion and differentiation, with implications for gendered access to resources as Chiweshe and Bhatsara and Batisai and Chipato show in different cases. As the time from the land reform lapses, questions of and the rights of women are brought to the fore, for example. Overall, as we’ve seen in our work again and again, there is a clear vibrancy in the agrarian sector following land reform, but also many problems.

Structural constraints

What is clear is that the ‘new dispensation’ did not resolve these challenges. Maybe it couldn’t. The structural constraints of lack of finance, sanctions and deep corruption all have contributed to lack of action by the new government. The populist policy rhetoric of being ‘open for business’ was largely empty, as action did not follow beyond the opening of resources for grabbing by elites and others. The result has been increasing tensions and a more tense struggle between classes, with the smallholder A1 beneficiaries of land reform pitted against others.

The business-friendly discourse and the land compensation deal with white farmers did not impress western governments who latched on to a particular human rights discourse around political reforms as their central conditionality, preventing the release of strangulating economic sanctions, as Chipuriro and Mkodzongi explain. Despite various policy initiatives, the corruption by political elites has made even the more sensible ones irrelevant, as rent is extracted at every turn whilst political factions vie for power.

The result has been economic collapse, which has massively constrained growth in the agrarian sector. Attempts to woo the Chinese failed as they too were not fooled, and the mega-projects promised did not materialise. Mkodzongi documents this rather sorry tale both in the introduction and conclusion to the book.  

Ways forward?

So, what to do about it? There is a clear failure of the current political dispensation, but Mkodzongi and others are not optimistic about alternatives either. As he notes, “the new neoliberal policy trajectory is in conflict with the ethos of the fast-track land reform, which sought to restructure agrarian relations in favour of the broader majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens, in particular the peasantry”.

As a consequence, a new agrarian-focused politics is required, something hinted at in our chapter, but requiring alliances between those generating production on the A2 farms (not everyone by any means, given patronage allocations) and the more vibrant and more numerous A1 farmers, who have significant electoral influence. A new progressive political coalition together with those in urban areas also struggling over land and livelihoods – as explained by Mujere and Mwatara – is essential. Perhaps this will deliver the ‘national political consciousness’ and ‘ideological clarity’ that Mkodzongi advocates.

However, to be effective, such an alliance must in turn construct coherent policies, deliver security of tenure, provide support for agriculture, develop rural infrastructure, facilitate markets and address the needs of those left behind by the land reform. At the moment, sadly, this looks far off, with any forthcoming election outcome unlikely to resolve these issues, whatever the result. 

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

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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) (%)
Triangle/Hippo Valley4555

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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How to respond to ‘drought’: rethinking standard approaches

Over the last four weeks, a blog series has asked what is the best way to respond to ‘drought’? This is an important question for a country like Zimbabwe, and with climate change the question will become even more important. The answer though is not obvious.

First we need to define what is drought in a way that is meaningful to local contexts, going beyond a conventional ‘meteorological’ definition with a focus on rainfall to thinking about the outcomes of multiple, intersecting factors.

Second, we need to understand how farmers respond to rainfall variability, and think about ways of supporting their own practices.

Third, we need to question the quick-fix temptations of technical, external solutions to drought – whether insurance or the whole paraphernalia of early warning, anticipatory actions and social assistance programming – as they frequently incorrectly assume that drought can be managed as a calculable risk (anticipated, predicted and planned for), when in fact we don’t know what the future holds, and uncertainty, even ignorance, prevails.

Finally, this has implications for how responses to droughts and disasters more generally are framed – not as singular events that can be predicted, managed and controlled, but always as uncertain, unfolding processes, where different responses are required, centred on building reliability through new forms of practice and professionalism.

Together these four themes are quite a radical challenge to the standard approaches to social protection, disaster risk management and humanitarian assistance. However a shift from a technical, externally-driven approach to risk management and control to one that starts from understanding local responses to uncertainty and how reliability can be generated in the face of highly variable conditions is one that needs to be taken seriously. This requires some major rethinking of how standard programmes are designed and implemented.

So if you missed the series, here they are again.

What is drought? Local constructions, diverse perceptions

Farming with variability: mobilising responses to drought uncertainties in Zimbabwe

Insuring against disaster: the politics of protection

Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

A sad post-script

This week we learned of the tragic loss on June 5 of Alex Magaisa from a cardiac arrest at the age of only 46. It is a terrible loss for Zimbabwe’s intellectual and activist community. In addition to being a law lecturer at the University of Kent in the UK, Alex was an avid writer and his Big Saturday Read gained a huge following. Although we didn’t always agree, his analyses were always stimulating and provocative and links to his writings regularly appeared on this blog. As a public intellectual, challenging the status quo through well honed arguments, always well written, Alex’s contribution to debate about Zimbabwe’s future was vital. He will be sorely missed.

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

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Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

Previous blogs in this series have highlighted how farmers’ responses to ‘drought’ are focused on adaptive adjustments to farming and livelihood practices that unfold as a ‘performance’. A drought is not a single event, but emerges over time, and responses are not singular or time-defined, but continuously evolving.

Farmers’ responses are therefore ones attuned to uncertainty – where future outcomes are unknown – rather than risk – where future events can be predicted, forecast or anticipated. However, most external interventions are, as we have seen in respect of sovereign insurance in the previous blog, framed by a risk and control mindset.

A whole paraphernalia of approaches are now central to ‘disaster risk management’ approaches and part of humanitarian responses. With various technical inputs and sophisticated models, they assume that droughts can be predicted, early warnings offered and insurance pay-outs provided to prevent disasters happening.

There is a growing confidence it seems in predictive models, centred on approaches such as ‘anticipatory action’ as well as parametric/index insurance of different sorts. This confidence is boosted by a belief that increased access to information from satellite imagery, ‘big data’ analysis, machine learning and so on can improve the predictive power and calculative capacity of such mechanisms. The UK’s new ‘international development strategy’, for example, is replete with such techno-optimist claims.

But what if such approaches, now so central to the humanitarian and aid machine, don’t work or only do so partially because of prevailing uncertainty and ignorance? And, as discussed in an earlier blog, even if predictions are made, will farmers’ believe in and act on them?

The long history of early warning systems in Africa suggests that problems of data availability and credibility will remain. As Margie Buchanan-Smith and Susanna Davies (now Moorehead) argued back in 1994, “Improved capacity to predict drought‐induced famines has not led to a concomitant improvement in famine prevention.”

From managing risk to generating high reliability

Instead of relying on technical fixes that assume risk, what if a different approach was adopted, one that started by embracing uncertainty, not pretending that we can predict and plan, even with improved knowledge? Could farmers’ responses, based on sequential adaptation, learning and flexible responses help us rethink approaches to drought and disaster response?

Our recent open access paper in Development Policy ReviewProviding social assistance and humanitarian relief: the case for embracing uncertainty – chimes very much with the Zimbabwe experience. As we argue, rather than blaming failures on poor models, implementation gaps, targeting errors, exclusion by design, lack of co-ordination, poor governance and sometimes vague, black-boxed notions of political economy, an alternative approach that genuinely embraces uncertainty is proposed. Based on case material from Ethiopia and Libya (but could as well have been Zimbabwe or nearly anywhere…), it suggests four challenges for humanitarian and social protection efforts addressing uncertain disasters.

Skills, practices and capabilities — If uncertainties cannot be planned away, then systems require the continuous capacity to spot uncertainties, address surprises and avoid areas of ignorance. This requires horizon-scanning, thinking about the longer-term future, as well as being aware in real-time of unfolding situations on the ground. Drawing on work on ‘critical infrastructures’, we show how networks of ‘high reliability professionals’ – including farmers, government officials and aid agency staff based in the field – can act as brokers and translators, linking and negotiating multiple sources of knowledge. Identifying such networks and building their capacity should be central to investment in disaster responses, we suggest.

Organisational change — The sort of flexible, adaptive learning by high reliability professionals in turn needs to be embedded in organisations, incentivised and rewarded. A more modular organisational arrangement, with decentralised, networked decision-making can facilitate a more nimble, responsive action, we argue. Building in redundancy means that organisations can change gear quickly and have the flexibility to respond. Allowing for innovation, as well as learning from and sharing this, is essential. The cumbersome, hierarchical organisation of standard governmental or development/humanitarian agencies therefore has to be rethought.

Financing mechanisms — Standard approaches to financing in disasters are notoriously poor at addressing uncertainties. Single, predictable funding pipelines linked to fixed budgets, planned according to defined risks and negotiated on assumptions of stability and uniformity are inadequate for unpredictable shocks and surprises. Appropriate financing mechanisms to respond to uncertainty include contingency funds, advance commitment funding and contingency credit arrangements, linked to emergency funding reallocation systems. Under conditions of uncertainty we argue that this must go beyond standard index insurance systems as well as anticipatory risk planning and pre-shock identification of the most vulnerable. We equally must not assume the existence of effectively functioning state delivery systems and infrastructure. Instead, more hybrid, ‘mutual’ approaches that build on local response systems, but are combined with focused, strategic external financing offer a way forward.

Accountability relations – Too often in disaster responses, accountability relationships run upwards. Vertical monitoring, evaluation and audit control systems follow. But, if accountabilities are extended downwards and outwards, then other participants become involved. Those delivering and receiving social assistance and relief are as a result no longer just passive recipients, but are actively involved in the response, operating through locally-embedded networks, connecting implementing agency professionals with so-called beneficiaries. If networked arrangements and horizontal accountabilities are built in from the start, a more collectively-owned approach for high reliability, based on combined knowledge and action can emerge, we suggest.

Rethinking disaster responses, why embracing uncertainty is essential

A focus on uncertainty therefore shines a particular light on incomplete (or absent) knowledge about the future, where standard techniques of prediction, anticipation and preparedness don’t work. An acceptance that uncertainty and ignorance are central fundamentally undermines our capacity to plan, manage (even adaptively), and so ensure stable, predictable and targeted outcomes. This has profound implications for the mainstream, risk and control oriented approaches to disaster response, especially in settings affected by crisis and conflict and where state capacity is weak (which is of course quite a lot of places, including of course Zimbabwe).

The paper concludes,

“Reversing patterns of accountability, incorporating new knowledges and actors, thinking about networks and encouraging systematic and reflexive learning all challenge.. standard approaches. Ignoring uncertainty—and not accepting inevitable ignorance and surprise—can be misleading, even downright dangerous. Standard risk-management approaches paper over cracks that can open up, causing major problems. Fixing these by arguing that all that is needed is better planning, implementation, correcting errors, and improving co-ordination does not deal with the core issue.”

Instead, the paper goes on,

A ‘high-reliability’ approach, which embraces and works with uncertainty and complexity, is needed. And this requires fundamental changes in everything from programme design, professional practice and skill-sets, organisational culture and incentives to funding, monitoring, and evaluation regimes.”

Without such a shift, the paper argues, the continued failures of aid and humanitarian interventions in disaster settings will continue. Embracing uncertainty means jettisoning now much-favoured tech-heavy approaches in favour of a more sophisticated, grounded, uncertainty-centred approach centred on generating ‘high reliability’ in real time. And to do this, learning from farmers, pastoralists and others who must always live with and from uncertainty will be essential.

This is the fourth blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first, second and third blogs here, here and here.

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

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