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Zimbabwe faces a COVID-19 surge: what is happening in the rural areas?

Vaccination drive at Hippo Valley sugar estate

The increase in COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe has been significant in the weeks since our last blog. This has been matched by an increase in recorded deaths. The government has responded with a new ‘level 4’ lockdown, imposing a curfew, restricting business hours, limiting inter-city transport, requiring movement exemption permits, closing schools and educational institutions and banning all gatherings, except funerals where numbers are again restricted.

The national level data show an increasingly dangerous situation, but why now and how has it affected the rural areas? As we have reported in the past, the incidence has been extremely low in most of our study sites, but this has changed somewhat recently, although few deaths have been recorded. Why this change?

Why is there a surge now, including in the rural areas?

Informants across our study sites point to a number of factors.

  • First it is winter and this is the cold and flu season when respiratory infections spread as people are more frequently inside and interacting in close proximity.
  • Second, it has been marketing season when people have been travelling about, gathering at market places, interacting with itinerant buyers and going to auction floors in the tobacco areas. Indeed, it has been in the tobacco areas that the greatest spikes in infections have been noted, and people have speculated that buyers travelling from hotspots – such as Karoi – have brought new infections into areas.
  • Third, it has been the relaxation in measures, including the day-to-day practices of hygiene that have occurred. Certainly over the last months people had gone back to a (nearly) normal life, and abandoned wearing masks and had attended large gatherings of weddings, funerals and church services. These are now banned, but some churches are dismissive of the regulations and argue that the power of prayer in large gatherings should be recognised as a way of combating the disease, and many are still continuing.
  • Fourth, early foci for infections have been educational institutions, including Bondolfi mission, Morgenster and Great Zimbabwe University. Here students and staff have been infected and later isolated, but in places where there is residential accommodation such as teachers’ colleges and boarding schools, the virus can spread, and those moving to such establishments – as day pupils, as service providers or sometimes as church goers  – can in turn spread the infection to their communities.
  • Fifth, the ease of movement from South Africa through illegal crossings improves in the dry season as the Limpopo has little water and the danger from crocodiles and hippos recedes. This is the period for mass movements, as people go and shop in South Africa and bring back goods. At the Chakwalakwala crossing people move daily in their thousands, even with cars and trucks crossing the sandy river bed. This has a focus for significant importation of disease, as South Africa’s surge is in full swing, increasing earlier than Zimbabwe’s.
  • Sixth, the increase in dry season trade is linked to major markets in the south of the country. These bring people together over wide areas. These Bakosi markets are preferred to going to town as you can buy everything from iron sheets for roofing to a chicken for a meal, and everything else in between. Much comes from South Africa, but local produce is also sold and exchanged. Such large markets are also a focus for social events and much interactions. In the midst of a pandemic, they are clearly foci for infection, and have now been closed.

All these factors have combined in the last couple of months to fuel the pandemic in Zimbabwe, extending it to the rural areas.

Why do death rates remain low, at least for now?

Yet despite this, the number of deaths in our study sites remain low. This remains an anomaly as vaccination rates and existing immunity from earlier infections rates are low.

When we discussed this, the team pointed to the difference between mortalities of those coming from South Africa (and indeed of South Africans and Zimbabweans), pointing to different lifestyles, unhealthy diets of processed foods, co-morbidity factors (including being overweight, having diabetes and so on). Poverty, they argued, has kept us healthy!

In our study areas, burials have been occurring in cases where bodies have been returned home from South Africa. Cemeteries in Bulawayo for example are reported to be being under pressure. This may yet change, but there are some interesting hypotheses about what both results in infection and causes death.

Many informants across our sites point to local remedies as important in managing infection. While more people are getting the disease, its effects though far from pleasant are being addressed by local remedies. Mr Moses Mutoko from Wondedzo Extension in Masvingo district explained:

“In June my whole family was infected by an unknown ‘flu. It was persistent and heavy. We treated ourselves by steaming of a mix of Zumbani (a local herb), eucalyptus leaves and lemon, covering ourselves with a blanket for 15 minutes and sweating hard. We would also drink the mixture morning and night. We would also gargle several times a day with coarse salt and warm water and drink large amounts of water when we wake up and before we go to sleep to clean the body. We all recovered and are fine now. I have shared this prescription with the community, and everyone has taken it up. We hope it will save people from the disease.”

People across our sites urge the government to take local treatments seriously and invest in research as well as promoting seemingly efficacious ones.

Vaccine views

The surge in infections across the country has put the vaccine programme in the spotlight. Earlier reluctance among some has turned to an increasing eagerness to be vaccinated. Currently approximately 6% of the population have had a first dose, but rates have slowed of late due to supply problems. The vaccines being offered remain only the Chinese, Russian and Indian vaccines with an offer via the African Union of Johnson and Johnson vaccines being rejected on the grounds that the infrastructure for delivery was not up to scratch.

Many speculated that this was just politics being played out, with the Zimbabwe government snubbing the West. With the Chinese offering a further 2 million of their Sinovac shots, Zimbabwe may be able to play politics, but it seems a risky strategy right now. This is especially so as delivery is patchy, and the logistics not always streamlined with shortages reported across our sites. Nevertheless, the government’s overall COVID-19 approach has met with approval, both from other countries in Africa, and from the Zimbabwean population according to the Afrobarometer survey.

For a time Zimbabwe had been seen as a potential vaccine tourism destination, with private clinics offering shots for US$70 or more, and South African travel agencies offering pricey vaccination travel packages. However, with current shortages, this has all stopped for now.

Meanwhile, companies such as Tongaat Hullett who run the huge sugar estates are offering shots to workers, as there has been a local peak in infections on the estates, with worker compounds closed down and put into quarantine. Again, this is linked to the season and the greater movement of people associated with cane cutting.  

The discussion in our team and amongst informants across our sites on vaccination continues. Many views are expressed:

  • Some complain that agricultural extension workers are not treated as front-line workers and do not get priority on the vaccination lists like doctors and nurses, yet they have to have face-to-face contact on a regular basis and must travel over wider areas. These individuals are keen to get a shot but have failed so far.
  • Others say that since deaths remain low and that the surge will likely abate after the marketing season and when the weather warms up, then they don’t mind and will wait for an more effective vaccine. They argue that these vaccines are not fully protective like the ones for measles, diphtheria and so on that Zimbabweans are very familiar with and many can name a case where someone vaccinated gets it again.
  • There are some who argue that the situation is nothing like that experienced with AIDS when burials were happening daily and everyone was affected, and yet, they comment, we survived that without a vaccine and through changing behaviours and practices over time.
  • Still others say it’s like any other severe ‘flu and we must learn to live with it, using local remedies. It’s clearly now endemic and it will be part of our winter experience forever.

Just like in discussions across the world, there are plenty of views, each with their own evidence and case studies to share. Complexity, uncertainty and contested interpretations of both science and experience remain the order of the day.

Lockdown responses

The return of a lockdown is creating real concerns. The memories of the suffering from 2020 are fresh. This is especially challenging now as this is the main season for marketing horticultural products. Transporters can only start moving after 6am due to the curfew, meaning fresh, perishable products can only get to market late. And in the evening they want to move their transport out of town before 6pm for fear of getting vehicles impounded. This constrains the marketing day and for farmers reduces income.

In the past weeks, there has been an increase in direct contracting to local supermarkets, as markets have been closed down. This is only available to some and often means lower prices, even if a market is guaranteed. Wider business dependent on agriculture and dependent on farmers buying things are suffering as business hours and movement is restricted once again. It is back to the bad old days of 2020, with businesses laying off people or closing, and farmers suffering.

The importance of real-time reflections

This is the fifteenth contribution to our real-time monitoring and reflection of the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe. It is far from a linear story and there are many contested views and diverse experiences. Without such in-depth, real-time information it is difficult to make an assessment, and so difficult to learn lessons. Lots of studies are emerging right now that offer definitive statements from snapshot and circumscribed surveys, including from rural Africa. What our tracking has shown is that these are inadequate.

A fuller understanding of this pandemic in all its dimensions will only emerge in time, and we will continue our regular reflections, so watch out for the next blog in about a month.

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

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How is ‘China’ helping to transform ‘Africa’? The need for a more sophisticated debate

How is China helping to transform African economies? There are many different narratives cast around in public and policy debate: China as the new imperial power, China as the radical developmentalist, China as just like any other donor/foreign power. None are very convincing. A report synthesising a number of research projects has been published recently, titled Africa’s economic transformation: the role of Chinese investment, and aims to get beyond the rhetoric and gain a more sophisticated, empirically-based analysis based on substantial UK-funded research efforts over recent years. 

Based on detailed studies from Angola to Zambia, the report covers a range of Chinese investments from infrastructure to technology to manufacturing. Agriculture and land-based investments don’t get much attention, but some wider lessons can be drawn. Overall, the report argues that Chinese investments are not exceptional, but have certain patterns. They generally focus on the productive economic sector and that although most efforts are relatively isolated project investments, they result in increased local employment (but usually initially of lower-grade jobs) with positive impacts on local markets. Investments are not by-and-large focused on extraction of goods for export to China, as some narratives suggest. Limited vertical and horizontal linkages with the wider economy are observed with projects seen as rather isolated, and with limited impacts on the large African informal economy. Training of workforces happens, and may result in skill upgrading, although in the establishment phases of business investments, higher-skilled and management jobs largely remaining Chinese.

A few years ago now, together with colleagues from China, Brazil, Mozambique, Ghana, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, we conducted similar research looking at Chinese (and Brazilian) agriculture investments, both commercial projects and state-backed aid funding – all published open access in World Development. Some of these broader trends highlighted in the report are seen, but not all. Through joint ventures and contract farming efforts – accelerating since our earlier studies in Zimbabwe around tobacco – have resulted in much greater integration of agricultural businesses within the economy, even with smallholders. While tobacco is definitely geared to export to China, the spin-off linkage benefits to rural economies have been huge.

Training has been an important feature in Chinese agricultural investments, with large numbers of Africans trained at Chinese universities in a variety of subjects, along with support for technical upgrading. For example, Chinese investment in the Zimbabwean Tobacco Research Institute has been important, supported by exchange visits and investment in equipment. The Chinese Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centres (ATDCs) have had mixed success, and have turned out very differently in different countries. However at a time when state and Western donor investment in agricultural R&D had shrunk to virtually zero in many countries – certainly in Zimbabwe – the establishment of the ATDC at Gwebi was widely welcomed, even if the technologies on offer did not quite fit the new post-land reform setting.

As Carlos Oya and colleagues’ fascinating study of labour practices in Chinese construction and manufacturing sector investments in Angola and Ethiopia shows, there is no single labour regime observed. It very much depends on the wider political-economic context, and the dynamics of accumulation in the national economy, the nature of the state priorities and political commitments to different policies (foreign investment vs labour rights for example). The origin of the investment firm therefore has less of an impact than the investment context. This conditions what labour is available and hired, and how labourers are treated. Indeed, contrary to popular conceptions Chinese investors have no worse labour practices than others, with increasing integration into the local economy, with a localisation and training of the workforce seen over time. There is therefore no one pattern of Chinese investment, no one predictable outcome. This is part of the problem with the report as, in its search for a generalised prognosis, it frames the whole problematic in terms of ‘China’s investment’ and ‘Africa’s transformation’, as if both China and Africa were singular.

We know from the case studies discussed in the report – and reinforced by our multi-country study on agricultural aid and investment – that patterns of Chinese engagement vary massively between different African countries. This depends on historical legacies (particularly from the liberation wars and independence struggles of the 1960s and 70s), political positioning (for example in respect of alignment with US/Western interests, and especially in relation to Taiwan), and the state of the economy (investing in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia or Nigeria, where economies have been booming is a very different prospect to investing in Mozambique or Zimbabwe). Not surprisingly, all these factors impinge on what investments happen and how they pan out.

Equally, ‘Chinese’ investments have to be understood in terms of where they come from. Some emanate from the centre, and are part of the Chines aid-investment strategy. But most, even if via State-Owned Enterprises, emerge from particular provinces. These may get central state backing for ‘going out’, but they take on a very particular provincial character. They are ‘Chinese’ in that they come from the People’s Republic of China, but they are more accurately described as from Guangdong or Yunnan. As research on Chinese economic development shows, there is a huge variety of approaches, with quite different provincial styles of business and investment. This important dimension did not come out in the report, resorting as it did to generic characterisations geared perhaps to a simplistic UK aid debate.

However, repeatedly we see in our work the very different provincial characteristics of the host firms of different ATDCs across countries resulting in contrasting priorities and operations on the ground in Africa (Zimbabwe and Ethiopia for example are massively different). ‘Chinese’ firms that take up tobacco joint ventures in our study sites in Mvurwi in Zimbabwe come from very different parts of China (not necessarily tobacco growing regions, as some are expanding from mining or other businesses), again with different business models, labour practices, investment priorities and sources of finance.   

Going beyond the ‘China in Africa’ simplification is long overdue. The individual research studies covered in the report no doubt pick up the particularities and the context (I admit that I haven’t read them all), but these sort of syntheses and associated policy debate too often fail to. We have to understand the particularities of these ‘development encounters’, and nuance the debate. Of course, just as we differentiate between ‘European’ investment from the UK or Sweden, so we must between ‘Chinese’ investment from Hunan or Hubei.

Investment outcomes and development processes are always a complex political negotiation – of knowledge frames, values, cultures, interests and economic priorities – between located firms and particular local political economies. Whether focusing on investments from China, Europe or the Americas, some more sophistication is needed in thinking through the processes, practices and possibilities of such encounters.

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

Photo credit: NewZimbabwe.com

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COVID-19 and economic transformation in rural Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 situation looks uncertain, with localised outbreaks and a rise in infections south of the Limpopo in South Africa. On June 11 there were 191 new cases (including 82 that were reported late) and 3 deaths reported, making a cumulative total of 39,688 cases and 1,629 deaths and a current seven-day rolling average new case rate of 77 per day, with a discernible upward trend. Vaccination rates are increasing, but very slowly and somewhat chaotically with 691,251 vaccinated so far.

On June 12, Vice-President and health minister, Constantino Chiwenga, imposed new restrictions, with the banning of gatherings, the limiting of business hours, a stipulation that offices should only be half full and the prevention of moving to and from ‘hotspots’. This is a set-back as things had got largely back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in the previous weeks. Across our sites people had got back to work. It’s harvest season and markets have been open, with the selling of grains, tobacco, beans and horticulture happening across all sites. Meanwhile in the sugar estates it’s cane cutting season, with much activity and movement of people to provide temporary labour.

With so many people gathering at marketing points and traders, labourers and transporters, the fear was that these could become sites of infection, hence the recent move. Larger gatherings of churches, farmer field days, training events, funerals and so on were previously allowed if not exceeding 50 people, but are now either banned or have a reduction in permitted numbers. While these regulations were sometimes not kept to, as of last week our team report no major COVID-19 problems in any of our rural sites across the country, although the worry is that this may yet change.

The national pattern currently seems to be small, focused outbreaks that are dealt with by Ministry of Health ‘rapid response teams’ that operate in each of the provinces, coordinated through the district COVID-19 taskforces, which has membership from across sectors. The most recent such outbreak near our sites was at Bondolfi teachers’ college where there were a number of cases reported. Isolation and quarantining seem to have stopped further spread fortunately and all are now recovered.

Currently there are concerns in Kariba where the district taskforce has been targeting ‘houseboat gigs’ and shebeens where many gather to drink and are spreading infection. Last Saturday a lockdown was announced for Hurungwe and Kariba districts due to 40 new cases being identified, with movements in and out of the districts restricted and a process of contact tracing is ongoing. The fear of course is that such hotspots will spread.

Variants and vaccines

Like other parts of the world, the concern is with the potential impact of new variants. So far there has been one outbreak of the Indian-origin delta variant in Kwekwe. Someone returning from India had infected a number of people and a local lockdown has occurred and been extended, again hopefully stopping further spread.

However, borders remain open, although restrictions and requirements for testing have been increased this last weekend. There is some testing, but also lots of reports of fake test certificates, with some in Mpilo hospital arrested, so it is difficult to see how the spread of variants, as elsewhere in the world, will be stopped, even if spread can be slowed.

The vaccination programme has run into difficulties with demand exceeding supply in some places, although the opposite in others. The ministry has admitted problems with distribution and administration. The main vaccines remain the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac shots (and some Indian ones too). Promises of others from Western aid programmes seem not to have been fulfilled as yet, while the Zimbabwe government has been showing caution around the US/Belgian Johnson and Johnson vaccine, perhaps part of the on-going tussle with Western powers. Meanwhile, as part of the continued frenzied vaccine diplomacy, the president received the first delivery of 25,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses at the end of last week, donated by a diamond mining company. Vaccines clearly have important soft power.

Vaccine hesitancy remains, fuelled by much misinformation through the online media, Whatsapp messages and so on. But the big issue seems to be delivery and the capacity of the over-stretched health service to delivery. The ministry correctly is keeping up with its regular vaccination programmes, and the current polio vaccination drive is occupying staff and taking them away from COVID-19 vaccination.

Our informants noted that they can arrive at a clinic and be turned away as the health staff are busy, even if there are COVID-19 vaccines there. Given the lack of incidence in our study areas, there is little urgency felt and many argue that local remedies – from local herbs and leaves to lemons, garlic and ginger – used for teas and steaming are sufficient. The cost of lemons apparently is soaring, and there are many new businesses packaging teas and juices to combat COVID-19.

Markets are open, business is back

Unlike last year when the harvest season was very difficult, this year there has been much more opportunity. In Mvurwi tobacco marketing has been in full swing across a number of auction floors, and the trading companies are busy. Transporters are moving crops around and there has been a thriving business in the areas where people gather to market their crops, as prepared food is sold and groceries exchanged through a myriad of traders. As of 12 June, this is now banned as vending in and around tobacco auction floors is prohibited and a maximum of two sellers per delivery is allowed.

Maize and soybean marketing is underway too, but the government buyer – the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) – while offering higher prices has distant depots, pays in local currency (RTGS) and the cost of transportation is high. Instead, informal traders come to the farms, exchanging goods, notably groceries, for maize in particular. This means maize goes for USD 3 per bucket not the equivalent of USD 6.

While farmers complain about being ripped off, the provision of goods locally and the ease of marketing/transport is clearly beneficial. And the growth of informal trade provides jobs and sources of income for a whole range of people, especially women and younger people. 

The cold season is traditionally a focus for horticultural production but some producers, particularly in Chatsworth-Gutu area, have been hit by frost, with large amounts of produce destroyed. In the same way, livestock have been affected be tick diseases this year, due to the plentiful rains. Despite it being the dry season now, this continues to be a problem in some of our sites, and owners are selling off sick cattle before they die and so flooding the market and suppressing prices.

Despite these challenges, the marketing difficulties for farmers of the earlier COVID-19 lockdown periods have declined and all value chains for different crops are re-emerging, with vendors, traders, transporters and others all returning to support agriculture and the marketing of products across our sites.

However, the form, composition and location of these value chains are changing. Agricultural markets are now more localised, involve a greater diversity of people with exchange and barter being important and formal sales to outfits like the GMB on the decline. In time it may be that the more formal connections are re-established with the big players returning to dominate and control the market from farm sales to retail, but for now the COVID-19 shock seems to have reconfigured markets in favour of multiple, local players, with important effects on local economies, with value distributed across agricultural marketing chains.

Small towns are benefiting

This explosion of local economic activity is seen especially in small towns. In the two previous blogs (here and here), and in our paper in the European Journal of Development Research, the implications of land reform on small town growth has been emphasised, based on work in Mvruwi, Chatsworth and Maphisa over the past five years or so. This pattern has been accelerated by the effects of the pandemic.

With transport restricted by lockdowns and curfews and endless rent-seeking by the police on the roads, there has been a move to local marketing arrangements, often small-scale and involving informal, sometimes barter, arrangements. Women and young people without land are especially involved, and their improved spending power is seen in the rise of local retail outlets in small towns offering basic goods and groceries. While lockdowns affected the operation of food outlets and many other businesses, as we have discussed many times in our blogs on COVID-19 impacts since March 2020, there has been a rebounding of activity; although with the recent announcement business hours are again restricted to 8am to 6pm, with all markets closing at 6pm and bottle stores two hours earlier.

Unlike larger businesses with a single operation, many of those involved in trade in small towns operate at a small scale and have other activities in play. Many business people in the small towns we’ve been researching had land reform farm plots and could diversify when their businesses were restricted, but now they’re very much back.

There are health restrictions in place – sanitisation and mask wearing is encouraged and large crowds are banned – but in the absence of cases and with the fear of COVID having receded from earlier periods, there is a much more lax attitude to restrictions in all our sites according to our team. This may not last if the spread of COVID-19 continues in South Africa, but for now small town business is thriving again.

The shortening of value chains and the focus on local economic activity is also reflected in investments by larger agricultural businesses. For example, in Mvurwi, an important centre for tobacco growing, tobacco companies have invested in new floors, with impressive new structures being built.

Since people couldn’t move during lockdown, they had to come nearer to the farmers. And the firms have clearly judged that this situation is permanent, with significant benefits for the efficiency of marketing and access to high quality tobacco leaf. There are now eight trading floors operating in the town, up from one earlier, ranging from the big players (ZLT, MTC, Boka) to newer companies (Boost Africa, Sub Sahara etc.). This move to local investment is reflected in the multiplication of banks in the town too. There are now six banks operating, where there were only three before. This allows farmers to gain finance, pay in sales receipts and manage their income much more easily, with the banks benefiting too.

Even in areas that don’t have such an intensive, cash-oriented commercial agriculture, there are other similar developments towards a localisation of the economy. For example near Wondedzo, because people could not travel to Masvingo, Gweru or Harare to get seedlings for horticultural operations, a number of new business have emerged, based in the rural areas. Near Zimuto Mission, for example, Mrs Z has started producing seedlings, including of rape, cabbage, tomato and so on, with a vibrant local market. The same applies to Mr B’s business in Chatsworth, again supplying seedlings to the local horticultural market, replacing the mainstream suppliers, and making serious money by all accounts. 

Localising economies

We are very far from a post-COVID situation in Zimbabwe, and must await a wider vaccination effort, with help from the world beyond China being essential. However, there are glimpses of what this might look like. The growth of informal markets, the localisation of economic activity, the expansion of rural-based businesses and the continued growth of small towns as centres of exchange and trade in rural settings are all central elements.

These are all features that have dominated Zimbabwe’s rural areas since land reform. Sometimes denigrated and dismissed as not the supposed ideal of what existed before, but maybe this transformation has been the basis for survival during the pandemic, and provides the basis for an on-going shift to a more flourishing, localised economy linked to agriculture into the future. 

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Matobo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi for continuing to report on the situation on the ground across our field sites, and for providing the photos. This is the 13th blog in this series documenting how the pandemic has affected rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe.

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

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How land reform transformed small towns in Zimbabwe

Our recent paper – small towns and land reform in Zimbabwe – out in the European Journal of Development Research (open access) – explores some of the themes discussed last time for the Zimbabwe setting.

Over a number of years, we have been monitoring changes in three small towns in Zimbabwe, situated in different parts of the country (see map below).

The results point to a major growth in population, building and business activity (see Table below). This is substantially driven by a reconfigured local economy, with production from smallholder farming land reform areas (A1 resettlements) contributing to this.

Mvurwi’s growth has been driven by the tobacco boom following land reform, while Chatsworth has benefited from the growth of maize and vegetable production, but also the presence of popular churches in the area. Maphisa has grown thanks the cattle and mining economy, which is now more locally-rooted involving many land reform farmers.

Although contingent and context dependent, the changes that have occurred in each of the small towns can be summarised across four themes. The following sections are much-abbreviated extracts from the EJDR paper.

Business opportunities

The expansion of small- and medium-scale agriculture since land reform has resulted in income from agricultural surpluses being circulated locally, especially from A1 smallholder farms. This includes cash from sales of tobacco (Mvurwi), maize/horticulture (Chatsworth) and livestock (Maphisa). In Maphisa in particular this agricultural income is complemented by money from small-scale gold mining. This is generating demand for services, as well as opportunities for the sale of produce. Compared to the pre-land reform situation, there are many more businesses of all types in all three towns. There are five times as many hardware stores, four times as many grocery stores and food outlets, three times as many butcheries, double the number of bottle stores and bars, and five times more informal vendors. Transport has become a vital business linking the town with the wider agricultural hinterland.

Demography and difference: new people in town

In the last 20 years, populations have more than tripled; and this is just the permanent population, and not those who commute back and forth from the rural areas. Today there are new people in town. In Mvurwi in particular, former workers in commercial farms no longer have jobs on farms and have had to seek alternatives. Some have left, but many have stayed and become engaged in supporting new forms of local agriculture and become involved in town based business activities. Women and young people are especially important players in the new informal economy of these small towns. Women, for example, may be married to a man who received land through the land reform and will assist at the family farm, but also will be involved in trading businesses in town. Young people are often without land, missing out on land reform in 2000, but may live at home with their parents but run a business in the nearby town. Moving small distances, seasonally or daily, is the new pattern, with multi-locational households and multiplex livelihoods the norm. 

Rural-urban social relationships and networks

Land reform has created new rural-urban connections. In the past, the rural town was quite disconnected from the large-scale commercial farming operation, beyond being the source of labour and providing some inputs and services. Today such small towns are intimately linked in a much tighter, more integrated local economy. There are relations from rural to urban (marketing of produce, movement of people) and from urban to rural (supplies of labour, inputs, services and provision of transport). These linkages are fostered through social relationships, which have to be invested in. Making sure that a vending business in town thrives requires the vendor to have good relationships with suppliers in the nearby resettlement areas, with transporters to ferry goods to town, with council officials who collect rates and inspect premises and the police who invariably are looking for a bribe. Having a rural home nearby to return to is important, and today the rural areas surrounding these towns are now full of farms and people. Keeping close to ‘home’ – even if you do not have land – remains crucial, and the ability to be mobile and opportunistic is vital in the face of economic uncertainty, especially for young people.  

Planning, politics and governance

While there has been a building boom across the sites, generating opportunities for brick-makers, hardware suppliers, transporters and builders, the wider public infrastructure of all three small towns is in a poor state. The state has not invested significantly in basic maintenance and expansion of roads, sewage systems or electricity supply in these fast-expanding towns. The failure of the state (local and national) to provide for basic services and infrastructure in rural and urban areas is a source of deep resentment, especially when high-profile expenditures and rampant corruption are highlighted.   The standard, divided approach to urban administration and governance makes little sense, as people straddle urban and rural areas. With new interest groups and associated power relations, the politics of the urban-rural nexus after land reform has become highly contested, with a new rural-urban politics emerging. How this translates into reformed administrative and governance arrangements for small towns and associated rural areas remains a major challenge in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere.

Rethinking rural-urban development

As with the AGRA report discussed in the last blog, our paper concludes with a focus on ‘territorial development’:

“[The] post-land reform rural-urban configuration means going beyond a separated town and countryside focus to a wider spatial, territorial perspective, looking at sites of accumulation across rural and urban spaces, and the connections between them, focusing on how social and political relations and governance arrangements are able to support these. Small towns in this sense offer a window onto a new set of economic, social and political relations at the heart of Zimbabwe’s new agrarian landscape, and must be central to territorially-focused, regionally-connected local economic development efforts into the future”.

As a consequence, development priorities must change. As we note, “feeder roads to rural areas become important, as does the provision low-cost and safe market stands and temporary accommodation for mobile traders and business people. Equally taking account of the changing demographic composition of small towns in important, “with the need to provide safety and security for young and female mobile populations, who are essential to the urban economy often without permanent homes in town.” 

More broadly, assumptions of a simple linear ‘structural transformation’ in development – from rural to urban, from agriculture to industry, from small to larger scale – is challenged. A focus on the spatial relationship of local economies and food systems, and the territorial connections across rural and urban spaces, suggests that such transformations are much more complex. With a redistribution of land through the post 2000 land reform and the growth of especially smallholder agriculture that resulted, a very different, unexpected trajectory has emerged, more embedded in local territories, with integrated links between agriculture and urban enterprise.

As Zimbabwe continues to contemplate its post-land reform transition, a focus on small towns and the links to wider rural production systems must be central.  The next blog updates the story in the context of the pandemic where decentralisation of business operations to small towns has become essential.

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

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Small towns and agricultural development in Africa

The most recent Africa Agriculture Status Report from AGRA, ‘Feeding Africa’s Cities: Opportunities, Challenges, and Policies for Linking African Farmers with Growing Urban Food Markets’ and led by MSU’s Steve Haggblade, makes the important link between the future of African urban areas and agricultural development.

On a wider, continental scale, it highlights many of the themes discussed before on this blog and summarised in a recent open access paper in the European Journal of Development Research on the role of small towns in agricultural development following land reform in Zimbabwe.  

As African populations become increasingly urban, the role of agriculture in feeding the nation becomes even more critical. According to the report, it means thinking hard about market relations, food distribution and transport, health and safety questions, within and cross-country trade and the range of policies that provide incentives for high quality food to be produced cheaply for urban consumers.

The report notes how “Currently, over half of Africa’s urban population reside in towns and small cities of less than 500,000 population. Even towns under 100,000 population account for nearly one-third of the urban people”. Thus, the urban transformation in Africa does not involve just the growth of mega-cities, but a focus on small and intermediate urban centres is crucial.

In Zimbabwe, as the relationship between town and countryside was reconfigured following the major land reform from 2000, this is a crucial, but much-neglected, development issue. Over some years we have been monitoring the growth of three small towns located in newly resettled areas – Mvurwi, Chatsworth and Maphisa. Our EJDR paper documents the results (see also earlier blogs).

Previously service centres and farm worker settlements for large-scale white-owned commercial farming, such farms have been transformed over 20 years. The growth of smallholder agriculture in the surrounding areas thanks to land reform has generated important markets and driven the growth of town-based activity.

As the AGRA report notes, “investments in small towns typically generate equitable agricultural growth and high levels of poverty reduction”. The reason is the close connections between small towns and surrounding agricultural areas, resulting in patterns of intensification and commercialisation of agriculture near such towns, alongside employment generation within towns.

New businesses in small towns are often micro, small, and medium enterprises. As the AGRA report notes, they “dominate the midstream and downstream of African food systems and that roughly 90% of all food retailing on the continent takes place through such firms”. This is what was termed in the 2019 AGRA report, the ‘hidden middle’, and such patterns are very evident in all three towns we have been studying.

With shorter supply chains and closer connections there is greater resilience to shocks. We have seen this with the COVID-19 pandemic, where links between rural and urban areas have been maintained, and food provisioning has persisted despite market disruption. This is a theme noted elsewhere, and highlighted by the report.

The AGRA report concludes that to support integrated, regional food systems, then a territorial approach is necessary, noting how:

“Core principles of territorial development initiatives include a broad spatial orientation encompassing a network of economically linked cities, towns, and rural areas, inclusion of multiple value chains and economic sectors, multiple levels of government administration (national, district, and municipal), and multiple stakeholder groups representing private, public, and civil society groups.”

This in turn means new foci for policy efforts linking agriculture with urban development, including working with town councils, municipal authorities, mayors, transporters, trader organisations and local development associations.

The AGRA report came out after our article was in review, but there are many parallels, with links to wider debates about small towns and rural development. The story we have been finding in Zimbabwe clearly has much wider resonance across Africa, and small towns and territorial development needs to be central to any integrated development agenda. Next time, the blog will highlight the more specific findings from our small town study in Zimbabwe.

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

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Rural livelihoods in the pandemic: notes from Zimbabwe

Half a million people have now been vaccinated in Zimbabwe, but this is still only 3.5% of the population. The Chinese Sinopharm vaccine has now been fully approved by the WHO for emergency use and Zimbabwe’s vaccination drive is in full swing. Even tourists from South Africa are taking advantage of vaccine availability for a fee. However, there have been hitches and hesitancy, and despite widespread adherence to basic hygiene/sanitisation measures, there is a general relaxation on social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures after so many months of restrictions.

It is perhaps not surprising that things have relaxed since the peak of the lockdown periods, given that case rates are low and recorded recoveries are high. The total number of cases recorded in Zimbabwe by 7 May was 38,403, while the number of registered deaths was 1,576. Compared to many other countries, this remains very low; although of course these are likely underestimates. And the effects of COVID-19 are very uneven geographically and socially too, with most cases and deaths recorded in Harare and Bulawayo and especially among relative elites. The rural areas where our team live and work remain largely unscathed by the virus.

Relaxed measures, but livelihood challenges remain  

In the rural areas, as our team reported in a conversation last week (this is the twelfth update in our COVID-19 blog series since March 2020), coronavirus is not the major concern. It is a busy time due to harvesting after a good season and, with the seasons changing, many are complaining of colds and ‘flus as the weather becomes colder. Livestock diseases continue to cause problems after the very wet periods, with the lumpy skin outbreak in Matabeleland causing havoc.

While there are fewer restrictions these days and no curfews, there’s still a lockdown and there are notional restrictions of business hours, although many do not observe these. Large gatherings remain banned, but there are plenty of drinking spots where people gather in numbers. Many have returned to normal business, although transport remains limited as private operators remain restricted.

Despite the relaxation, the police are always ready to extract bribes, and moving about remains a hassle. Informal gatherings for beer drinking are regularly raided, but those hosting these often have made advance deals with the police or can pay them off. Movement across borders for trade is especially challenging as there are so many requirements for tests, certificates and loads of paperwork. There is a steady business in forgeries and bribing of officials is apparently commonplace; although there have been some arrests of truck drivers and others for flouting the regulations.

In the rural areas, while the harvest has been good the lack of other sources of income is a challenge. Many have started small agricultural projects – vegetable growing, selling of chickens and so on – and there has been a proliferation of small tuck-shops in everywhere from labour compounds to the smallest village settlement. As one farmer commented, “We used to go to town for shopping, but now there is no need, as everything is here!” With the good harvest and the surplus of agricultural produce in all our sites, farmers’ clubs have been revived to allow for collective selling and helping farmers to source inputs.

Remittances remain important across our sites but have declined, especially from South Africa and Botswana. Many who returned from there during the COVID peak across the border have remained in rural Zimbabwe, unable to return. In our Matobo site in Matabeleland South migrants have become stuck, so have had to find other sources of income as they do not necessarily have their own fields. There has as a result been a massive increase in informal artisanal mining in the area, with many villagers profiting from selling food and renting out blankets for the filtration of sediment. This is mostly taken up by women who are making a steady profit, as apparently 600 Rand can be earned from a careful washing of each blanket rented to miners, retrieving the last bits of gold.   

Schools remain open, but many are working with staggered attendance. This means kids attend only two or three days in the week, with the burden of extra care falling on women. Some have sought out places in boarding schools, as the regimes are stricter and a more complete education can be offered, but in the rural areas this is only possible for those who have got good harvests and income, and this is especially in the tobacco areas.

Vaccine hesitancy and supply challenges

After the high-profile arrival of the Chinese vaccine and the televised inoculation of senior political figures, the rollout has continued across the country. Initially the focus was on ‘front-line’ workers, mostly health workers, and then the elderly were focused on. Now a wider population can get vaccinated, but the take-up is still patchy, a pattern repeated across Africa.

As reported before, many are worried about the vaccine. They have heard of blood clots from vaccines in other parts of the world (mostly the UK), and fear the same will happen to them. This may after all be a plot by foreigners to kill Africans, some argue. People wonder why those who produce so many of these vaccines – such as India and Europe – have been so badly affected. Maybe these vaccines don’t work? And in any case, with so little COVID around, why bother, especially as our local herbs and medicines seem to work well. Some of the religiously inclined argue that the great pestilence of COVID is just a sign that the second coming of Christ is imminent, and we should not worry but celebrate. And of course the rounds of social media rumours reinforce concerns and worries for many.

In our sites there have been no reports of vaccine side-effects but uptake even amongst health workers has been below 50% so far. Of the others, it seems to be mostly women who have been coming forward, along with older people. However, getting a vaccine is not always straightforward. Supplies have been uneven, so clinics may have run out, and a clinic may be 20 kilometres walk away. Many feel that it is not worth the effort of going so far. The idea of mobile delivery like other health outreach was recommended by some, arguing that this will get more to take the vaccine and the vaccines can be kept in cooler boxes for the day.

Across our sites, the availability, delivery and acceptance of vaccines is the highest in Hippo Valley. Here the major hospitals in Hippo Valley and Triangle are run by the sugar company, Tongaat Hullett. Workers on the estates, as well as contract farmers, have taken up the vaccine in droves. In part the supply is better, but some commented that they feared the company discriminating against them if they didn’t have a shot. Either they might lose their job or they might not be able to get access to company services. On the estate, a different set of rules applies.

Across the country, including widely in the rural areas in all our sites, there is on-going promotion of vaccination and other mitigation measures by the government, some churches, NGOs and others, and overall the general understanding of the disease and its prevention is high. Contrary to the politicised narrative from the urban areas about the clampdown on civil society (which certainly has happened), by-and-large people think the government is doing the best it can – a finding echoed in a large survey mostly of urban dwellers in February.

While the official media pumps out health messages, people confront many other sources of information via Whatsapp, Facebook and so on. There are parallel messages, with people often getting confused or anxious, particularly around vaccines.  Vaccine rumours abound, and it is difficult for most to sift fact from fiction. One rumour was set off in our Matobo site that the vaccine also prevented HIV/AIDS and there was a flood of people turning up at clinics until the rumour was dismissed. It is clear that HIV/AIDS still remains a much more live concern for many than COVID-19.

Life continues, but fears on the horizon

The big fear in Zimbabwe as elsewhere is the prospect of new variants. No-one wants to return to a full lockdown and as everywhere people have viewed the scenes from India with horror. The leaky borders, the dodgy certificates, the prospect of flows of refugees from the conflict in northern Mozambique and the opening up of international travel are all sources of concern. But meanwhile, people in our sites must get on with their livelihoods, generating a living in a challenging economy. There is a harvest to bring in and sell, gold to mine, vegetables to sell and livestock to look after. Rural life in Zimbabwe continues, despite the pandemic.

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

Thanks to the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Hippo Valley, Chatsworth, Wondedzo and Masvingo for contributions to the on-going monitoring of the local situation and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating.

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Beyond the silver bullet solution: towards a ‘systems agronomy’ perspective

The previous two blogs (here and here) have discussed the Pfumvudza conservation agriculture programme that has become a high-profile, politicised intervention during the last season. In a very wet year, the results have been interesting. Yields have been good on the small plots, but many problems have been faced. And, because of the good rainfall, yields have been impressive too under conventional farming in larger open fields, especially for those who planted early. The result is a predicted bumper harvest of maize, perhaps around 2.8 million tonnes, one of the highest on record.

For the proponents of Pfumvudza the return of food security after many years of importing food due to drought, this shows how the programme has been a huge success, witness to the commitment of the party-state to the people and development. While there have clearly been important gains, as the previous blogs have emphasised, we have to avoid getting carried away with the Pfumvudza hype.

Beyond the hype of a silver-bullet solution

Just as with the range of other supposed magical, silver-bullet interventions that are supposed to revolutionise agriculture, promoted with similar evangelical zeal – whether under labels of ‘green revolution technologies’, ‘regenerative agriculture’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘agroecology’ – we need to understand the context for the intervention in the wider farming and livelihood system.

As farmers will always explain, particular technologies, techniques and packages are seen as useful additions for particular challenges, but are definitely not panaceas. They work under certain conditions (of rainfall, soil, labour, seed, fertility and so on), but not automatically as the results from across our sites discussed in last week’s blog have shown.

Yet, added to the mix, new practices, such as conservation agriculture, can be part of a complex farming performance, where external inputs, local knowledges and indigenous resources are combined. In this way of thinking, farms must be seen as complex systems and managing them requires skill and knowledge and the adaptive combination of techniques as part of a repertoire. For farmers, as Paul Richards explained long ago, agriculture is always a performance, a carefully managed drama across scenes and sites, within a wider system.

As the previous blogs in this series have shown, Pfumvudza definitely has merits in certain socio-ecological circumstances. Conservation agriculture as a gardening technique applied to home fields it may have merit, if labour can be mobilised and inputs – including mulch – found. But we have to understand the dynamics of farming systems within farms and across years, as home fields/gardens and outfields interact. There are social and gender dynamics here too, as it is often women who tend home fields/gardens, while men focus on the outfields, but this may be upset by focused extension investment in a particular part of the farm.

The need for a complex systems approach

In other words, following the arguments of Ken Giller and colleagues, we need more ‘systems agronomy’ thinking. This means thinking about where different practices fit (land area/soil type, garden vs. outfield); how labour is deployed and by whom (seasonally, between men and women, including the costs of hiring); the levels of mechanisation (beyond a reliance on just garden-based hoe farming on very small plots) and the management of different inputs across the farm (such as through competition over crop residues as mulch and animal feed, the levels of production of manure as livestock herds decline and how focused inorganic fertiliser inputs are applied). And so on.

This is what farming systems research made the case for from the 1970s in response to the failures of the single, magic bullet approach of the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s. The high yielding varieties, fertility inputs and water control technologies only worked in some controlled settings, and a more attuned approach was needed. This extended to more participatory approaches from the 1980s and 90s when farmers became involved in, and helped design, scientific experiments.

But sadly much of this impetus has been lost in the last two decades as a technology transfer mode has returned to agricultural development. This applies not just to the ‘green revolution’ technologies, promoted through such organisations as AGRA, but also the so-called ‘alternative’ technologies of agroecology and regenerative agriculture promoted by NGOs, donors and some UN agencies. Conservation agriculture and Pfumvudza is just one such example.

How should we assess what works from a more holistic, systems perspective? Too often agronomic and even economic efficiency assessments are just on the basis of a single plot, but this is not how farmers must respond. Focused attention on a metre squared is not the same as managing a whole farm, and indeed a wider livelihood system.  The focus on the field plot and the obsession with single packages pushed by extension has long been shown to be inadequate, as argued by Robert Chambers and many others (including me…) in the Farmer First book series over decades (also here and here). The wider approach to ‘sustainable livelihoods’, originally promoted by Robert and Gordon Conway in the early 1990s, added to this argument (see also here from me).

From a technology focus to a systems approach

Zimbabwe’s history of agricultural research and development has followed a similar path. The high point of green revolution technology-led enthusiasm was in the 1950s and 60s when the famous Rhodesian maize varieties such as SR52 were out-performing the American mid-West. The package approach of ED Alvord was the basis for extending successful technologies to the ‘natives’ through demonstration even earlier, from the 1920s, as part of the ‘gospel of the plow’. This technology focus persisted but after Independence, but in the 1980s the Farming Systems Research Unit was established in the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Ministry of Agriculture, which led on adaptive and later participatory research.

Indeed our research team grew out of this unit and has maintained its philosophy even after it was abolished in the restructuring of the 1990s, the result of the collapse in state funding to research resulting from the structural adjustment programme. Since then government agricultural research in Zimbabwe reverted to a more technical focus, but with limited funding has been seriously hampered and it has been the NGOs and the donors that have led, with a cycle of fads and new project efforts that have emerged.

From Alvord onwards, Zimbabwe has frequently succumbed to fads in agricultural production, with promises of silver bullet solutions, and with committed, sometimes highly politicised, evangelists showing the way. The story of Pfumvudza is therefore one part of a longer history. However, just as with previous interventions, understanding how such technologies and practices fit within a wider agricultural and livelihood system is essential.

As the results from this past year show – discussed in this blog series and indeed reflected in much longer-term studies – Pfumvudza and conservation agriculture more generally may be one part of the solution, but only one part. Rather than getting carried away with the hype of a singular solution, a more systems perspective that appreciates the complex performance of farming is urgently needed.  

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

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Conservation agriculture: latest experiences from Zimbabwe

In the last blog, I introduced the Pfumvudza programme in Zimbabwe, a version of conservation agriculture that has been heavily promoted across the country during the last season. In this blog, I look at what happened, based on reflections from our field sites across the country – from Chikombedzi in Mwenezi in the far south, to Matobo in Matabeleland South to Masvingo and Gutu districts to Mvurwi in the north.

Across our sites, even in the resettlement areas where there are larger land areas, the uptake has been impressive. According to our informants (mostly agricultural extension officers living in the area), it is lowest in the tobacco farming area of Mvurwi (around 50%) and high in the poor sandy soil areas of Gutu/Chatsworth (over 90%) and Wondedzo (about 80%), as well as in the drier areas of Mwenezi and Matobo (80-90%).

But what Pfumvudza actually is in the different sites varies. Across the sites different packages – mostly maize, but also soya and sorghum – were offered. But there was a huge range of different seed varieties delivered. Some proved excellent, others less so. And the timing of the deliveries varied too. Some were available before the early rains, allowing dry planting, others arrived late, missing the plentiful early rains and hitting the mid-season drought that affected many sites. In addition to variations in types of seeds there were different levels of provision of fertiliser (compound D and top dressing), with many farmers complaining that this was inadequate. All these factors had a big effect on the outcomes of the programme.

Comparing Pfumvudza and conventional approach: a very rough assessment

In the last few weeks as crops have matured, the team has done a visual assessment of the likely harvests in the Pfumvudza plots and in other fields. This is very rough-and-ready, and should not be taken as a definitive assessment, but it’s based on long experience of working in the areas, and in most cases with experience as trained extension workers. Within these averages there is of course wide variation, much to do with timing. Those who planted early and benefited from early rains did well, both on their Pfumvudza plots and in their other fields. The results (with all the caveats) are in the table below.

SitePfumvudza (very approximate tonnes/ha)Conventional (very approximate tonnes/ha)
Mvurwi4.86
Gutu Chatsworth3.52.4
Wondedzo Masvingo1.52
Matobo4.22.5
Chikombedzi Masvingo43
Average yield3.63

Except in Mvurwi and Wondedzo, the Pfumvudza plots seem to have yielded more than the conventional agriculture in the open fields, but of course only on very small areas. The yield levels in the main fields this year were actually quite good, including in the usually very dry areas of Matobo and Mwenezi, where average yields are usually below a tonne per hectare. Any assessment must take account of what is happening in home and out fields, hence the comparison above. In good seasons, the use of more extensive outfields is feasible, and many ploughed furiously in December when the rains arrived in earnest. Even though planting late, they did reasonably well.

Of course the inputs supplied may not have all ended up in the Pfumvudza plots; as in past free distributions free inputs are applied carefully across the farm, making any evaluation tricky. In terms of the overall volume of output, outfield crops under conventional systems across several hectares will far exceed those produced in the small 0.06 ha Pfumvudza plots. Even with higher yields per hectare, the plots provide only a small fraction to the total. This of course might have been different in a dry year, when outfield crops may fail completely, and small garden-like plots provide an important production safety net, and so any evaluation must look across years, with the above figures taken in context.

Farmers’ reflections reveal a complex story

So what happened on the ground across our sites? A number of themes emerged in discussion with farmers and the field research team, relating to the effects of soils, rainfall pattern, seed supply, labour and politics:

Soils. Different soil types make a big difference. In sandy soils, there have been complaints of leaching due to heavy rains. This was particularly the case in Wondedzo in Masvingo where sandy soils suffered through the incessant rains this season. By contrast, in some areas where there are heavier soils and farmers complained about pooling of water in the pits and waterlogging. This meant adaptation of the system, including the building of cross furrows and other drainage systems, noticed in particular in Mvurwi, where the Pfumvudza plots fared worse than the conventional farming areas. 

Rainfall. It was an unusually wet season this past year, with good early rains, a gap and then later rains. The season was in three periods, and those who planted early and got inputs in time did well. However those who planted later had poor results. This was a pattern across all our sites. However the high rainfall particularly affected our northern site in Mvurwi, which would normally expect reasonable rains for crop growth. Here waterlogging and even algal growth along with a massive weed burden proved a big problem in the conservation agriculture plots. By contrast, normal drainage and the use of herbicides in other fields proved helpful, resulting in higher yields there. By contrast in the dry south, where drought conditions are more common high rainfall on rich, heavy soils proved a bonanza and both Pfumvudza and conventional plots did spectacularly (at least for these areas). Of course any agronomic system must be able to adapt to different conditions, as there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ year. Mixing different approaches within a farm may be an important way forward, rather than seeing Pfumvudza as ‘the’ solution.

Seeds. It was comments about seed varieties that dominated the discussions with farmers across the sites. The government programme had a challenge in gaining access to seed and too often it resulted in inappropriate seeds being offered to Pfumvudza farmers. For example in Wondedzo and Gutu Chatsworth, farmers complained bitterly about the poorly-performing Syngenta variety supplied for their Pfumvudza plots. The SC513 that they bought locally did much better. In Mvurwi, farmers refused to collect the seed offered under the programme, and much remains rotting in the stores. Instead, they used their own seed, which proved more effective. In Matobo, farmers were happy with the Pioneer varieties that were supplied and this was the same in Mwenezi where Seed Coop varieties were offered. Early planting on high fertility soils in these sites resulted in bumper yields on the Pfumvudza plots, and also good yields elsewhere.

Labour. The digging of pits was a requirement for receiving inputs. So last year resulted in a growth in demand for labour, especially to help older and infirm people. Young men in particular were able to get piece-work employment during the lockdowns of 2020 to dig pits. And some richer farmers also employed labour as it is very hard work digging a full plot for Pfumvudza farming. Those in Mvurwi resettlement areas, where tobacco farming dominates, argued that Pfumvudza is not for commercial agriculture, where you need larger areas and digging pits is impossible (although with the loss of many cattle due to January disease last year, many had to resort to this technique due to a lack of draft power). The local nick-name for conservation agriculture is ‘dig and die’ (diga ufe). Many still refer to the programme in this way, but the term is now used quietly, as today criticising the programme is definitely not encouraged given its political cachet.

Politics. Many farmers complained about the politicisation of the programme. In the past you had to perform what the NGO or development project wanted to get the inputs for conservation agriculture, but now it’s more elaborate given how Pfumvudza has become a party-led, state backed campaign. Many commented that this politicisation means that (as with command agriculture) that patronage politics are played out around the programme, and those not supporting the programme are deemed to be in opposition to the government and are victimised. Others expressed suspicions that the Pfumvudza programme was part of a larger aim of down-sizing farms in the resettlement areas. If it can be proven that good yields are achievable on a small plot, then subdivisions become more possible, they observed. Farmers argued that the programme should be solely under the control of the ministry, and not within the purview of politicians, councillors and party cadres. However, the offer of free inputs is not shunned, although many argued that earlier programmes, such as the Presidential Support Scheme that was not tied to digging pits, were more effective. Many farmers said they would not continue with the practice if there were no free inputs.

Agronomy in context

In sum, while appreciating the programme, farmers complained a lot about the poor seeds, the late delivery and the uneven provision of inputs. They argued strongly that a blanket approach to the whole country controlled centrally – with everything from seeds, to fertility inputs to plant population to the size of the pits – does not make sense.

The programme instead needs to be much better attuned to local circumstances, including learning from how farmers have adapted the system, and not hiding this from extension workers and others for fear of admonishment. One extension worker recalled being tackled by a group of farmers earlier in the season: “You are from government”, they said, “what sort of people are you? You give us rubbish seeds. Who is responsible for this?”. As a front-line worker in a hierarchical, centralised system, he had no answer and had to agree (quietly). The failure to adjust, adapt and attune of course undermines any technological intervention. Learning from failures is always important.

Agronomy is always site specific, making big generalisations about interventions and techniques very problematic, as many reviews of conservation agriculture have pointed out (e.g. here and here). Context matters. There is never a magic bullet for farming. It all depends. This is why a more rounded perspective – beyond the idea of single magic bullet intervention – is needed. This is the theme of the blog next week, which is the final one in this Pfumvudza blog series.

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

Thanks to the team from across the country for their inputs and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating and compiling

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Can the Pfumvudza conservation agriculture programme deliver food security in Zimbabwe?

It looks like it’s going to be a good harvest this year in Zimbabwe. Early crop assessments suggest that there will be a bumper crop of maize, perhaps the highest since the early 1980s at 2.8 million tonnes, planted across 1.9 million hectares. The season saw heavy rains throughout the country. As a result there is much optimistic talk of national food security for the first time since 2016. This would be exceptionally good news, especially given the dire situation in the wider economy and the challenges of importing food during the pandemic.

Some are claiming that this success is because of the promotion of a high profile conservation agriculture technique (now branded Pfumbvudza/Intwasa in Shona and Ndebele), involving the digging of pits as small planting basins to concentrate water and nutrients. There has been a major push by the state, with high-level political backing. The national drive has been backed by international agencies, including many donors and the UN’s FAO, and the Pfumvudza programme has been touted as the nation’s saviour, aimed at achieving the elusive goal of national food security after years of food imports due to successive droughts.

The president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a big fan, and it has been promoted vigorously by the new minister agriculture, Anxious Masuka, and his enthusiastic Permanent Secretary, John Basera, along with all MPs and local officials. Enlisted as part of a technocratic renewal and revival of the economy, Pfumvudza has taken on a political role with substantial political investment from the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

What is Pfumvudza?

Pfumvudza is not a new innovation. Conservation agriculture has been hyped in particular by the FAO and a number of NGOs and donors, over a number of years, both in Zimbabwe and the region, with decidedly mixed results. So what does Pfumvudza involve?

Originally promoted by Brian Oldrieve of Foundations for Farming in Zimbabwe since his early experiments on Hinton Estate in the 1980s, the approach has taken on an evangelical tone, with the required mulch in the pits described as ‘God’s blanket’ and the practice being promoted as ‘God’s way’. The energetic extension of particular packages of agricultural production combined with religious zeal of course has longer precedents in Zimbabwe. E.D. Alvord, the American missionary, who promoted improved agricultural practices from his position of agriculturalist in the Native Affairs Department from 1926 to 1950, promoted in his book, The Gospel of the Plow.

The Pfumvudza programme has a rather different evangelical zeal, driven by a politics of desperation, as the government tries to get agriculture moving. With the much touted ‘command agriculture’ programme aimed to promote more commercialised agriculture faltering through corruption scandals and uneven results, the government has switched to focusing on small-scale agricultural areas, mostly the communal lands but also A1 resettlement areas, where the majority of farm land lies.

Conservation agriculture is founded on several core principles, including practising minimum soil disturbance or tillage; having permanent soil cover by using organic mulch and using crop rotations and intercropping cover crops with main crops. In Zimbabwe the practice involves the digging of shallow pits using hoes and using mulch to cover the growing plants. The Pfumvudza programme has designed a highly specified package involving the requirement to prepare two 39 x 16 m plots (0.06 ha) for grains (mostly maize, and some sorghum in some parts of the country) and a third plot for soya beans, sunflower or another commercial crop for sale. Pits of a certain depth and spacing are required to be dug and mulched, and seeds along with fertiliser (officially, Compound D and AN top dressing) are supplied by government. The whole operation has been supported by over 5000 extension workers with new motorbikes issued and ambitious targets have been set.

Huge claims have been made about the potentials, with expectations of one tonne of maize per grain plot, allowing one tonne for consumption and one for sale to national grain marketing board. But that’s an expected yield of 15 tonnes per hectare, higher than the famed ‘ten tonne club’ of top commercial farmers, so somewhat unlikely.

However, putting aside the wild claims, even modest improvements on very low yield levels experienced in drought years, resulting in increased yield stability, would be good. So despite the excessive hype we do need to take the programme seriously. Can it deliver?

Does it work, can it deliver?

Past evaluations of conservation agriculture have been rather mixed. Some agencies have been so vested in the approach that they have been alleged to suppress negative results, as I learned from a colleague in Zambia. But a quick Internet search of scientific articles reveals dozens of studies that explore the different dimensions – fertilisation rates, pit sizes, mulching practices and more.

I have not done a systematic review of the results, and couldn’t find one that was up-to-date and Zimbabwe focused (although see here, here and here for good overviews), but most plot-focused studies show (perhaps not surprisingly) that it all depends. It depends particularly on soil type (and so natural fertility and drainage), on the type and timing of fertility inputs, and on rainfall levels, and so the risk of flooding or drying of the pit area. It also depends on the seeds used (of course) and the amount of labour applied. Indeed, just what you’d expect from any agronomic intervention.   

Most studies conclude that per area, yield levels can increase in the small intensively farmed area. Given the amount of labour required, returns to labour are low, and so again it all rather depends whether it is farm area or labour that is the limiting factor. And it also depends on what soil you have and what the season is. And even if yields go up, given the total areas are necessarily small, the studies show that such approaches do not deliver food security at the household let alone national level.

In other words, it’s just like any other farming practice…. there is no magic, with or without divine intervention, in conservation farming. Adding caution to the hype makes much sense. Next week, I will look at what happened in our sites over the past season.

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

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FAO recognises farmer-led irrigation as a major contributor to agricultural development

Buried deep in a long report on water and agriculture by FAO – the flagship state of food and agriculture report of 2020 – there is a really important section, signalling a big shift in mainstream thinking about irrigation and the use of water in agriculture.

It focuses on farmer-led irrigation, a theme discussed on this blog quite a few times before, and central to research in our field sites in Zimbabwe’s resettlement areas. Farmer-led irrigation is not a new phenomenon of course, but it has not been central to discussions about irrigation, seen as peripheral and not following ‘proper’ engineering recommendations. That FAO has addressed this in its major report is therefore a significant moment. They argue:

“Small-scale farmer-led irrigation systems can have lower unit costs than those managed by government agencies and offer much higher internal rates of return (28 percent) than does large-scale, dam-based irrigation (7 percent). They also improve yields and income, and reduce risks from climate variability. Governments should support these initiatives….”.

What is farmer-led irrigation, and how important is it?

As the FAO report comments:

“In sub-Saharan Africa, only about 3 percent of cropland is irrigated, and small-scale farmer-led irrigation systems are rapidly expanding. Farmers invest their own resources and access water from shallow groundwater, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. These are an attractive option to small-scale farmers because they use simple affordable equipment, including buckets, watering cans, treadle pumps, drip systems and conservation agriculture technologies, such as terracing and in situ rainwater harvesting. More than 80 percent of farmers who use irrigation employ manual lifting and watering using buckets and cans, although demand for more mechanized options is growing.”

Of course, the statistics on ‘irrigated land’ are massively upset by an acknowledgement of farmer-led practices, as they don’t normally count as ‘irrigation’. When we produced our paper on farmer-led irrigation in Zimbabwe for Water Alternatives, one reviewer was highly dismissive. Coming clearly from a conventional irrigation background, they argued that what we were reporting from our study sites was not significant, and that investment in effective and efficient small-scale irrigation schemes was the way forward. We begged to differ.

As noted in the paper, our findings were not unusual and are replicated elsewhere. Box 10 in the FAO report highlights research from Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Zambia, quoting a 2012 IMWI report by Meredith Giordano and colleagues, Water for Wealth and Food Security:

“In Burkina Faso, 170 000 farmers – mainly small-scale farmers – irrigate 10,000 hectares of vegetable crops using buckets, watering cans and small motorized pumps. This tripled vegetable production between 1996 and 2005, raising dry season incomes by USD 200–600. In Ghana, 185 000 hectares are under small-scale irrigation, primarily cultivating vegetables in the dry season, benefiting half a million small-scale farmers. This adds between USD 175 and USD 840 annually to household income. In the United Republic of Tanzania, more than 700 000 farmers lift water from rivers and wells using buckets and cans to irrigate vegetables on 150 000 hectares. Half of small-scale farmers’ dry season cash comes from irrigated vegetables. In Zambia, 90,000 hectares are under private irrigation, and the 20 percent of small-scale farmers who grow dry season vegetables earn 35 percent more than those relying solely on rainfall.”

In our two sites in Masvingo district in Zimbabwe, the farmer-led irrigated area represented on average 2.02% of the total arable and non-arable area. Extrapolating up to the provincial level, if the same extent of farmer-led irrigation is seen across the whole province (estimated at 5.15 million ha, excluding Gonarezhou national park), this would represent 104,056 ha of farmer-irrigated land. Assuming that the proportion of land that is arable is the national average of 10.3%, this would represent 19.6% of arable area, a very significant proportion. By contrast, formal irrigation through government schemes in Masvingo province is estimated to cover 4,176 ha in total, across 60 schemes, ranging size from eight ha to 625 ha. This represents only 0.08% of the total area of the province (again excluding Gonarezhou national park) and 0.8% of estimated arable area. Under these, admittedly extremely rough, assumptions, this is only 4% of total farmer-led irrigation. Given that many of these formal schemes are not functioning to full capacity, farmer-led irrigation, by any calculation, represents a very significant contribution to the provincial agricultural economy.

Policy support to farmer-led approaches must be central to irrigation development

In a way the specific figures don’t matter: what is important is that those promoting irrigation – so central to agricultural productivity and boosting incomes for farmers – recognise farmer-led practices in all their variety and provide support for these. As discussed in our paper, this must include:  

  • improving security of land tenure and access to water, and adaptation of environmental rules excluding use near rivers and wetlands;
  • regulation of water supply to avoid over-use of groundwater in particular;
  • support for market development, particularly for horticultural products to avoid seasonal and local gluts;
  • credit support for investment in irrigation development, and
  • enhancement of technology provision for cheap pumps, pipes and other water lifting and distribution systems, including having preferential import arrangements for basic kit and spares, especially from China.

Why then do policymakers and donors still focus on irrigation ‘schemes’, when their track-record has been so bad? At Independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had about 150,000 hectares under ‘formal’ irrigation schemes; about 3% of the arable area. However, only 3.5% of this area was under smallholder schemes. This area increased over the following decades, with investment in ‘block’ schemes, with irrigators usually being allocated small 0.1 ha areas under centrally controlled schemes. Many of these schemes failed.  Economic analyses highlighted that all capital costs and 89% of recurrent costs were covered by the government, and when this support dried up, the scheme collapsed.

Following the land reform from 2000, the talk has once again been investment in ‘schemes’ to support the new farmers. Various programmes during the 2000s invested in the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure on former large-scale farms. Election manifestos promoted ‘modern’ irrigation as central to a new push to upgrade and commercialise agriculture. From 2016, ‘command agriculture’ included investment in irrigation facilities. Foreign donors, from the Brazilians to the Chinese, have offered irrigation equipment, mostly suited to large-scale production. And most recently the minister, Anxious Masuka, announced that $57 million had been allocated for rehabilitating existing schemes, with strict requirements for sustainable use. As part of a new statutory instrument issued in February there are also big plans to boost state-led irrigation capacity, with an irrigation development fund, the assignment of district irrigation engineers and so on. And of course the controversy around land use changes in the Chilonga area is all about a massive, high-profile irrigation investment. Today, as in the past, hydrological transformations and images of modernist progress are closely tied with a project of state-building and shoring up political support through high-visibility investments.  

There is nothing wrong with formal irrigation schemes for supporting smallholder agriculture, particularly in the drier parts of the country, as long as they remain supported and the infrastructure is maintained. But they need to be seen as part of a more integrated, flexible irrigation policy, where farmer-led approaches are given greater prominence. For sure, the mention of farmer-led irrigation in the FAO report was a small element of a much larger report (just on page 64 and box 10 for those wanting to point to it), but it does signal that farmer-led irrigation can now be announced as mainstream (because the UN’s FAO said so….).

Maybe in the future, national governments and donors – all members and supporters of FAO – will shift their focus and catch up with what farmers have been doing for millennia.

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

Update (h/t, Gert Jan Veldwisch): I hadn’t spotted it when I wrote this, but both the World Bank and the African Union have shifted their focus, with respectively a new training guide and a change in WB investment priorities and a commitment to making farming-led irrigation development one of four pillars of AU irrigation and water management. It seems that at least some have already started to catch up with farmers. Let’s hope these shifts filter through to practice in Zimbabwe soon!

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