A crop forecast by the Zimbabwean government that this year's maize production will fall short of the national requirement by about one million metric tonnes is leading to a reassessment of the role of communal farmers in guaranteeing the country's food security.
For the past five years, Zimbabwe has become increasingly reliant on food aid, a situation largely attributed to the fast-track land reform programme, which redistributed more than 4,000 white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks.
Although the often chaotic and violent land redistribution in 2000, led by veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war, is seen as the catalyst for the recession that has now lasted eight years and has taken annual inflation rates to above 160,000 percent - the highest in the world - white farmers were not the main producers of the country's staple foods.
After independence from Britain in 1980 price controls on maize increased the trend by white farmers to resort to cash crops like tobacco, paprika, cut flowers and cotton, while growing yellow maize for stock feed, leaving cereal production largely the preserve of communal farmers.
About 50 percent of Zimbabwe's land mass consists of communal farming areas, where 70 percent of the population reside and small-scale farmers work average plot sizes of about two hectares. Former white-owned farms make up about 25 percent of the land, while the remainder is state-owned, old resettlement and small scale commercial land.
Zimbabwe's annual maize requirement for human consumption is about 1.4 million mt, a drop of about 400,000mt in recent years, as it is thought that more than three million people, from a population of about 13 million, have migrated to neighbouring countries such as South Africa and Botswana, or further afield to England and Australia, in search of work. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is estimated at more than 80 percent.
Michael Jenrich, of the emergency unit of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Zimbabwe, told IRIN that "On average, communal areas have produced about two-thirds of Zimbabwe's maize production for the last 20 years," and small farmers were the backbone of the country's maize production.
"People think that communal lands are all dry and not good for agriculture. Two-thirds is fairly dry and suitable for livestock, but one-third of communal land is productive and could produce one million or probably even two million tonnes [of maize], if utilised and supported properly."
Disintegration of the system
Before the land redistribution programme a symbiotic relationship existed between many of the commercial farmers and communal farmers, but the agricultural landscape changed radically in 2000: commercial farmers had sustained large-scale agricultural industries, that meant communal farmers were indirect recipients of "a very sophisticated [agricultural] input system," Jenrich noted.
|Because a large part of the fertiliser industry was used by commercial farmers, production was both big and reliable, and fertiliser was cheap, so even many communal farmers could buy and access it for a very reasonable price|
"Communal farmers were benefiting from cheap and reliable seed supplies, fertiliser and transport systems that were all geared for a certain sector [large-scale farmers]. Because a large part of the fertiliser industry was used by commercial farmers, production was both big and reliable, and fertiliser was cheap, so even many communal farmers could buy and access it for a very reasonable price," he told IRIN.
The economic decline brought about the collapse of the fertiliser industry, disrupted the transport industry and saw a sharp decline in foreign currency earnings from the demise of export crops. This also had "a lot of indirect consequences for communal farmers that has impacted on their productivity," Jenrich said.
"If you see the yields of communal farmers - it is now a third of what it used to be 10 years ago. Communal yields were never very high - the average yields were about 1mt up to 1.5mt per hectare - but now they are below 0.5mt," he said.
A recent crop assessment of both communal and redistributed former white-owned farmland for the 2007/08 season by Zimbabwe's agricultural ministry estimated maize production at 470,669mt, or 0.27mt a hectare, and small grains production at 93,200mt, or 0.2mt a hectare.
The Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU), which looks after the interests of communal land farmers, told IRIN that this season's poor harvest was a consequence of "the late delivery of whatever is available [seeds and fertiliser]" by government, the lack of access to credit for farmers, the increased number of farmers as a result of land reform, and climate change.
E.V. Mandishona, the ZFU's training and information officer, said government agricultural extension services for communal farmers were under severe pressure, as "the number of farmers has increased, but the numbers of agricultural training officers have not."
She said training officers were also unable reach communal farmers because of the shortages of vehicles and spare parts, and the unavailability of petrol.
Homegrown food security
"The point is that the farmers are there; the farmers know how to do it, and with some focussed interventions in terms of inputs, extensions [training] and marketing, the potential of communal farmers in terms of cereal production could easily be revitalised to what it was before, which was about one 1.5 million tonnes, and with a little bit of extra support it could easily exceed that. It is very possible that within a year or two the communal farmers can keep this country food secure," Jenrich said.
|It is very possible that within a year or two the communal farmers can keep this country food secure|
Jenrich estimated that with an annual budget of about US$50 million in the next three years to cover inputs and train farmers, yields could reach 1.5mt to 2mt per hectare on communal farmland conducive to cereal production.
"Compared to what Zimbabwe has been spending in terms of food imports, it's rather a small fee," he said. At current price levels, communal farmers could produce a tonne of maize for US$80 - still US$20 cheaper than South African maize imports three years ago.
Imports of 200,000mt from Malawi, at US$200 per mt, cost US$40 million last year. Zimbabwe's food shortages have coincided with surplus maize production from Malawi, Zambia and South Africa, but rising cereal costs, with no guarantees of bumper harvests in the region yet, could place severe strains on the availability of maize in southern Africa.
In 2007/08 international donor agencies provided food aid to more than a third of Zimbabwe's population, or 4.1 million people.
Although the past season has been difficult, with heavy rains followed by prolonged dry spells, "for those farmers that planted on time, it [the maize crop] is looking quite good," Jenrich conceded.
FAO envisages stimulating the growth of communal farmlands as very feasible, should funding become available. A network of NGOs supporting communal farmers has developed in the past five years, but it would be "quite involving" and take quite a while to organise access to fertilisers and institute training programmes for about 500,000 of the roughly one million households on communal lands, Jenrich said.