Against the grain: Zimbabwean farmers have just produced their biggest ever wheat crop. How did this happen?

Blazio Dengu, a commercial farmer, tends to his wheat (pic: Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe)

By Tonde Maruke

Zimbabwe says it has produced its largest ever wheat crop, as more farmers grew the grain and government expanded irrigation.

Wheat farmers have produced 326,687 tonnes against a season target of 380,000 tonnes, data shows.

“Harvesting is still going on but our farmers are facing challenges to deliver the grain to GMB due to transport logistics, challenges of high moisture content due to the rains and late payments of initial deliveries,” says Agricultural Advisory and Rural Development Services chief director Obert Jiri. 

This is the most wheat that Zimbabwe has ever grown since the crop was introduced to the country in 1962. It beats the previous record of 325,000 tonnes in 1990. Zimbabwe plans to further grow output to 420,000 tons next season. Annual consumption is 360,000 tonnes per year.

It is a major turnaround for Zimbabwe, which saw wheat production falling from 300,000 tonnes in 2000 – when land reform disrupted commercial agriculture – to well below 20,000 tonnes in 2009.

How did Zimbabwe do it?

Land under wheat increased from 60,000 hectares last year to 80,885 hectares this year, as the government convinced smaller growers to take on a crop that for years was the preserve of commercial farmers.

At Nyagori Farm near Chegutu District, farmers have just harvested their first-ever wheat crop.

“It is my first-time growing wheat,” farmer George Ngwarwi told Xinhua. “We have been growing other horticulture products and maize, but because of the shortage (of wheat) and the conflict in Ukraine, the government decided that as Zimbabweans we should grow our own wheat.”

Raising new wheat producers has helped bump up output, says Deputy Agriculture Minister, Vangelis Haritatos.

“A lot of countries discount small-scale farmers because they are so small that individually they cannot effect much change,” Haritatos says. “But we organised them into clusters and convinced them that it was possible. The quality of most of their crops is premium.”

A man tends to wheat harvest at a farm in Chegutu, on Oct. 31, 2022. Many farmers growing wheat for the first time. Photo: Xinhua


Record irrigation expansion

Zimbabwe’s budget allocations into irrigation infrastructure over the past two years are at their highest in years.

A report on infrastructure spending released alongside the 2023 budget shows over 50 irrigation schemes under the Turnkey and the National Accelerated Irrigation Development Programme, which includes wheat projects. The Smallholder Irrigation Revitalisation Program, co-funded by Government and IFAD, has 2,800ha irrigated out of a targeted 6,100ha.

The 2023 budget has set aside Z$60.1 billion for irrigation. Treasury will also use US$20 million from the IMF SDR allocation to fund 17 irrigation schemes covering a combined 2,714ha.

Harvesting improved on previous years, with schemes such as the Belarus Farm Mechanisation Scheme supplying combine harvesters to new farmers to help them harvest wheat in time.

Private investment into wheat, which accounted for 60% of crop funding last year, remained strong. Innscor, through the PHI and Agrowth, contracted 13,000 hectares of wheat production to feed its subsidiary National Foods, the country’s biggest miller. The scheme is projected to harvest at least 78,000 tonnes.

“The current local wheat harvest is underway, and prospects for the crop size are very encouraging,” Natfoods says in its last quarterly update, saying it hoped improved cereal harvest would cut imports.

But, it’s not all good news

But behind the good wheat delivery numbers are the farmers, some of whom are not as delighted by the season as government officials claim in the press headlines.

Payment delays by the GMB have once again discouraged farmers.

GMB this month paid Z$268,048 plus US$220 per tonne for premium grade wheat, and Z$243,680 and US$200 per tonne for standard wheat. But, by the first week of November, only 22% of the delivered wheat has been paid for, according to GMB data. GMB had to apply for another Z$10 billion and US$8 million to Treasury to pay farmers, GMB general manager Rocky Mutenha said then.

The Food Crop Contractors Association (FCCA), a group of commercial farmers that grows most of the wheat, also reported early in November that only farmers on the Presidential Input Scheme and self-financing farmers had been paid.

Critics want government to end all controls on wheat marketing.

“Farmers are complaining of non-payment for wheat delivered, (some) receiving only a delivery note. No payments up to date, yet the government created monopoly is the only buyer,” says Rusty Markham, opposition Citizens Coalition for Change MP for Harare North and the party’s secretary for agriculture.

Power cuts and fires were also a major risk this year, farmers say. In 2019, the electricity crisis slashed wheat output to just 60,000 tonnes.

No more imports? Not quite

Zimbabwe has spent over US$140 million each year importing wheat, a bill that would increase given rising global grain prices. With a larger crop, Zimbabwe will now import less. But, while government officials claim Zimbabwe will no longer import any wheat, the country still needs some imports.

The country’s “soft” wheat must be blended with imported varieties, which cannot be grown here due to the climate, to make shelf-quality bread, says the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe.