Zimbabwe expects one of its biggest harvests in a long time this year, thanks to good rains, improved preparation and an emerging crop of young farmers.
The government expects as much as 2,8 million tonnes of maize from the 2020/21 season, which would be the country’s second biggest haul on record if it materialises.
Zimbabwe has struggled to feed itself since 2000, when the government began redistributing land from white farmers to blacks.
While maize output is certainly going to rebound from last year’s 908,000 tonnes, output in other farm products – mainly cash annual crops such as potatoes, green vegetables, tomatoes, onions and cucurbits – has been climbing sharply for years now.
A silent, unacknowledged revolution – until some of its young, intrepid farmers took it to Twitter and Facebook.
What started as a trickle of upbeat updates by a small group of farmers and agronomists – a neat nursery here and a verdant vegetable garden there – has grown into a deluge.
Images of cattle, goats, chickens, rolling maize fields and row upon row of tomatoes, an assortment of vegetables, cucumbers and watermelons now flood ‘Zimbabwe Twitter’ – usually a feral field where the country’s toxic politics find unrestrained expression.
Trending under the #ZimAgricRising hashtag, the farm movement has brought a new dimension to the vexed question of Zimbabwe’s agriculture after the land redistribution programme.
While much of the focus has inevitably fallen on the staple maize, tobacco and important crops such as wheat and soybean, whose production has been demonstrably affected by upheavals on the farms over the past two decades, the silent revolution that has taken place in the horticulture space over the past few years is nothing short of remarkable.
In 2009, Zimbabwe imported vegetables worth US$32 million. At the time, the import basket included potatoes, onions, cucumbers, pineapples, pepper and watermelons. Some imported tomatoes even made their way to Mbare’s vegetable market.
As foreign currency shortages deepened in 2017, the Mugabe government banned fresh produce imports.
“Why should we import carrots and tomatoes? Because by importing tomatoes we are essentially importing water,” Newton Jaravaza of the Fresh Produce Marketers Association of Zimbabwe said in response to the ban on selected products.
By 2019, vegetable imports had come down to US$9.7 million and, even then, the bulk of this was chickpeas and cowpeas brought in by relief agencies, as well as potato seed, which the country still largely imports.
A combination of factors, including protectionist government policies restricting imports and growing interest in horticulture, have resulted in more of the country’s land being put under crops that were previously imported.
In 2010, Zimbabwe spent nearly US$3 million importing potatoes from South Africa, accounting for 20% of that country’s potato exports, only behind Mozambique. At the time, Zimbabwe only took up 4.3% of South Africa’s potato seed exports, behind the likes of Mozambique, Zambia, Angola and the DRC.
By 2016, the picture had changed dramatically, with Zimbabwe ceasing all potato imports, but becoming South Africa’s biggest market for potato seed as its own growers took to the field to plant the crop and many others.
Between 2017 and 2020, the hectarage under potatoes increased by 30%, resulting in a 24% jump in production. The country is now able to meet all its potato demand.
During that period, the national tomato hectarage expanded by 47%, yielding a 136% increase in crop production and occasional gluts that have forced prices down from time to time.
The same trend is noticeable in cabbages, onions, leafy vegetables, butternut, cucumbers, water melon, pineapples, carrots, okra, pease and peppers.
These vegetables typically make up improvised mobile stalls pushed across Zimbabwe’s towns by informal traders.
Crying out for land
While green shoots are evident across much of the agriculture sector, huge problems remain. Zimbabwe’s maize yields continue to lag that of regional peers. Fertilizer shortages were apparent in a season in which many growers faced leeching due to excessive rains.
Extension services, once Africa’s best, appear overstretched despite recent moves to reinvest in Agritex. Dipping chemicals are either in short supply or too expensive, decimating the cattle herds of many poor farmers.
Massive swathes of land are under-utilised and funding constraints confront many farmers. Land tenure remains contested, making banks reluctant to fund farmers.
Many young people eager to take up farming are often hobbled by lack of land and capital.
So dire is the artificial land shortage that even ZANU-PF youths, who say only 1% of youth got farms under the government’s redistribution programme, are starting to vocally agitate for land.
A land audit ordered by the government to determine the extent of under-utilisation of land and multiple ownership, with a view to cutting farm sizes and accommodating more farmers, has only made slow progress.
“I am aware that our youths are crying out for pieces of land and are eager to work the land,” Mnangagwa said in February.
“The inquiry we launched on agricultural land has identified lots of land which is vacant, under-utilised and belonging to multiple owners. Government will repossess that land for on-leasing to the landless, foremost among them the youths.”
More than a hashtag
To support and sustain recovery, Zimbabwe will have to invest in irrigation, and not depend almost entirely on rain-fed production. This year, according to the National Budget, government plans to spend US$2 million of a US$15 million facility from the OPEC International Fund for International Development on irrigation.
Government targets to increase the area under irrigation from 242 000 ha to at least 350 000 ha by 2025 under its accelerated irrigation plan. This year, it has budgeted ZW$3.9 billion for the rehabilitation and development of 10 557 ha at 101 irrigation schemes and maintenance of 14 000 ha of communal irrigation schemes.
Sustaining the growth beyond this season will take more than hashtags, but real investment.