Surprising trends in Zimbabwean agriculture and what others can learn

Surprising trends in Zimbabwean agriculture and what others can learn

While the World Bank Doing Business Index and competitiveness issues monopolized policy discourse in 2015, big internationalcorporation have quietly consolidated their position in Zimbabwe’s hybrid seed industry. Dupont, Monsanto and Sygenta are the three big American companies that have intensified their strangehold in Zimbabwe’s seed industry. The recent acquisition of Pannar Seeds by Pioneer Seeds has been interpreted as a strong move by Dupont to consolidate its position on Zimbabwe’s seed industry since both Pannar and Pioneer are Dupont subsidiaries. On the other hand, the Seedco – Limagrain deal represents French interests in Zimbabwe.

Although seemingly maintaining a low key, Monsanto and Sygenta are introducing their maize seed varieties into Zimbabwe through subsidiaries.  Also in the maize seed game is a South African outfit known as K2 which recently swallowed Agriseeds.  There is also a range of small players such as ARDA Seeds, Mukushi, Zaka Seeds and Sandbrite Seeds.

Curious questions

The above developments trigger two critical questions: Why is there such a stampede into the maize seed industry when the market for maize grain is declining?  Why hasn’t the horticulture industry enjoyed the same stampede as maize when maize meal is consumed with vegetables? Challenges facing the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) have resulted in maize grain marketing being taken over by the people’s market.  At least 90% of the maize grain is in the hands of the people’s market from district, provincial and national markets like Mbare.  The people’s market is also distributing maize directly to sole trader millers and milling companies in urban centres.  Overall, more than 60% of agro-formal companies’ sustenance is in the people’s market.

According to some market observers, the main reason why giant global players in the maize seed industry are coming to Zimbabwe is because of the US dollar. Basically they are coming in to sweep foreign currency from the country and use it to strengthen their investments in other countries. Although some farmers felt the coming in of many players in the maize seed industry created healthy competition, others felt corporate mergers among seed companies leads to the creation of oligopolies which kill diversity, resulting in anti-competitive behaviour. However, some horticulture farmers said the coming in of Limagrain into Seed Co can be a blessing for the vegetable seed industry where there is currently no big player.  This is because Limagrain is a considered a big player in the vegetable seed market in Europe.

What explains lack of consistency in production among many farmers?

During the first year, the farmer mobilizes all the help s/he can find in the form of labour, commits a lot of resources and follows all the advice from other farmers and extension officers. In the 2nd year the farmer starts to cut corners since s/he thinks s/he now has the knowledge.  Experimentation kicks in with the farmer beginning to use less fertilizer and chemicals. In the 3rd year, the farmer wants to correct mistakes made in the 2nd year so that s/he goes back to first year performance levels.  S/he manages to improve more than 2nd year but does not reach 1st year performance levels.  In the 4th year the farmer has lost a lot of resources and thus remains at lower standards.  At this stage, withdrawal syndrome sets in. All sorts of excuses come in as revealed through blaming farm management, politics and markets, all to justify an exit decision.

Another reason why farmers have failed to maintain commendable consistency is trying to be venture-some, for example transitioning from tobacco to horticulture with little knowledge. If a farmer maintains 1st year standards and acquires advice to maintain that level, s/he should also have an appetite for research in order to keep improving.

Labour issues going into the future

Lack of labour is already affecting farmers and the situation is likely to worsen.  Previous white farmers deliberately kept farm labourers illiterate and not mobile so that they remained a consistent pool of labour. Grade five was the highest level of education for children of farm labourers so that the they were just able to count things on the farm but not be ambitious enough. Grocery shops and beer hall services were provided on the farm so that labourers would not find any reason to travel outside the farm.    Come land reform, some children of farm labourers have become educated and highly mobile. The majority now own mobile phones.  Having been liberated from colonial bondage through the land reform, farm labourers now know their rights and demand more than can be provided by new farm owners.  Some now prefer to operate their own small beer halls at the farm, sell airtime cards and drive kombis to urban centres.

Casualisation of labour and piece work have become a common phenomenon as farm workers no longer want to be tied to one place and committed to wage labour. According to new farmers, the labourers can actually tell you how much they want to be paid for a given task unlike in the past where fear-mongering was used to get them working. Under these circumstances, mechanisation is long overdue.  Smart technology like drip irrigation is urgently needed to address some of these challenges.  In five to six years from now, this problem is going to worsen to a point of requiring government intervention.

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Mechanisation is going to save smallholder agriculture from collapse in the future

The extent to which the formal and informal markets depend on each other

Most formal processing companies like Cairns used to depend on large scale farms under contractual arrangements.  Following the land reform, many smallholder farmers with small plots rely on the people’s market as their main demand zone.  Traders pull commodities from farming areas to the people’s market from which they supply formal companies.  This is more cost effective for formal companies because they don’t need to mobilize commodities from smallholders dotted around wards and districts.

Traders also grade and sort commodities to meet specifications of formal companies like supermarkets.  The people’s market ensures consistency in supply for companies unlike under contractual arrangements where supplies can run out due to unforeseen circumstances. Eighty percent (80%) of formal companies in Zimbabwe obtain fresh produce from the people’s market. The retail market comprises vendors from high density areas.   Through vendors (retailers) the people’s market feeds 80% of low to medium density urban population.  The remaining 20% is covered by small backyard gardens.  Food chain stores and restaurants account for 20% of produce from the people’s market. This group services formally employed low density populations, including those working in the Central Business District.  In Zimbabwe, Mbare agriculture market remains the distribution hub for horticultural produce from the northern part of Zimbabwe to other parts of the country, mainly the southern part.  It also pulls drought tolerant field crops (small grains from dry areas such as Buhera, Chivi and Mwenezi to the northern part of the country.

The benefits of knowledge gap analysis

Agricultural evidence gathering processes should try to build from a formal product rather than collecting information from farmers only and going ahead to analyse the data.  Food that reaches the market is 100% for consumption unlike in farms where there can be many uses including livestock feeding and exchanging for labour. When researchers collect samples from storage facilities and farms, they pretend to know all the uses for those products.  The short falls of a product are seen in the market where it competes with other products from elsewhere.  It is therefore important to take samples from the market if one is to correctly advise farmers. The product has to meet certain standards thus the market offers a feedback mechanism and a structure for participation. This will avoid a situation where researchers put the market in a panic mode by linking aflatoxins to cancer. Fear mongering is not a smart marketing strategy.  It should merely be about quality control rather than raising unnecessary alarm. / /

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How farmers and traders overcome the fragmented nature of formal knowledge systems

Farmers, traders and rural communities have amazing ways of creating conversations that overcome the fragmented nature of formal knowledge systems. That is how they create an alternative future for themselves.  Although most of them have not attended formal education, the informal environment has taught them to creatively read situations and facilitate knowledge sharing through group processes.  Besides a capability to function much better in situations that require on-the-fly problem solving, their adaptive skills are more than 80% improvisation.  Unfortunately improvising too much can get in the way of learning from good practices, where they exist. One of the challenges of too much improvisation is that new people will have to start from scratch and thus waste resources.

Dialogue rather than training

Most capacity building and training programmes for farmers tend to be about teaching rather than dialogue.  There is often a training programme and trainer rather than a dialogue convenor. Informal agriculture markets have shown the importance of a dialogue approach where farmers, traders, processors, transporters, artisans, input providers and equipment manufacturers are brought together to nourish each other’s insights.  This can happen at local level around community knowledge centres.  It is no longer useful for farmers to talk to themselves because they have shared the same issues for more than ten years.  In fact, they have solidified a certain position and tied a knot which they can’t untie on their own.  From a recent research conducted by eMKambo, 84 % of farmer respondents mentioned the same challenges.  This probably means five farmers representing Zimbabwe’s five agro-ecological regions can tell you everything you need to know without interviewing thousands of farmers from respective communities.

The only variable can be contextual issues where farmers from Chimanimani cannot lecture farmers from Chivi because they have different economic drivers.  But a dialogue about how farmers in Honde Valley have organised themselves to successfully market their bananas can inform Chivi farmers in how they can also organise themselves to market sorghum.  Look and learn visits should not be on the same practice or same value chains unless there are opportunities for value added services, one step up from production.  Farmers have debated production issues to death such that for really serious farmers there is really nothing to learn from talking to each other besides actual practice or experience.  Organising farmers from one irrigation scheme to visit others in a similar irrigation scheme can be total waste of resources.

How to address some of these issues

A little bit of structured training/formation, action research or methodological design can yield better results – showing the incremental nature of knowledge generation and sharing. Through methodological processes, farmers participate in better engagements and become exposed to new methods and theories although they may not know that they will be working with theories. Perhaps the most important value of formal education is exposing people to new models and ways of integrating new with old knowledge (reconstructing new ways of thinking). Real and lasting change is possible through processes that embrace all aspects of current reality with qualities like an open heart, authenticity, vision, gentleness, courage, mindfulness of body and acknowledgement of fear and imperfection. This is a domain of informal knowledge where farmers and traders thrive.


Some problems can be solved by experts using rigid plans while others require aggressive creativity.  Farmers and traders now realize that the larger challenges they face are complex and full of inter-dependencies that are so intricate that nobody can predict and control them.  This calls for a very different approach. Most approaches by development practitioners do not lead to lasting change because smallholder farming is more complex and cannot just be romanticized.

Financial institutions should be willing to work with all sorts of unattractive aspects of reality, such as uncoordinated production, corporate irresponsibility, carelessness and hopelessness. Real impact is in changing these into positive attributes. Farmers and traders have realized that you may not always work with everybody simultaneously but be open to any piece of reality. For instance, one piece of reality is that smallholder farmers are fond of scavenging for seed, inputs and ideas.  That is probably why among farmers and rural communities gossip is more powerful than the formal media. Those who promote change have to embrace full and personal engagement in order to understand these dynamics. In these situations, corporate communication and advertising are not sufficient ways of sharing information. If you visit farming areas and informal markets as a tourist, you will never understand these deeper issues and stories behind the stories. It is important to be emotionally engaged. You cannot facilitate changes which you are personally unwilling or unable to do.

Learning from inspiring examples not blueprints

In the informal sector, there are often no blue-prints, except inspiring examples which can be a source of inspiration and continual learning. You have to engage more than the intellect and this is where  dialogue becomes very important. Farmers and rural communities know that no one can move forward without mistakes. Mistakes do not prove that the way you search does not exist. It is important to embrace emergent processes that engage multiple ways of seeing and knowing the world.

The market as a dialogue

To the extent that it has enormous convening power, the informal agriculture market facilitates dialogue between commodities and sources of commodities. It is often very difficult for producers to know what volumes are coming from what source. The following graphics depict volumes and sources of commodities in Mbare wholesale market during the month of October 2015. This is an expression of dialogue between agricultural communities in the market as they position each other according to demand.






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How can farmers know the value of their land and related resources?

How can farmers know the value of their land and related resources?

The value of Zimbabwe’s natural resources such as land, water and minerals is still informed by assessments and valuations done by white settlers way back in the 1900s.  For instance, the identification of the country’s five natural farming regions as well as the demarcations of farms, soils, dam sites and other resources originated from that period to become the basis for valuing the whole country. Unfortunately, most of the new farmers do not have sufficient history about the land they are occupying. Previous farmers had all this knowledge which they used for production planning. New classifications such as A1, A2 and large scale have not been informed by solid knowledge about detailed characteristics of those pieces of land. As a result, the true value of the land is yet to be adequately ascertained at an individual farmer level or community level.

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Should farmers measure the value of the land based on yield alone?

Toward purposeful valuation

As part of unlocking the authentic value of pieces of land on which the majority of farmers eke a living, a re-assessment and revaluation effort is badly needed.  If 1000 hectares have been partitioned to accommodate more than 100 farmers, the same farm no longer has the same value it had when it was owned by one farmer.  The land has to be re-valued towards tailor-making production practices.  Some smallholder farmers have embraced tobacco and cotton production on the strengths of capacity building around planting, grading, harvesting and packaging.  However, this kind of knowledge structure is lacking in other sectors like horticulture to which farmers are migrating from field crops.  While a farmer can estimate tobacco yields per hectare, such knowledge is lacking in horticulture or livestock.  It is difficult for smallholder livestock farmers to estimate the amount of beef they can obtain per given pastures.


Some of the vexing questions for farmers include: If a farmer is to transition from tobacco to horticulture on the same land, what processes and procedures does the farmer need to be supported on?  Such a question can only be answered successfully through valuation of available resources – water, soil, roads, water bowsers, tractors, dip tanks, boreholes, pastures, workshops and the general environment.  Basically both man-made and natural resources have to be assessed.  Re-purposing land from tobacco to horticulture requires expertise.  Regarding pastures, if a farmer sets aside four hectares for crops and two hectares for pastures, how does s/he know the quality of pastures in those two hectares reserved for livestock?  The previous farmer may not have cared about livestock but the new farmer has to combine crops and livestock for draught power. This automatically changes land use patterns and calls for valuation.


Valuation is equal if not more important than siting a water source or setting up an irrigation system.  After valuation, siting of all these other assets becomes very easy. In fact, valuation should inform siting and production. It’s no longer enough to own a piece of land. Becoming aware of soil pH calls for interventions that suit different types of production.


Role of the market

Valuation should be informed by a business mind-set and this is where the market becomes important.  How best can a farmer use valuation results to generate income from the market? For any given market-oriented production calendar, farmers should adjust resources to suit those calendars.  If a farmer finds green mealies doing very well from August to December, it means s/he has to adjust soil quality, water availability and other inputs to get the best results.  The same applies with potatoes, tomatoes and other crops.  A farmer can juggle five to ten crops using valuation results.


How this extends to livestock production

The same valuation process can be extended to livestock production.  Farmers can valuate resources that are key to livestock production. It is important to start with what is available.  For instance, types of water reservoirs and their carrying capacity.  A farmer should try to know the history of the dam and measure water levels from summer to summer.  It is also important to assess pastures in terms of grasses naturally growing in the farm and how long the grasses can sustain livestock.  Livestock should not be left to natural phenomena.  Livestock production  has to be properly planned the way farmers plan their crop production.  It is easier to plan for small stock because most of the feed can be produced on-farm.


Every farmer needs a cost benefit analysis.  What is the opportunity cost of growing maize on one hectare and selling maize to the market or feeding the maize to pigs and selling the pigs?  We have to get the best value from a piece of land and this is seen by the best project it can support.  How best can you utilize soil and water to get the best returns?  Soil and water are the main resources for every farmer. If you are given a piece of land and a certain amount of water, which crop will you grow that will give you the best returns out of the two natural resources?  Valuation informs your production strategy especially from the market.  For any given piece of land, is tobacco the best crop that gives the highest returns from all other suitable crops in the same climate?  This is a key valuation question whose answer can open farmers’ eyes to other options.


Community valuation

Community valuation should be done in a participatory manner, separating subsistence (livelihood) from the market component designed to generate income.  Some communities keep more than 1000 cattle in one area. It’s important to know how much water resources and pastures are needed for these cattle and other livestock.  Farmers can also discover that it’s better to use the water for horticulture than for many livestock.  Where they are struggling to grow crops, they can also realize that it’s more ideal to turn the land into pastures.  A crop production mind set has seen many communities turning pastures into fields yet more land could be usefully reserved for pastures.


Evidence from valuation can convince farmers to convert their land to pastures.  This can support horticulture through manure and ox-drawn water supply to irrigate gardens and irrigation schemes.  Valuation can provide comparative analysis between crops and livestock or both.  The comparison can be crop to crop, crop versus livestock, field crop versus horticulture or cash crop versus staple crop.  Is banana the best crop in Honde Valley?  Is tomato the best crop in Mutoko?  If small grains do well in Tsholotsho, are these the best crops or we have to explore the potential of other crops?


Is knowledge about our five natural regions still valid in a changing climate?

Zimbabwe’s five natural farming regions were drawn out based on valuation.  Unfortunately, we have not conducted any other valuation to see if the same characteristics still hold.  Perhaps we now have ten natural regions or less. Or due to climate change, natural regions four and five now have the same characteristics.  How do we explain the fact that over the past few seasons, Masvingo and some areas of Matebeleland have received early rains ahead of natural regions two and three?  Valuation can show us micro climates that have emerged due to climate change as well as sub-regions that are emerging in natural region 1. We can’t continue using knowledge generated hundred years ago.


The same way farmers invest in inputs should see them investing in technical services like valuation of resources.  If a farmer can invest in equipment like tractors, trucks and livestock breeds, s/he needs tailor-made technical services in order to get the best from total investment. If farming is to become a real business, we need to give responsibilities to farmers rather than continue spoon-feeding them.


So what?

In the interest of helping farmers and other value chain actors to build a strong agricultural knowledge foundation, eMKambo has developed an agricultural valuation toolkit based on insights from diverse experts. Every serious farmer requires knowledge from the following sets of expertise: (a) soil and water testing; (b) water reservoir assessments ( how much water in a given period?); (c) irrigation design expertise; (d) land design expertise (cartography including use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)); (e) livestock pasture assessment expertise;  and, (e) economics and market expertise.  Intelligence from the market enables a farmer to adjust production according to the market while matching soil pH, water, pastures and land size to available resources.


The valuation toolkit generates a strategic document which a farmer can use for the next three to five years. Like any other business, farming requires a strategic document.  At the moment, most farmers are not basing their agriculture production plans on thorough valuation.  As a result there is so much missing of targets.  A strategic document can be collateral acceptable to banks.


 If this conversation makes sense to you, please send us an email or give us a call so that we can assist you in developing a valuation framework for your agricultural enterprise. / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6


What can agricultural markets teach us about the true meaning of money?

What can agricultural markets teach us about the true meaning of money?

This question was triggered by the recent devaluation of the South African Rand (ZAR) against the US dollar and how this phenomenon was interpreted in Zimbabwe’s agriculture markets. It is possible that the majority of people in both developed and developing countries struggle with the true meaning of money. To say money is a medium of exchange is an inadequate definition for most people because the answer raises more questions. For instance, in informal agriculture markets a commodity that cost one dollar today can fetch 50c tomorrow, goes to two dollars the day after tomorrow and back to one dollar the next day, same commodity and same quality. Very few institutions have taken it upon themselves to build the capacity of farmers and other actors to appreciate the authentic value and meaning of money. This knowledge gap often strains relationships between farmers and buyers. It becomes worse when prices are fixed through a policy instrument yet the market will be saying something different.

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A recent survey in Harare by eMKambo showed that no one could explain why the value of the South African Rand (ZAR) decreased from around US$1 = ZAR8 to US$1 = ZAR14. In Mbare, Zimbabwe’s biggest agricultural market, traders, farmers and consumers suddenly stopped accepting South African Rand in the form of coins preferring Zimbabwean bond coins. In the absence of a sensible explanation, actors in the market adopted a band wagon effect where someone just stops accepting the South African Rand because someone else has just stopped accepting it as currency.

Currency devaluation and agriculture markets

From our findings, agricultural commodities are more influential than money. If today US$1 can buy four cabbages and tomorrow the same dollar can only buy two cabbages, it doesn’t mean money is more expensive but rather commodities are the ones dictating the value of the dollar.  The impact of currency devaluation is visible in markets where the velocity of money is very high, for example in agricultural markets where there is a high rate of money changing hands.  This means, for example, where one currency has depreciated by 5%, for every unit of a stable currency value is lost to the stable currency.  If US$10 was equivalent to ZAR 100 (hundred South African Rand) and the Rand devalues by 5% to the US$, for every transaction you will be losing ZAR 5 (five Rand) if paid in Rand.

For slow moving businesses, for example where 20 transactions happen per day, you lose about ZAR100.  But in a much dynamic market like Mbare agriculture market where a trader can conduct at least 500 transactions worth ZAR 100 each, by end of day the trader would have lost ZAR500.  That is why informal agriculture markets provided quick signals to the depreciation of the Rand in Zimbabwe. The informal economy was able to predict disaster before it happened. If farmers understand the true role of money in a multi-currency environment like what Zimbabwe finds itself in, they will see how uncoordinated production results in losses. Cotton and tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe have for many seasons been crying foul against buyers because they can’t see how trends on the international market and its dynamics account for their misery. There is need for simplified knowledge on these issues.

How money comes second to barter trade

Where barter trade is easy you don’t need money. You can only use money to buy a different commodity from the one available in a local market.  If one farmer has tomatoes and the other has potatoes and each wants what the other has, they can simply swap without money exchanging hands. If commodity exchange markets are well developed and supported, developing countries can overcome the role of cash – creating a powerful commodity exchange from rural markets to national levels. The only knowledge to be filled will be on who wants what, when and where?

At the moment some African processors based cities drive kilometres into farming areas looking for commodities like maize grain. After farmers are handed money from their maize they start incurring costs looking for fertilizer and other inputs. Yet if there was a local commodity exchange platform where diverse commodities are actually brought together, processors and other commodity buyers would simply bring inputs like seed, fertilizer and agricultural equipment to the local market.  These inputs would be exchanged with maize.

The term money would only be used for pricing not purchasing.  For instance, where an item costs $100 and it is known that a ton of maize costs $300, this would mean three items worth $100 each are exchanged with a ton of maize. Money can only come in where one of the commodities has more value than the one in which case money would be used as a top-up.  Such a practice is now common in Zimbabwe’s phone and car trading business.  A vibrant agricultural commodity exchange would see buyers and sellers placing orders through the market with buyers and sellers interacting all the time. For example if such a market is at Mutoko Business Centre, a farmer can bring 100 crates of tomatoes for exchanging with five bags of fertilizer.

Maize and tobacco exchange

An interesting version of a commodity exchange occurred during this year’s tobacco marketing season in Zimbabwe.  In a rather self-organizing manner, maize farmers and traders brought maize to one of the tobacco auction floors where it was exchanged with tobacco outside the auction floor. Depending on the price of tobacco on the auction floor on a given day and maize on the open market, two kilogrammes of tobacco were exchanged with a bucket of maize. Traditionally tobacco farmers would look for maize after getting their money from tobacco auction floors.  This season maize farmers and traders decided to simplify it for tobacco farmers by bringing maize right at tobacco auction floors.  The whole process showed how people can creatively deal with a liquidity crisis by resorting to barter deals. Detailed analyses could have shown that bringing maize to the tobacco auction floor reduced the demand for cash since tobacco farmers would require less cash given that some bales of tobacco were exchanged with maize outside the market.

Most people in rural areas also exchange their labour with maize.  One can weed an acre for a bucket of maize rather than get the money and start looking for maize.  This is a resilience mechanism where people try to cope with uncertainties in their market and environment.  Some millers also accept farmers to use a portion of their grain as payment for milling services.  This is how the millers build up their stock for later use. / /

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