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A Maize Miracle


new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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A maize miracle
Can the spectre of hunger be banished in Africa? Colleen Lowe Morna
reports on Zimbabwe's bold and inspiring attempt to lay the ghost.

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Photos: Margaret Walker
and Colleen Lowe Moma

Provincial Governor Mudhomeni Chivende steps out of his sedan to an overwhelming welcome of cheers and ululation. For the past few days the Governor's visit is all that peasant farmers in the Zvimba communal lands have talked about.

Now, as they sit on the lawn and the Governor takes his seat of honour behind the wooden table with its clean, white cloth, the air is charged with expectation.

A man rises to open the meeting. He is-the local chair of the National Farmers Association of Zimbabwe (NFAZ), which represents the country's peasant farmers.

'During droughts we are having to move our animals further to get water,' he notes. 'Yet we have always known that there is potential here for a dam.' He points to a nearby depression in the landscape. Toward this end, we have collected $400 (US$200). We are appealing to the Governor to take our plea to the Government and donors, so that with their help we can fulfil our wish.'

Suddenly he breaks into song. 'Let us plough to uplift Zimbabwe,' his deep voice booms. 'Plough to uplift Zimbabwe,' the 100-odd farmers echo back in unison.

Moments like this encapsulate the drive and energy of Zimbabwe's communal farmers. They have offered a beacon of hope for Africa during the 1980s.

Elsewhere on the continent most governments have adopted policies skewed against agriculture and in favour of the politically vocal urban elite. Agricultural exports have declined, and food imports are increasing at seven per cent a year.

Neighbouring Zambia, for example, has perhaps three times the agricultural potential of Zimbabwe. But until recently it imported more food than it exported due to its concentration on copper mining.

Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, long after its neighbours, and it learned from their mistakes. It has prioritized agriculture, trying to maintain productivity among the 5,000 largely white commercial farmers and to increase production among the 850,000 peasant families.

Under the former government, communal farmers never delivered more than 80,000 tonnes to the Grain Marketing Board. That amount has since increased tenfold. Except in a drought year, Zimbabwe's small-scale farmers can now feed the nation, freeing commercial farmers to produce for export.

Stunning success
This is impressive enough but peasant farmers do not only grow food. Today they also grow 55 per cent of Zimbabwe's cotton, 90 per cent of its sunflowers and 30 to 40 per cent of its groundnuts. Overall agriculture accounts for 45 per cent of Zimbabwe's exports, sustains half its industries and is the country's largest single employer. 'If ever a government has supported agriculture and local initiative, it is the present one , comments the President of the NFAZ, Robinson Gapare.

As Africa enters the 1990s, Zimbabwe's agricultural success is attracting increasing attention. Under Ian Smith's former white minority government, peasant farmers were cramped into the worst land. But the present government aims to buy unproductively used 'white' land and settle peasant farmers there. One-third of the 165,000 families originally targeted for resettlement have been moved. More will probably follow during this, Zimbabwe's tenth year of independence.

With a population growth rate of almost four per cent a year, however, resettlement is only one answer to Zimbabwe's problems. 'Of course we want land in the most productive areas,' says Gapare. 'But also training and other forms of support can make unproductive land productive.'

Zimbabwe's major departure from its neighbours - and chief incentive to its farmers - has been a consistent pricing policy. While food subsidies to urban consumers were progressively cut between 1982 and 1984, the price of maize, Zimbabwe's staple food, more than doubled over the same period. The price subsequently remained flat for three years because of a huge stockpile and low prices on the international market. But prices have since been readjusted to about Z$50 (US$25) per tonne, which enables farmers to make a decent profit.

Just as important as the pricing policy has been the increase of credit. Under the former government - as in many African countries today - most peasant farmers couldn't borrow money because they didn't have collateral. Now, although most loans still go to commercial farmers, lending to peasant farmers has shot up from Z$250,0000 in 1979/80 to the present level of Z$30 million annually.

'The main change,' says the general manager of the Agricultural Corporation which controls most loans, 'was not to insist on collateral but to give loans on the basis of viability of the programme.

There has been another big legal change - to the position of women. In the past women were regarded as minors and could only get credit through their husbands. Today all Zimbabweans become majors at the age of 18 and women can get loans as long as they present a viable project, live on the farm and have a good knowledge of farming.

Mavis Mukwauri is one Zvimba farmer who has benefited. She, like many African women, does the farming while her husband works in town. He is a freelance painter who can't get work during the rainy season - precisely when she needs money to buy agricultural materials.

In 1986, Mukwauri suggested to her husband that they take out a loan. 'He said to me: "do whatever you can do; you are the farmer".' So she borrowed enough money to buy materials for four acres of land. That season she reaped 96 bags of maize, compared to her previous 20. Over the last two years she has increased her coverage to six acres and now averages 120 bags of maize.

Improved extension services or backup for peasant farmers have also been vital in Zimbabwe's agricultural revolution. Before independence such services were split in two along racial lines, with most going to white commercial farmers. Since independence the services have been amalgamated and their budget tripled to 30 million Zimbabwe dollars, or 20 per cent of agriculture's total budget.

The Zimbabwean government has realized that every part of the agricultural process needed improving, from borrowing money right through to transporting the grain to market - a total package. Thus agricultural training facilities have also expanded since 1980: despite the growth in population over the period the ratio of agricultural demonstrators to farmers has been reduced from 1:1000 to 1:850. And they are making a special effort to target women farmers, who have traditionally been ignored.

'In the old days it was very difficult for me to talk to women farmers, because the men would say "look, he's trying to steal my wife",' says one agricultural demonstrator. 'Now since the Government says we are all equal, it is much easier.'

One farmer who has learned a lot from the demonstrator is Ebba Chirumanza. 'I did not understand the benefits of winter ploughing, or which type of fertilizer to use for my soil, or how to grow cash crops like cotton,' she says. And but for the demonstrator 'I would not know how to mix pesticides easily myself because I can't read the labels.'

A better network
Farmers have also been helped by the improved marketing infrastructure. Elsewhere in Africa a major impediment to commercial farming has been the deterioration of roads and railways due to budget cuts over the decade.

Zimbabwe fortunately inherited a relatively well-developed network, complemented by an efficient Grain Marketing Board. Before independence all of these facilities were geared to serving the country's white farmers. But since 1980 great efforts have been made to re-orient the facilities. Secondary and feeder roads have been built into rural areas. The number of Grain Marketing Board depots has been increased from 43 to 66 - and all the new ones are located in peasant farming districts. Eventually no small farmer will be further than 45 kilo-metres away from a marketing facility.

But all these efforts mean nothing if the farmers themselves do not take advantage of them. Above the mantelpiece in Dan Mutsoto's lounge a framed certificate with the National Resource Board logo takes pride of place. In fine print the certificate which bears his name makes commendation of 'his exemplary activities in water management and viable land husbandry'.

That is the secret of this remarkable Zimbabwean peasant farmer's success. For his stony five-acre plot of land in the Chikukwa area of south-east Zimbabwe is hardly a farmer's dream. Last year the proceeds from this rough piece of ground fed Mutsoto's whole family of ten and brought in nearly Z$l,500 in profit - almost three times the country's per capita income. 'I try to use every inch of land and use it properly,' says the middle-aged farmer, flashing a broad grin.

Initially, like most peasant farmers in Zimbabwe, Mutsoto only grew maize. But when he discovered that he could make three times the amount by growing beans, Mutsoto shifted tactics. For the last two seasons he has primarily been growing beans with just enough maize scattered in-between to feed his family.

On the other two acres of land Mutsoto is experimenting with coffee, an increasingly popular crop with peasant farmers in the mountainous regions of the country. Before the winter, Mutsoto is setting up his own irrigation scheme for the crop, using water from a mountain stream. And to capitalize on this investment, he has also decided to put in a crop of winter wheat between the coffee bushes.

Meanwhile, on a slope adjoining the farm, Mutsoto has planted 4,000 trees because he has noticed that 'my wife is having to go further and further for firewood'. Not to waste any opportunity, Mutsoto has also set up beehives among the trees. 'Next time you come,' says the amiable farmer as he serves out large chunks of maize bread, 'there will be honey to go with the meal.'

Colleen Lowe Morna is a Zimbabwe-based freelance journalist.


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Food first
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The problem
Famines have always occurred in Africa but now they are more common. Quite simply Africa is not growing enough food. Part of the problem is that the best land is all too often devoted to cash crops for export - a bequest of colonialism. But post-independence African governments have also been to blame for their neglect of food-growing. All too often the vocal urban population has demanded such low food prices that farmers have had no incentive to grow more food than they needed for their own families. The result has been more food imports and, in a crisis, food aid - both of which make the prospect of self-sufficiency in food recede even further beyond the horizon.


The facts

  • Around l0,000 children die a day in Zimbabwean peasant farmer's success. For his Africa from causes linked to malnutrition and the lack of health care.
  • About one quarter of sub-Saharan Africa's population - more than 100 million - faces chronic food shortages.
  • Africa now imports around 40% of its food although in the 1950s it used to be self-sufficient.


The way forward
Africa must prioritize food production. At least a quarter of all government expenditure should go into agriculture. And governments should give peasant farmers incentives to diversify and grow more. Good prices for food crops are essential. And farmers need help to buy materials such as fertilizer and seed: these should be subsidized and loans should be more readily available to pay for them. Agricultural research needs funding so as to develop high-yield seeds that suit the African small farmer and do not cost the earth to use. And farmers must be trained in methods of intensive farming that are environmentally sustainable. Governments must put food production first.

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