Zimbabwe: food, politics and people

Zimbabwe has been in the news a lot lately, often with references to its former status as the breadbasket of Africa. There is a complicated history, and of course Robert Mugabe, behind all this. Now that Mugabe is gone, can Zimbabwe become an agricultural powerhouse again? Well, let’s look at all the necessary ingredients for successful food production.  

Soil and Climate

This is a really nice article on agrigultural regions in Zimbabwe, and how they have changed since first being classified in 1960. While climate change has impacted rainfall and land management practices have changed soil quality, there is still good potential for agriculture in much of the country. Interestingly, the most fertile region seems to have actually expanded along with the less fertile regions, squeezing the moderate fertility zone, which is where most food crops have historically been produced. Maybe this last point, about the importance of the shrinking moderate fertility zones, has something to do with why Zimbabwe was ranked 9th on a recent list of countries facing the largest impacts of climate change. Check out the graphic of maize production zones comparing the current situation to the 2080 worst case scenario on page 35 of this document. Imagine you are a maize farmer in a green zone on the left that becomes red on the right… why couldn’t they also include the best case scenario for 2080? A little optimism never hurt anyone.

Encouragingly, Zimbabwe has published the National Climate Change Response Strategy linked above (though it is hard to determine exactly when it was published, frustrating). Many ideas have been developed for addressing the impacts of climate change in places like Zimbabwe, and could be successfully implemented given political will and… resources! Page 67 of the report breaks it all down for you – responding to climate change impacts on agriculture will cost a tidy 2,386 million US dollars. That’s 2.386 billion, as long as you aren’t from the UK, circa 1800. This comes second only to addressing the impact of climate change on water resources with a price tag of 3.158 billion US dollars. Wait, but isn’t water sort of essential to agriculture? Ditto Land use and Land Use Change (91 million US dollars). While Zimbabwe’s National Climate Change Response Strategy discusses potential sources of funding for this ambitious plan, it isn’t clear how much has been secured both internally and from external funders.

Agricultural inputs

Basically what you need to produce plants. Generally this includes land, irrigation systems, fertilizer, machinery like tractors and combines, seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Fun fact, those last four items on the list are often called crop protection products by their producers, which seems to me a bit of a euphemism and definitely great marketing. You never hear someone say “peel your apples, those crop protection products get into the skin!”, do you? More likely you’ve heard some variation of “buy organic, don’t expose your kids to pesticides”, which, though well-intentioned, is not based on fact. But I digress. I didn’t include farm workers on this list of agricultural inputs in Zimbabwe, though I could have, because I wanted to save a whole section for them later. Wait for it.

So how is Zimbabwe doing with all these necessary resources? Check out the last country on page three of this (alphabetical) list. Comparing the early 90’s to the early 2000’s, about 50% of land was used for agriculture in both periods. Considering climate change, this doesn’t seem like a negative. The percent of cropland under irrigation increases… but from 3.6% to 5.2%! Is there potential for growth here? The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization seems to think so, donating 6 million US dollars last December to rehabilitate irrigation in Zimbabwe. I like the quote from the head of irrigation development in the national government – ‘The intention is to give inputs to farmers so that they can feed the [country’s] grain reserve and then make money themselves. And then remain with food themselves.” Priorities, eh?

Over the same period, fertilizer use decreased, from 508 to 443 hundred grams per hectare of arable land. You can find a nice analysis of this trend here. Check out the graphs of nitrogen and phosphate consumption, both nosediving around 2000. Authors posit that this could be linked to widespread poverty as a result of land reform and recurrent droughts. So what happened to land reform around 2000? It’s worth downloading this PDF giving a brief history of land in Zimbabwe from 1890 to present. In July of 2000, to be exact, the government passed the Fast Track Land Reform Program, which basically legalized seizure of farmland from whites by blacks that had already been underway since the 90’s. As huge tracts of Zimbabwe’s most fertile land had been underutilized under white ownership, this should have had a *postive* impact on agriculture, right? Only the land was given to politicians and others who had no clue how to run a farm (Grace Mugabe, for instance). Production suffered, leaving farmers with fewer resources to buy inputs like fertilizer.

Is anyone trying to do something about this? Interestingly, new President Emmerson Mnangagwa spearheaded the 2016-2017 Command Agriculture scheme meant to address agricultural productivity when he was Zimbabwe’s Vice President. It is hard to find a definitive description of Command Agriculture, but most news outlets describe it as a subsidy program for commodities, where farmers are provided with agricultural inputs in exchange for a certain amount of grain per hectare, delivered to the national grain reserve. Mugabe hailed the first year as a success, though increased crop yields were also influenced by increased rainfall. Reuters calculated huge increases in national debt thanks to the program, though, with the government losing almost 150 US dollars on every ton of maize grown. The IMF also raised concerns because financing for the plan is unclear, fearing it could cost Zimbabwe 2-3% of its GDP. At least if I can’t figure it out, the IMF can’t either. It seems the ‘local fuel dealer’ Sakunda gave a substantial amount, though actual numbers vary by report (and Sakunda was recently purchased by/renamed Trafigura, which is actually an independent commodity trading house based in the Netherlands). China is also reportedly going to contribute, which makes sense as Zimbabwe is the third largest exporter of tobacco and China is the biggest importer of… well, probably everything, but definitely tobacco. Of note, these contributions are LOANS, and part of the IMF’s beef with funding from Sakunda/Trafigura (who also seem to be providing a general bailout of 1.1 billion US dollars?) is that the interest rates are usurious. It’s like a recent college grad, deep in debt, who decides to go to for a masters (more loans) in part to put off his loan payments, and then continues to a doctorate (even more loans) because it is a logical progression of both his training and his loan repayment aversion. Look, even Sallie Mae, a leading private student loan provider, has posted a helpful list of benefits and considerations of this strategy. Convincing? Whatever we might think, there are plans to expand Command Agriculture in the 2017-2018 season to forestry, aquaculture and other areas of the economy.


Things like roads, railroads, ports and airports aren’t at all relevant to producing food, but they are key to moving all the inputs and outputs around. This report on Zimbabwe’s infrastructure from the African Development Bank outlines how road and railway service quality have declined since the 90s. Only 60% of roads were in good to fair condition and freight trains were hauling only 15% of network capacity in 2009. An action plan is outlined to address these issues, and as with the climate change response plan, a hefty price tag is attached – 3.6 billion and 887 million US dollars of public investment for road and railway rehabilitation, respectively. Add on an estimated 280 million US dollars per year for road maintenance by 2010, too. All of this is to be paid from fuel taxes, registration and licensing fees and road tolls? Unlikely to begin with, this funding scheme has been weakened by fuel shortages, price subsidies and devaluations. Basically, less fuel sold at lower prices means less of a cut for the government.

What does this mean for everyday life in Zimbabwe? As one reporter puts it, the state of the roads has ceased to be funny. And what does it mean for farmers? One survey of farmers in the fertile Masvingo province found that 60% of farms were unreachable by roads in 2015. Not only does this delay delivery of essentials like fertilizer and seeds, it also drives up their cost, as transportation becomes more expensive for the producers. The same problems obviously apply to getting the harvest to market.

Zimbabweans living in other countries have set up the Diaspora Infrastructure Developmment Group to organize investment in their home country’s roads, electricity and water systems from afar. Giving from this group in 2015 nearly matched NGO contributions in Zimbabwe, which I find incredible. They are waiting for approval from the national government to implement their plan.

Market conditions

I love this quote from an article that nicely summarizes many aspects of Zimbabwe’s agricultural market – “It is not good for consumers to enjoy low prices when the farmer gets little.” One could also add that it is not good for middlemen, including those who transfer, process, store or export crops, to enjoy high profits when the farmer gets little. A functioning agricultural market, at least as far as my limited understanding goes, is one that uses infrastructure, policies and information to stabilize prices, protecting just about everyone from the farmer to the consumer. Imagine that one week everyone brings huge amounts of corn to the local market – prices nosedive and farmers barely make enough money to pay for gas to return home. What if everyone first checked in with a centralized marketing authority which would determine demand and only put out enough corn on the market to earn a decent price. The rest could be stored and sold as a steady supply at a steady price over the season, giving both the person buying their weekly groceries and the farmer bringing in the harvest a reliable price for the corn.

Like many things in Zimbabwe, agricultural market access has historically been characterized by racial discrimination. The Maize Control Act of 1931 only allowed white commercial farmers with large amounts of land access to higher priced markets. In the 1950s this was replaced by legislation creating the Grain Marketing Board, and similar bodies were created to regulate prices of cotton, dairy products and beef, still for large scale commercial farmers exclusively. The minority of white farmers holding the majority of Zimbabwe’s most fertile land benefitted even further from involvement in all aspects of the supply chain, with shares in processing, storage, marketing and transport services.

After independence in 1980, the government tried to address the imbalance between small shareholder farmers (mostly black) and large commercial operations (mostly white) by obligating the Grain Marketing Board to open an outlet within at least 45 km of even the most remote grain farmer. There were still problems, though – small farmers had to consolidate their produce to meet minimum amounts, leaving some feeling cheated on weights and the grading of their corn or other grain. Payment was via check, which posed problems for many rural farmers without bank accounts. Resources were also a problem, as expansion costs money – the Grain Marketing Board often wasn’t able to pay farmers. Consider the steep rise in lending costs (this report cites from 13% at independence to above 33% in 1995), this left many farmers heavily in debt.

The Zimbabwe Agricultural Commodity Exchange (ZIMACE) was started in 1994 to address some of the issues with the parastatal (is anyone else curious as to how this is pronounced?) Marketing Boards. It provided farmers with transparent prices based on supply and demand for commodities, offering an alternative market to the GMB. Then in 2001 ZIMACE was disbanded by the government for infringing on the Grain Marketing Board’s monopoly on purchasing maize and wheat. In 2009 this monopoly was reversed. Dizzy yet? eMKambo is an excellent source for all things agriculture in Africa, and doesn’t seem to be too impressed with either ZIMACE or the subsequent warehouse receipt system, where a farmer brings their crop to a warehouse and receives a receipt in exchange which they can bring to a bank for a loan. When the warehouse sells the corn or soy or whatever it is, they pay the bank, leaving any left over profit for the farmer. The problem with this is that these loans are not interest free, meaning the farmer carries a risk of ending up with more money to pay the bank at the end. There is also the issue unpredictable prices for food crops, meaning farmers tend to keep at least 6 months of food for their families rather than bringing it all to the warehouse. Another issue is that storing commodities costs money, and once their crops are out of their hands, farmers can’t control when, where and at what price their product is sold. The author suggests tweaking this system so that farmers just get cash instead of a loan, cutting out the interest and leaving producers and marketers (ie. the guys with the warehouse) with the responsibility of paying the full bill. The catch here is having banks accept that they no longer get the 10% interest!

And of course, the GMB is still setting commodities prices, with allegations that they work with middlemen to cheat farmers out of the goverment price for their goods. Imagine you are a farmer who just travelled 45 km of maize to the closest GMB warehouse in a borrowed truck. The warehouse staff tell you the corn is not dry enough… with the clock ticking on your rented vehicle, you desperately accept 20% less from a middleman waiting outside the warehouse – you just need to get rid of it and get back home! What if the middleman then goes and sells the grain to the GMB, splitting the 20% profit with the warehouse official?

An obvious solution? Cut out the middle man, or, in more delicate terms, shorten the supply chain. Here’s hoping Zimbabwe’s new government is up for this challenge.

Skilled labor

Just like successful cloning has not yet made sex obsolete, the fact that crops can be grown without a single human involved does not spell the end for skilled farm workers. Robots with water knives seem a very distant threat in Zimbabwe when fast track land reform between 2000 and 2002 has already pushed up to 70% of agricultural workers into unemployment. Farms changed hands, fired workers, reduced or stopped production entirely. What does this mean for up to 2 million people dependent on agricultural jobs in Zimbabwe?

Up to 1 million have lost their jobs and homes, according to one report, and up to 30% of those have also become stateless. When it rains (or is an election year), it pours, and the government rolled out a policy in 2001 to prohibit dual citizenship, leaving guest farmers, many second and third generation Zimbabweans, without a nationality or any social support. Think of Dreamers in the USA – no link, sometimes even linguistically, to your country of origin and no legal identity in your home country.

For those who can’t find farm work in Zimbabwe, one option is immigration to South Africa. There are some harrowing personal stories here about the problems these migrant workers face, whether documented or not.

For farm workers holding onto their jobs in Zimbabwe, prospects aren’t much brighter according to some allarming recent headines. No sector is paid above the poverty line, and many go months without receiving even these meager wages.


These are human beings we are talking about, with the same value as you or me, with their own dreams and hopes and fears and joys. This is waste on a colossal scale, and absolutely must be addressed. Can the new government really make a difference here? I think it can, in two key areas. The first is to develop the factors besides skilled labor needed to get Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector performing to its potential. Soil, inputs, infrastructure and markets all need government organization, support and control. The second is to set up bilateral agreements with neighbors to protect migrant workers and allow mutually beneficial arrangments to be formalized and monitored. Canada and Mexico have a program that has often been suggested as a model for the USA – why not Zimbabwe and South Africa, too?

2 thoughts on “Zimbabwe: food, politics and people

    • Charles, thank you for reading the post, and for your excellent work over at eMKambo! It would be great to hear your thoughts on how the new government could address these entwined issues of agriculture and immigration.


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