Broadening food basket via Command Agriculture

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In addition to other factors, the prevailing climate and weather conditions in Southern Africa present a very strong case for Zimbabwe to broaden its agriculture away from monoculture.

Rapid climate variability forces us to restore soils and manage watersheds without which production and growth will be difficult to secure. That means, alongside the current export drive, we have to embrace cropping systems that reduce reliance on external inputs such as synthetic fertiliser and chemicals that can only be accessed through foreign currency.

Empowering farming communities to restore soil fertility and deal with climate-induced pests and diseases like Fall Army cannot be over-emphasised.

Diversifying potential

Climate change is making it clear that maintaining and increasing agro-biodiversity is fundamental in building a resilient agricultural system in Zimbabwe. That is why excessive focus should not be on expanding the commercial production of only a handful of strategic crops and livestock.

The command agriculture initiative should broaden the food basket away from maize, wheat, livestock and a few cash crops like cotton and tobacco. For instance, horticulture and its value chains has more potential for sustainable employment creation, far more than cotton and tobacco which tend to be seasonal and vulnerable to international prices.

Right now, big smokers like China have expressed interest in filter tobacco that has high nicotine. Tobacco farmers have been advised to get rid of the first six leaves of each plant and concentrate on upper leaves that produce what is required by the big consumers.

That means resources that will have gone into producing the rejected leaves will go down the drain. Mono-cropping without substitutes is unsustainable, especially in a changing climate.

On the other hand, the revival of processing industries and sustainable import substitution can be achieved through horticulture if appropriate infrastructure is provided. There is need for a transition from staples to nutrition to value addition and then to exports.

At the moment there is no infrastructure to support this transformation. Some of the commodities that end up being imported include cooking oil, fruits and vegetables — taking away money that could be used for other important activities. While we have alternatives for maize, we do not have alternatives for cooking oil and fruits.

The power of local food markets

Evidence gathered by eMKambo over the past five years show the potential of local food markets in creating decent work and entrepreneurial opportunities for the country’s growing rural and urban youths who constitute more than 70 percent of market actors along diverse agricultural value chains.

More than 50 percent of the youths are into trading (buying and selling), support services like loading and off-loading, mobile food catering, transportation and auctioneering. Youths are also accelerating adoption of ICTs in the entire agricultural sector. Value addition is being driven by the growing urban demand for higher-value and processed foods.

While there is a notable shift in consumption patterns from grain to potatoes, fruits, vegetables, meat, legumes, dairy products and a wide range of processed foods, urban populations are consuming more than half of all the food produced in Zimbabwe.

That is why most of the food find its way to urban centres although rural areas collectively have a much larger population. The unfortunate thing is that the huge appetite for food in Zimbabwe’s urban centres is being met by imports because local processing is not catching up.

While our export drive seems to be creating a need for linking smallholder farmers to global value chains, such narrow strategies can increase our vulnerability to competition and volatile global commodity prices, not to mention barriers like the contested land notion.

As is already visible in Manicaland and Mashonaland East provinces where export-led contract farming has existed for decades, global supply chains tend to exclude the majority of local farmers from participating either in production or employment opportunities.

When local socio-economic systems are interfered with through linking the majority of smallholder farmers to global value chains, there is a huge risk of disrupting the local socio-economic fabric though which local communities already pursue livelihood coping strategies.

A story behind a story

A presentation by ZIMTRADE on January 3, 2018, making a case for export opportunities, cited Ethiopia and Kenya as two African countries that have outrun Zimbabwe on the horticultural export front. What was not mentioned in the presentation is that local communities that previously relied on home-grown food in Ethiopia have been reluctant to take jobs in the burgeoning floriculture industry because the wages on offer are insufficient for them to buy food in the market and meet other living costs.

Kenya’s foray into export horticulture has not been without its own setback. Numerous trade-offs must not be ignored.

Faster and meaningful poverty reduction can only be achieved by linking farmers to local markets and developing those markets than focus on big industries and export markets. What eMKambo has discovered is that most low income and middle income consumers establish closer trustful relationships with their local food sources than with external ones.

This translates to a more conducive environment for the emergence of local food-based economies and environmentally sustainable market systems. The demise of large industrial structures in Zimbabwe has prompted the emergence of a broad agro-processing sector primarily consists of micro- and small-and-medium enterprises which are often family operated and informal.

Some of these enterprises are involved in the production of agricultural inputs, small-scale commercial farming, agro-processing, agricultural equipment and provision of support services such as packaging, transport and finance, sometimes through family remittances.

This economic base should not be ignored in favour of going back to the past. It is doubtful that new work opportunities created on large export-oriented plantations and manufacturing industries can pay sufficient wages to replace the value of the diverse crops, livestock and wild products on which most people now rely for subsistence and income. Needs and coping mechanisms have diversified in remarkable ways.

One of the attractions of informal food markets is that they support agricultural production and marketing systems that increase agro-biodiversity, restore soil health and have potential to minimise the use of synthetic inputs while conserving water in ways that lead to more stable yield increases.

This will not only increase incomes but enable farming communities to cope with environmental stresses such as drought and all kinds of Elnino. Instead of simply measuring increases in crop yields per hectare, a critical part of new knowledge is assessing environmental benefits per hectare or watershed.

Have our knowledge systems reached a ceiling?

How do we persuade farmers and rural people who have traditionally relied on rainfall to rehabilitate their land and watersheds? Struggling to answer this questions implies our collective agricultural knowledge has reached its ceiling.

There is nowhere else farmers can apply the knowledge they have accumulated over generations other than on the land. That is why, even if the soils are no longer good for maize, farmers continue to produce maize because that is the only thing they know how to do. No matter how hot it becomes and how erratic rainfall patterns become, farmers use their knowledge to produce maize and other conventional crops that no longer do well.

Climate change is showing us the need for new and different kinds of knowledge. Opening up new knowledge avenues has never been so urgent, especially if we are to attract the younger generation into agriculture.

The younger generation are looking for various versions of smart agriculture which, unfortunately, are not being generated fast enough. They want to use technology (both hardware and software) like dip kits that can enable exploitation of available water and other resources irrespective of whether it rains or not.

While environmentally sustainable production approaches will differ by community and micro-climate, agricultural ecosystems at the forefront of our planning and thinking can lead to appropriate co-created knowledge.

New digital technology should transform extension officers and other intermediaries into facilitators of local research, experimentation and knowledge generation. At the moment, extension services are not sufficiently flexible and demand-driven in ways that make them responsive to the needs of millions of farmers.

It is time for farmers to be engaged as innovators rather than consumers of external inputs including information. This is the only way we can use agriculture and our natural resources as a long term pathway out of poverty. Foreign currency is important but will never be enough to buy all our needs and restore our agricultural biodiversity which is under severe threat.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) whose flagship eMKambo ( ) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: ; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.