A LONG drive along the Harare-Chirundu Road paints a gloomy picture of the country’s state of agricultural preparedness ahead of the summer cropping season.
With no signs of ploughed land, the once vast evergreen stretches of prime land in Mashonaland West have been left idle —— which could be a problem for a country targeting two million hectares for maize production this season.
So troubled is the country’s agricultural sector that regional leaders have called for immediate assistance to the once breadbasket of southern Africa.
Officiating at the historic signing of the inclusive government deal on September 15, former South African president Thabo Mbeki appealed to Sadc and other African nations to rescue Zimbabwe as a “matter of urgency” to avoid food shortages.
Despite public pledges by Sadc, experts warn that the 2008/9 agricultural season was destined for doom because of a combination of reasons, among them a poor transportation infrastructure and shortages of critical inputs.
According to the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), the country’s transportation infrastructure and fuel would not cope with the pledged regional support to re-stock agricultural inputs for the summer season.
Instead, the CFU urged government to prioritise food imports.
“The country has no infrastructure to transport the huge amounts of inputs required and this could delay the planting exercise which normally starts in four weeks,” a CFU official said. “A lot of effort has to be put towards food importation in the next six months. There is no chance of producing much this year.
There is need to put more priority in growing more seed maize this season. The country’s troubled train operator, National Railways of Zimbabwe, has few coaches to ferry the enormous amounts of pre-season inputs from neighbouring countries.”
Local maize seed companies on the other hand are expecting to produce 18 000 tonnes of seed against an annual national demand of over 50 000 tonnes.
Fertiliser from local manufacturers, sources said, cannot exceed 50 000 tonnes which is enough for 400 000 hectares of maize. Government is targeting two million hectares for maize production this season. This means that over 100 000 tonnes have to be imported resulting in the aggregate locally manufactured inputs and imported inputs only enough for a maximum of 1,2 million hectares.
Agricultural experts, however, are cautious that the importation of inputs could result in the procurement of sub-standard products.
Government through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has been trying to address the supply side of inputs through quasi-fiscal undertakings. Recently the central bank injected US$13 million to improve fertiliser production.
Shortages in herbicides on the local market could also scuttle government plans to maximise productivity.
The CFU also lamented the delay by the Reserve Bank in paying the wheat support price to producers for last year’s crop.
“Financing the new agricultural season could be a problem for most farmers. Wheat producers have not yet received payments from the Reserve Bank and this will affect our plans to produce more,” the CFU said. “The government has not yet announced the new producer prices for the crop, which is expected to be harvested in a week or so.”
Independent forecasts indicated winter wheat production will drop from last year’s output of 62 000 tonnes owing to a host of problems, among them electricity shortages to run farming equipment, fuel shortages and payment delays by the authorities.
Barely 10 years ago wheat farmers produced 270 000 tonnes against a national requirement of 350 000 tonnes.
Former Grain Marketing Board chief executive officer and MDC secretary for agriculture, Renson Gasela, said the country was still lagging behind in preparations for the new season.
He said: “We are not prepared at all. That is why Mbeki made that important appeal to Sadc to offer assistance as soon as possible. The centralisation of the distribution of inputs through the GMB or government programmes like Operation Maguta could negatively affect productivity. GMB is militarised at the moment.
“This has deprived many small farmers from accessing inputs. What is required is the decentralisation of distribution and synchronising the distribution of seed and fertiliser.”
Packaging the inputs in “smaller quantities”, Gasela said, could also enable urban growers to easily access inputs at affordable prices and also minimise reselling of the critical inputs on the parallel market.
Independent statistics indicate that Harare metropolitan residents produce over 60 tonnes of maize.
Efforts to get comment from Agriculture minister Rugare Gumbo were in vain, but key strategist in the government’s Resource Mobilisation and Utilisation Committee, Misheck Sibanda, last week said the committee had made “tremendous preparations” for this season.
Experts also warned that a massive exodus of farm labourers to neighbouring countries like South Africa and Zambia could worsen productivity on both communal and commercial farms. Commercial agriculture prior the ill-planned agrarian reform of 2000 was the largest formal sector employer in the country.
The General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (Gapwuz) last week warned that delays by President Robert Mugabe and the two MDC formations to appoint a new cabinet could result in a “failed season”.
Tapiwa Zivira, Gapwuz information secretary said: “As a union that represents the interests of the most mariganlised group, the farm workers and rural communities, we are therefore calling on the three political parties to quickly resolve whatever differences they have and start working together for national development.
“Far from delaying economic recovery, the political impasse is hindering preparations for the coming rainy season and this may mean yet another failed season.”
Before 2000 the commercial sector contributed 75% of grain reserves delivered by communal farmers, but an emerging trend indicates declining output by the latter. Statistics show that commercially produced commodities for last year accounted for 42% of the aggregate produce in 1998.
Government has often blamed natural causes for the poor yields, but it will have to come up with another excuse if the country experiences a poor harvest after the meteorological department forecast a favourable rainfall pattern.
Meanwhile, the selling season for tobacco closed below the projected 73 million kg that was initially targeted. The Zimbabwe Tobacco Association this week said that farmers could meet a target of 70 million kg in the forthcoming season.
Experts said there were inadequate seedlings this season. Statistics by the ZTA indicate that it costs at least US$7 500 to plough a hectare of tobacco.
Zimbabwe’s poor agricultural output has been blamed on the chaotic land reform the government embarked on in February 2000 after it lost a constitutional referendum.
A United Nations Development Programme report released last week said the government must revisit agricultural policies in the “post crisis” period with a view to completing the controversial land reform.
“The main policy recommendation is therefore to revise the current land laws to conform to the post-crisis land policy and the agricultural recovery strategy,” the report said.
By Bernard Mpofu