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Innovation boosts agricultural productivity

If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. —Albert Einstein.

SMEs Chat with Phillip Chichoni

Ashton is a small-scale horticultural farmer. He leases his two hectare plot from the local municipality to which he pays commercial rents every month.

He produces a wide variety of seedlings: of cabbage, covo, tsunga, potato, passion fruit, tomato, spinach, green pepper, broccoli, potato and cauliflower, which are supplied to farmers for on-growing.

In addition he grows vegetables of the same as well as mangetout peas, fine beans, chilies and carrots.

The farm employs nearly 40 people, who all get decent monthly salaries, well above the gazetted minimum wages for the farming sector.

Although Ashton is struggling from the same challenges facing everyone else in business in Zimbabwe, his case is different from the thousands of other small to medium scale farmers. In terms of revenue generation, his farm makes more sales in two months than what most rural and resettled new farmers make in a whole year.

Further, because he uses irrigation, he produces crops throughout the year. In some years, he even exports fresh produce to the European Union.

Now if the average farmer can up his game to the level of what Ashton is doing or even higher, then this country will rapidly transform into a food self-sustaining, high export earning and wealthy country. I will discuss three of the major problems that need innovation in order to commercialise small scale agriculture.

Bumper harvest — falling prices
It is good news that the country had a good rainy season. Coupled with ample provision of farming inputs to farmers by the government, a bumper harvest is expected.

There is one fear, though, that farmers are worrying about — that of falling prices. The economic law of supply and demand applies to farm produce as well as to everything else in a free market economy.

Under this law, the more the quantity of a product that is supplied to the market, the lower the unit price will be and vice versa.

Take soya beans, for example. At present a tonne is selling for around US$900. Come harvest time in a couple of months and the price will go down to half of that.

This is because right now supplies on the market are limited. Those who managed to store their harvest from last season are the ones enjoying the high price. The same is true for maize and any other crop.

Innovation here is required to beat the market forces of supply and demand.

Why not store your produce when the market is flooded and release when prices firm? A few farmers I know have devised ways of storing farm products: in shipping containers. These steel structures are durable and waterproof.

Just put in your crop, add the necessary anti-insect powder and your product can be stored for years. Several auction houses have these containers for sale.

Seasons of nature

Agriculture in Zimbabwe is mostly depended on natural rains. With the change in climatic conditions, the actual timing of the seasons are changing.

In some instances the rainy seasons are shorter while some years experience droughts. As a result, farmers are not utilising the land to its full capacity. Irrigation facilities are required to farm all year round.

Entrepreneurial farmers must invest in knowledge about the climate in order to plan well about the right crops to plant and when.

Writing in his book The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, Calestous Juma, an internationally recognised authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development worldwide, discusses how some African countries are investing in climate innovation.

Diversification into exports
The export market offers a huge opportunity for entrepreneurial farmers who want to benefit from high prices offered for fresh organic produce.
For example, during the high demand season in Europe, young peas can fetch over US$8 per 2,5kg box while in Zimbabwe going for less than a dollar per kg.

There are many ways to innovate and make money in agriculture. Entrepreneurs need to think differently and out of the box.

Please share your thoughts on this subject by emailing me or posting a comment on my website. Until next week, keep on accelerating your growth.

Phillip Chichoni is a business development consultant who works with SMEs and entrepreneurs. You may contact him by email, chichonip@smebusinesslink.com. You can also visit http://smebusinesslink.com

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