THE derelict and dangerous road leading to Gokwe via Sanyati marked by small patches of tar that have endured years of neglect under President Robert Mugabe’s government sums up the tragic story of the once proud cotton growing district.
news in depth BY BLESSED MHLANGA/PROBLEM MASAU
Constructed during the colonial era by the Ian Smith regime, the road is the nerve which connects the arid land that grows nothing but cotton to the crop market. Cotton, proudly known as white gold is now just but a curse to those who grow it.
The prices of cotton have fallen, while the cost of inputs skyrockets and those who put in the hard labour to plant, tend and harvest the crop only have bad health, huge debts and a bleak future to show for it.
It is with nostalgia that former Sanyati legislator Zacharia Ziyambi, narrates the past as if it were yesterday, how cotton was then the crop to grow. it always left people with cash in their pockets, farmers acquired assets and they were the “bosses”.
“Cotton was the crop to grow at that time and that is why it got the name white gold,” he said.
“Imagine after selling your crop and getting instant cash. And what is more, buyers would come again later with bonuses for farmers. This is how good it was,” he says with a worried look in his face.
Now all our labour is in vain. Farmers have nothing to show for the seasons of toiling and most have lost interest in the crop but their peculiar weather and poverty force them to grudgingly pick knapsacks with dangerous chemicals to tend to the curse that has become cotton.
Maggie Matonzi (78), has been involved in cotton farming for years but despite the good rains, she is not happy even with the prospects of a good harvest. the prices and fights over the crop which have turned political just don’t inspire her anymore.
“My family has depended on this crop all our lives, ever since I was a girl, but now we just grow cotton because we have to,” she said resignedly.
“We can’t grow anything else here and if we don’t grow cotton we won’t be able to pay fees for our children.
“This is the curse we must endure, despite the meagre returns, we must grow it.”
These sad stories and the real threat Zimbabwe faces of farmers abandoning cotton, forced the government to pour in $100 million through Cottco in free seed and cotton inputs to lure growers back to the business.
Instead of solving the problem, the curse of the crop actually got worse, exposing the rural folk to the vice of Zanu PF politics of patronage and bondage, while Cottco has been drawn into a market war with competitors.
Chiefs, Zanu PF leaders and other corrupt middlemen are now reportedly being used to force farmers into shunning other cotton buyers, forcing them to sell their produce only to Cottco, creating a monopoly in the process.
Farmers who received free seed and inputs from Cottco are required to sell their crop to the government-controlled company to honour their contracts, yet the curse is now that even those who did not benefit are being force marched to the state firm’s depots.
Matonzi, who did not get any inputs from Cottco, is up in arms with the company because she is being forced by its agents to sell her produce to them at a loss.
“Representatives from Cottco are moving around forcing farmers to sell their crop to the company,” she said. “If one refuses, they are labelled opposition party activists and in this part of the world supporting opposition political parties has dire consequences.”
Cottco confirms that it has engaged what it says is local leadership to recover the crop it funded to thwart side marketing.
Cottco is accused of misrepresenting the Statutory Instrument 142 of 2009, which was formulated to regulate the cotton sector making it illegal to side market cotton as the practice almost derailed the industry prior to 2009.
Pious Manamike, the Cottco MD, said because seed and inputs were distributed through the local leadership, the same people had the mandate to help collect the produce.
“Cottco disbursed free inputs to cotton farmers under the free Presidential Inputs Scheme through our extension officers that worked with the local leadership who vouched for those farmers,” he said.
“The farmers were given the inputs on condition they would sell their cotton to Cottco and contracts were signed with each farmer to that effect.
“We do work with local leadership to mobilise the cotton from those who accessed inputs under the Presidential Scheme by highlighting the benefits to the farmer.”
The local leadership is accused of having corruptly distributed seed and to cover up for their theft they are allegedly closing out other players in the industry to the detriment of the farmer.
Sanyati legislator Blessed Runesu Geza is critical of the strategy which has allegedly seen Cottco reaping where it did not sow, leaving his people poorer.
“This crop is the source of livelihood for people in this constituency and they should not be made to suffer for a mess that is not of their making,” he said.
“Contracts should be respected. if one got seed from Cottco they should honour that contract but if they got seed elsewhere they should not be forced to sell to Cottco, that is unacceptable.”
Geza says he is unhappy that people are abusing Mugabe’s name in the forced sales to cover up for their own rot.
“They allege that they are acting on behalf of the president. I have approached his office and was told there is nothing like that. these are just greedy people pushing their own agendas and its unacceptable,” he said.
Sanyati councillor Lovemore Chiduku weighed in, saying there were emissaries from Cottco who recently held a meeting with Chief Nesuwo and village heads where it was agreed that all the cotton should be sold to the company regardless of who funded it.
“It is public knowledge that Cottco sat with district chairpersons, village heads, chiefs and other stakeholders and agreed to force every farmer to sell their cotton to the company,” he said.
“As a councillor and a farmer, I am saying it is very wrong and I will not do that.
“I feel there should be competition between the cotton companies and it is good for the farmer. I am not going to sell my cotton under duress.”
Three weeks ago cotton farmers in Sanyati out of frustration assaulted middlemen, who were purporting to represent Cottco, as the war for control of the crop turned violent.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union chairman (cotton commodities) Ishmael Pande expressed concern over the fights.
“Most cotton farmers now don’t even have draught power. their cattle were sold to settle contact farming debts after Cottco had deserted farmers,” he said.
“Now they are back and want to chase away the friends we had in their absence, we won’t let that happen.”
Pande noted that most farmers can’t break even owing to the poor pricing regime that has seen most of them failing to buy clothes made out of the cotton they grow after selling a crop that takes away their soul.
Buyers, who include Cottco, are buying the bulk of the crop at $0, 48 per kilogramme. Others include China Africa, Grafax, ETG, Olam and Alliance Ginneries.
The companies are all buying the crop at $0,48 per kg compared to an expected price of $0,55 per kg.
“Imagine the frustration of growing a crop which is used to make fabric but hardly will a cotton farmer be able to wear decent clothes after getting peanuts from his or her sales because of poor pricing and also low output per hectare,” Pande said.
Joseph Tichagwa narrates the curse of the white gold which is now fool’s gold in simple but painful words.
“I sometimes get two bales per hectare and this gives me around $90 to $120 depending on the grade before subtracting the costs of inputs,” he said.
“As you know here we are less sophisticated, we do not calculate the cost of labour.”
In an upmarket store a pair of good chino pants fetches a good $100, an average suit sells for $150 excluding the shirt which can fetch upwards of $25 prices that can only be afforded by the cotton buyers and not the growers.
Top of the range SUV vehicles criss cross the cursed lands and rugged roads of Sanyati and Gokwe transporting the important people, the buyers of cotton seed in their expensive suits and fat wallets all gotten from the work and sweat of the poor farmer.
Back from where they come from, cotton company directors and their managers live in leafy suburbs, drink expensive whisky and sponsor annual elite sporting events that are never attended by the farmers who toil in the fields.
In contrast Tichagwa owns less than three jackets, all bought from second hand clothing bales imported and smuggled into Zimbabwe.
He has to walk over 10km to reach the nearest clinic which on most occasions has no medicine. there is no cure for his eyes which suffer from the strain of cotton chemicals that keep the handpicked crop in mint condition.
The quality of education here is neglected. rooky teachers are brought in to these rural areas. there are no rugby fields and most of the children will never leave Sanyati save for the few lucky ones.
Like their parents before them, they are drawn into forced labour working for peanuts, harvesting for the rich in this story of the have’s and have not’s that appears to have no ending.
Geza says it should stop and cotton farmers should have fair their share. He called on his party Zanu PF, which claims all the glory for the gains of independence, to deliver on the promises of the liberation struggle.
Farmers sell their cotton, from which buyers export the product after ginning to remove seed, which is sold to the cooking oil industry making millions for them and leaving the farmer dangling at the bottom of the food chain.
The government through Cottco funded at least $42 million worth of inputs for cotton, which they are entitled to buy from farmers.
Cottco said deliveries significantly improved following some “interventions” by Agriculture and Marketing Authority.
“We received about 20 000 tonnes, a figure, which is quite significant compared to weekly average deliveries that we have been getting since the beginning of the season,” Manamike said.
“While there is room for improvement, we believe that there is some kind of sanity now prevailing in the industry.”