A Good Story to Tell

May 19th, 2017

Words by Tendai Murisa

4 min read



In the midst of all the apprehensions to do with our Zimbabwe, starting from the inconclusive debates around the national pledge, introduction of bond-notes and also of course the never ending factional fights within ZANU (PF) I thought maybe we need a good story to tell. Our work has always focused on what one would call rooting for common man (such as smallholder farmers/ peasants) and this includes but is not limited to chapters in our most recent book Beyond the Crises: Zimbabwe’s Prospects for Transformation. Today I have a good story to tell on accumulation from below. I left home at around 5:00am headed for the airport and on my way I counted more than 15 small trucks carrying bales of tobacco. Never mind that some had broken down and others were being harassed by cops at road-blocks. It is a good story to tell- smallholder farmers in A1 and communal areas have entered into the lucrative tobacco markets formerly a preserve of large scale commercial agriculture. Those who have already sold their tobacco have been earning an average of US$7,000.00 per delivery – isn’t that a good story to tell? Although its small change to some, maize farmers do not earn anything close to such figures.

This encounter reminded me of a story I should have told some time ago but I didn’t – because of procrastination. The point of it all dear reader, is that though things are not what they should be, they are also not the same; we are getting somewhere not because of government but because of our in-born resilience. This is a good story, but it has policy implications which I will discuss at the end of the story. .

At the beginning of the land occupations also known as ‘jambanja’ Mathias Mandikisi, a 52-year- old man, was part of a group that hired a bus from Epworth to occupy Dunstan farm in the Goromonzi district. He was allocated an A1 plot by the war veteran leadership on the farm and this was subsequently made official by the District Administrator’s team comprising officials from the Ministry of Lands, Agricultural Extension and the police. Mathias is married to Esther, who is 46 years old, and they have five children, three boys and two girls. The boys are aged 19, 13 and eight. The teenagers attend a high school that is 15 kilometres away from the farm, whilst the eight-year old attends the local primary school. The eldest child is a girl, aged 21; she is married and stays with her husband in Epworth and their youngest child is a girl aged four. Beyond the nuclear family, three relatives stay in the home as part of the family.

Mathias is originally from the Mutoko communal lands (within Mashonaland East) and was a farm worker at Lot 1 of Buena Vista in the Goromonzi district from 1981 to 1998. He was employed as a records clerk and was responsible for weighing and recording of tobacco bales, and in the off-season he would act as a foreman responsible for the supervision of general farm workers. He supplemented his income by doing part-time photography, gardening and soldering pots in Harare. He resigned from his full-time job in 1998 with the hope of establishing his own business.

Due to work commitments and limited savings he did not manage to establish regular contact with his lineage group in Mutoko and thereby failed to secure land in his rural home. His attempts to establish a pot soldering and photography business were not successful due to lack of financing. Since his resettlement in 2000, he has been growing maize on two hectares, and sunflowers and groundnuts on 0.5 hectares each. In the first season (2000/01) he received tillage support from the District Development Fund (DDF) which prepared one hectare of land per family. The maize yield, which forms an important part of the staple diet, is an average two tons per hectare and he has sold an average of 1.5 tons of maize every year since the 2002/03 agricultural season. The 2002/03 season was a turning point for his farm operations; the good maize harvest enabled him to purchase most of the small farm equipment he needed, to construct an extra round hut and to buy blankets and sofas from the proceeds of the sale.

During the 2005/06 agricultural season he began growing tobacco on three hectares of his six-hectare plot. On average he has sold about 3 500kgs annually. He has received on-site training on growing tobacco seedlings, their transfer and proper methods of looking after the crop. During the curing process Mathias combines his tobacco with that of other A1 farmers resettled on Dunstan farm.

In addition to cropping, beginning in 2006, Mathias has managed to accumulate some livestock. He now has twenty-four cattle, fourteen goats and 25 chickens. The cattle are mostly used for draught power and as a source of milk.

During the initial years of resettlement Mathias relied on his family for farm labour but since the 2006/07 season he has employed one full-time worker who works with him in the garden and in the fields. During the peak periods such as planting, weeding and harvesting he employs an extra three to four casual labourers annually to assist with farm operations. The employment of hired labour has enabled his sons to concentrate on their studies. In an interview with one of the sons he explained that he is grateful because he “no longer has to wake up every morning to water the garden before going to school”. His wife also stated that their ability to hire labour means she can spend more time looking after her children. Since 2008 she has been repairing worn clothes belonging to her neighbours for a fee and also sewing new clothes for resale. Income derived from these activities has been used to supplement income from the garden but more importantly she stated that “now she no longer has to depend on her husband for money and can visit her daughter in Harare any time without waiting to be given money for transport”.

Mathias considers himself to have been one of the poorest in the village at the time of resettlement and he ascribes his new status to the benefits derived from tobacco farming. When he received the A1 plot he had no household furniture, farming implements or livestock. Since being resettled, and in particular since making the shift to tobacco production, he has managed to buy an electric generator, a seven horsepower water pump, a DVD player / home theatre, four bicycles, a kitchen unit, a 21-inch colour television, a sewing machine, five cellphones, a tobacco baling box, two knapsack sprayers, a scotch-cart and most recently an 8-ton truck. He has also built a brick house. He is also able to support his daughter and her husband living in Harare with grain.

This is a good story-right?

In retelling this story I have been inspired by a good story that was shared by former President Thabo Mbeki about five Zimbabweans who successfully negotiated for a derelict or unused farm thought to have exhausted soils by the farm owner. The crux of the story was that they turned it around by applying manure from the farm owner’s cattle and within two seasons of production they have received the farmer of the year award in the Western Cape. That’s another good story- and I believe there are many other good stories out there about how Zimbabweans are producing and accumulating. We are just as good at farming as the next person. But then where are we getting it all wrong?

Policies. Let me say it again- bad government policies. Our policies are not a good story to tell. Take for instance the bond-notes – what a terribly bad idea. It sounds good on paper but definitely tells you that the Government of Zimbabwe has not learnt anything from the days of hyperinflation. By introducing bond-notes, no matter who or what is backing them, in the context of a struggling economy creates opportunities for arbitrage. Let me not use this big word- arbitrage- but instead let’s call it what it is- a black market and a parallel rate for bond-notes to US Dollars. Also once they get away with printing on the basis of the AFREXIM bank facility what will stop them from printing next month when they are facing a cash crunch. They have done it before- what will stop them now. The argument being peddled by government is that the bond-notes are an incentive for exporters- really? There are many other ways of incentivizing exporters- how about reducing/removing the various levies on tobacco farmers for a start. Secondly, besides bond-notes we have not yet created sufficient policy measures to enhance production on the farms.

The farm mechanization program of the 1st decade of the 21st century literally serviced elites (see Murisa and Mujeyi 2015) and now the sporadic efforts of farm mechanization on the basis of donations from Brazil are too politicized – there is literally no scientific basis as to why certain farming communities are prioritized over others. Instead of giving individual farmers tractors how about creating rural companies that provide land tillage services, run by say all these under-employed youths in collaboration with already established rural entrepreneurs[1]. Such enterprises should be able to access affordable loans to buy equipment such as tractors and other farm implements- let’s forget for a while about getting shares in already established enterprises- let us create our own enterprises that we can be proud of as a people. Each enterprise should target to service at least 5 A1 Villages. The idea is not to create another parastatal but instead to allow the penetration of the private sector into the rural space in a more production oriented manner rather than just as extractive middlemen. Services offered by such enterprises should range from land tillage and preparation support, extension advisory, harvesting, post-harvest support and access to markets. The most obvious actor to partner with will be the extension services department but it should be on a commercial basis. Chambati and the late Professor Sam Moyo have in a number of studies demonstrated how there could be shortage of farm labour and this can only have addressed through modest levels of farm mechanization.

NGO based farm support projects or government welfare based subsidies will not cut it. Its time we took our farmers seriously and see them as entrepreneurs in need of a viable private sector based support system. I know I will be in trouble with my leftie friends- but we have all seen how terrible the state is at this business.  NGOs are also just as inefficient- at best they create islands of excellence and at worst they create a dependency syndrome through their project based approaches to supporting rural livelihoods. But before you shoot from the hip please read our more detailed policy suggestions in our book; Beyond the Crises: Prospects for Transformation in Zimbabwe- especially Chapter 4, Murisa and Mujeyi on Agrarian Reforms. Zimbabwe can easily be a good story to tell if only we could be more pragmatic with our policies.

[1] I have just been informed that a model is already in place of a cheaper two-wheel tractor mechanization system which costs less than US$3,000. The model is multi-purpose in that the “tractor” can be used for field operations (tillage, planting, weeding, etc) as well as other purposes such as water pumping, crop shelling, maize grinding/milling, etc. Prototypes are available with the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Zimbabwe. Lack of funding is hampering promotion and scaling up of the technology. Kingstone Mujeyi will elaborate more on this model in his forthcoming book chapter and PhD Thesis

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