HARARE - Zimbabwe's new government must prioritise agriculture if the country has hopes of reviving the economy, experts have said.
Last year, the southern African country was forced to slash its economic growth forecast from 9,4 percent to 4,4 percent due to a massive slump in agriculture production.
Elia Majoni, a senior Agri Business Consultant with Farm Capital Ventures said government should muster the political will and come up with pragmatic policies and programmes on agriculture that would promote the livelihoods of farmers.
“Agriculture cannot survive without subsidies, even in America farmers are subsidised by government to ensure they remain in business.
“The restoration of subsidies will not only enable farmers to come out from the shackles of poverty but will also help improve their living standards,” he said.The agriculture consultant added that financial institutions should also be compelled to give loans to farmers for the procurement of inputs on time.
Former Finance minister Tendai Biti recently said with the farming season quickly approaching, the new government should unveil at least $500 million for land preparation, farming inputs and research.
“Government has to ensure that farmers have access to credit facilities, or else there won’t be agriculture to talk about,” he said
However, state investment in Zimbabwe’s agriculture has been hijacked by political priorities at the expense of long-term food and economic gains.
Once the top contributor to gross domestic product, farming is now second to mining. Tobacco is still the main agricultural export.
At the core of Zimbabwe’s agriculture success is its main asset — land.
Reforms availed more land to more people.
But without investment, there is no cheap finance to buy equipment and inputs, and no adequately financed and resourced extension services.
“Agriculture and land have become a political football between the main national parties, and with the donors,” Ian Scoones, an agricultural ecologist and professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK.
Scoones, who has extensively researched Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, said neither Zanu PF nor the MDC have a coherent agricultural and rural development policy.
“Neither has thought through the implications of land reform,” he said.
Scoones, co-author of the critically-acclaimed book “Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities”, explains that historically, Zimbabwe has invested massively in agriculture — in the pre-independence period with the focus on building white commercial farming, and the period immediately after independence centring on smallholder farmers in the communal areas.
“Since 2000, the land reform programme took precedence, and, for a period, agricultural investment was run directly by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe,” said Scoones.
“Much of this spending was inappropriate, corrupt and so poorly focused.
“Since 2009, with the stabilisation of the economy, there has been some limited investment, but not enough,” he said.
Economist Eric Bloch believes the country’s agriculture sector can still be revived despite the after effects of the controversial land reform exercise which destroyed a once vibrant economy sub-sector.
“Of key importance to enable access to the necessary funding, the state must create an economic and political environment which will ensure substantial inflows of funds into banks and financial institutions, enabling them to provide the greatly-needed facilities for the agricultural sector,” he said.
Bloch asserts that the state should facilitate and motivate agricultural joint ventures and should seek to entice some of the experienced and skilled farmers who were forcibly ousted from their successful farming operations.
Since the ouster of white commercial farmers from their farms, Zimbabwe has perennially suffered food shortages blamed mostly on weather and changing climatic conditions.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that up to 1,6 million Zimbabweans require aid this year after poor harvests left subsistence farmers short of food for their families.
The government has long touted irrigation schemes as key infrastructure that could boost agricultural production, financing such projects has been tough since Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme, which began in 2000, pushed many banks to withdraw support for agricultural activities.
According to the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), land seizures under the programme led to a rapid decline in farming as the new owners had little or no expertise.
Some were dubbed “cell phone farmers” as, unlike the former white landowners, they did not live on the land but in cities, keeping in touch with their farm managers by phone.
Food production plunged in that period, from two million tonnes of maize in 2000 to 400 000 in 2010, according to the CFU, which represents mainly white farmers.