Zim must learn to value its farmers

HARARE - The treatment of tobacco farmers in the past few days by buyers has brought to the fore issues of how farmers across the country are treated as second-class citizens.

Tobacco farmers are complaining that the new the electronic auction system is not working and they are not happy with the low prices obtaining at the sales floors as well as the limited cash withdrawal limits of $1 000 among other things.

It is an insult for tobacco farmers to get $0,20 per kilogramme after toiling for nearly six months to get the crop ready, let alone be refused to get all their money from the banks.  

The same can also be said about maize farmers who, for years now, have been battling to receive payment for their crop from the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). 

Agriculture has been the bedrock of Zimbabwe’s economy even before independence but the story has changed.  Today, the government can no longer reassure farmers that they can eke a living and provide towards the bulk of the country’s sustenance.

More so, laws that once supported the country’s mainstay are so discriminatory it’s a miracle farmers still make a living out of agriculture.

Theoretically, the government has an elaborate food policy but it has yet to activate it. For years on end, it has dragged its feet over what, admittedly, are difficult political and economic decisions — to admit that land reform has failed.

As it is, Zimbabwe is barely food self-sufficient and there is need for President Robert Mugabe’s government to give particular attention to agriculture if the country entertains any hope of economic recovery.

The goal, then, must be to transform today’s subsistence agriculture into tomorrow’s agro-processing.

Agricultural production, transformation, and related activities like branding, marketing and logistics could become alternative drivers of value addition and the creation of decent jobs.

While tariffs and distortionary subsidies in developed countries have long discouraged investment and value addition in agriculture in Africa, the playing field has significantly changed.

Trade reforms and booming South-South and regional trade opportunities have opened new avenues. There is no intrinsic reason Zimbabwe should be importing, rather than exporting, basic staples like maize or higher value products like frozen chicken, cooking oil, or instant noodles.

But for agro-based industries to “jump-start economic transformation”, challenges must be overcome at every step of the value chain.

Farmers will need much better access to finance, electricity, technology, and irrigation. Agro-industry will need to expand both downstream, which is to say in processing, and in upstream input-related activities. 

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