Soviet-style inspiration for Zimbabwean food scheme

Zimbabwe war veterans, land invasion, illegal occupation of white-owned farms

Barely a year after Zimbabwe’s political elites refused to repay $1.4 billion after receiving tractors and agricultural inputs under a state-funded scheme, a new programme has triggered controversy.

By Brezhnev Malaba

With 4.5 million people facing starvation, the government last week initiated a Soviet-style “command agriculture” scheme – but a sceptical public is dismissing it as another gravy train venture.

As recently as 1999, Zimbabwe was Africa’s breadbasket, exporting more than 500 000 metric tonnes of surplus maize annually. By 2002, an agrarian revolution had displaced 4 500 white farmers, replacing them with 300 000 black farmers. When the new farmers failed to productively utilise the land, the country began surviving on expensive grain imports and handouts from the United Nations World Food Programme.

Last year, ordinary Zimbabweans were left seething after the ruling Zanu-PF railroaded a law shifting the previous programme’s $1.4 billion debt burden from political bigwigs to taxpayers. Opposition parties described the move as shameless looting.

In the past week, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who chairs a cabinet committee on food security and nutrition, has been on a countrywide campaign to rollout the $500 million “command agriculture” scheme which promises support to farmers who can meet crop production targets.

Mnangagwa has not convincingly explained how the government, which is broke and has repeatedly failed to pay civil servants’ salaries, will fund the ambitious project. Treasury is already burdened with a herculean task: how to raise $1.8 billion in the next two months to settle International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank loan repayment arrears.

“We have the land and control over it. We have hardworking people who need to be empowered,” Mnangagwa says.

Jacob Mafume, spokesman of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, says farmland in Zimbabwe, which is all owned by the state, is dead capital because farmers have no bankable title. “To address food shortages, the government must give farmers land leases, which will allow them to borrow money from banks and let the farmers have freedom to control their land and agricultural activities,” Mafume adds.

Under the collectivist programme, selected farmers will be required to produce two million tonnes of maize on 400 000 hectares of land during the 2016-2017 summer cropping season.

Government officials have warned that farmers with irrigation capacity who refuse to participate in the scheme could be evicted and their land re-allocated to the willing. In line with set targets, the state will provide fertiliser, seed, tillage, pesticides and farming implements on a cost-recovery basis.

To ensure national food security, the assigned farmers must produce at least five tonnes of maize per hectare to meet Zimbabwe’s annual grain requirement of 1.8 million tonnes.

Commentators say it is not easy to produce two million tonnes of maize at the best of times in crisis-hit Zimbabwe – let alone under a “command agriculture” venture that seeks to defy the laws of economics. In the 2014-2015 cropping season, local farmers produced only 742 000 tonnes, leading to a food deficit that has left millions hungry.

Development analyst Phillan Zamchiya is dismissing the “command agriculture” idea as outdated, outlandish and impractical.

“Command agriculture schemes have been tried through collectivisation in Soviet Russia and Ujamaa villages in Tanzania, among other examples, but they have failed. How a government can propose a production scheme with strong historical echoes of high authoritarian modernism of the 18th century in the 21st century boggles the mind,” Zamchiya says.

He recalls that 10 years ago, the Zimbabwean government embarked on a collectivist agriculture scheme that left the nation hungry, broke and angry. Farmers, mostly top bureaucrats, politicians and their sidekicks, were given tractors, combine harvesters, irrigation equipment, diesel, electricity, water, seed, fertiliser, pesticide and technical assistance by the government. There were widespread reports of abuse of the resources, with some so-called “cellphone farmers” and “weekend farmers” illegally selling the diesel, inputs and equipment on the black market.

“The idea was to put 1.5 million hectares of land under maize and produce 2.25 million tonnes to ensure food security. Like elsewhere in the world, this again failed dismally. In fact, this undermined production in some places and worsened food insecurity,” Zamchiya notes. – Africa Independent

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