How Zimbabwe’s food economy is evolving

In the 1980s when Zimbabwe was considered Southern Africa’s bread basket, our total national population was around 7 million. It has now doubled with almost 35% now living in urban areas. Food production has responded to these trends such that producing for export is not attractive when there is an unsatisfied local market.The pull of urbanisation

All urban centres such as Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru, Masvingo, Kwekwe, Chinhoyi, Kadoma, Chegutu, Victoria Falls and Bindura have experienced increased population growth over the last decade.

Many former growth points have become towns while several rural business centres are rapidly urbanising. Food supply to all these urban centres have spawned complex value chains, leading to the emergence of diverse professions along the food chains.

Opportunities have been opened both upstream and downstream of agricultural value chains. In almost all urban centres and rural business centres, it is now common to find specialists in producing various agricultural tools ranging from scotch-carts, ploughs, cultivators, planters and all types of irrigation equipment. There is also a big industry comprising fertiliser dealers, grain collectors, aggregator and sellers.

A big complement of transporters specialising on agricultural commodities has also been unleashed, not to mention various food processors, vendors and restaurants in all urban centres.

Unfortunate paucity of data and recognition

While there is evidence that food has become a key economic driver, its contribution to national GDP remains un-explored. It is as if the formal sector and mainstream researchers are determined to continue denying a new reality.

Our education system has not been able to produce talent that can measure and account for this important segment of the economy whose value is estimated to run into billions of United States dollars. It is now clear that the informal food economy is a big portion of the informal sector which has become the largest private sector, employing more people.

Besides enhancing social cohesion, this sector offers benefits such as employment and livelihoods to the poorest in society. Had this sector obtained the respect it deserves, by now, the variety and vigour of the food economy should have been integrated national economic development strategies. Unfortunately, policy makers and development organisations continue to over-look the informal food economy.

Towards nailing the size of the food economy

Based on experiences of working with informal agriculture markets over the past few years, eMKambo is on the verge of determining the precise size and structure of the whole food economy. Some of the emerging trends embrace the role of urbanisation in agriculture, urban lifestyles and shifts in dietary patterns.

So far, trends point to an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables as well as cereals and pulses in both urban and rural areas.

Informal markets are becoming the main source of food supply and distribution

Non-agricultural activities of the food economy, such as processing, logistics, transport and retail are developing quickly and already account for a significant percentage of the food sector’s value. There are signs of these activities accelerating rapidly.

There is no longer any doubt that informal markets are becoming the main source of food supply and distribution since climate change is impeding some former agricultural zones from producing sufficient food for local populations.

eMKambo is also witnessing integration of rural areas into the market economy as revealed by how agricultural commodities move from urban areas such as Harare and Bulawayo to rural areas such as Hurungwe and Binga within a few hours.

Wild fruits are also moving quickly from rural areas where they are abundant to urban areas where there is a growing market. A key part of this transformation in the food systems are changing as consumer habits that are evolving with urban lifestyles.

While there is an increase in the consumption of vegetables, fruits, eggs and meat in both rural and urban areas, most rural people continue to consume more grains and grain-based products than urban people who have wider choices.

Besides collecting data from informal agriculture markets, to try and measure the food economy’s size and importance, eMKambo has come up with evidence gathering methods that isolate food products and calculate each household’s food expenditure.

Ultimately, we should be able to estimate the share of total household income spent on food. Since urban dwellers now also produce their own food through urban agriculture, data collection also includes each urban household’s production for own consumption. This will enable us to determine how much urban households spend on food per capita compared to rural households.

Market transactions are already telling us a great deal about the size and importance of food-related activities all the way from production, marketing, vending and consumption patterns. We already see that as the food economy increases, structuring and strengthening value chains can no longer be under-estimated.

Availability and flowing of reliable information among stakeholders is making a difference between success and failure. New consumption habits are translating into increased agricultural production and diversification. For instance, there is a growing market for organically produced vegetables, eggs and fruits.

While some supply chains are becoming longer, some are becoming shorter, depending on specific commodities. Monitoring food value chains and all markets is going to be very important in ensuring reliable availability, accessibility, quality and stability of food supplies.

Without an acute understanding of the food economy in terms of demand, size and composition, it is impossible to stimulate value addition businesses. To that end, the food economy should receive more attention and support from policy makers and development partners.

Some of the policy implications

That the food economy is unleashing new policy challenges and opportunities, is now beyond debate. Efforts to improve agricultural production should simultaneously address challenges being faced along all value chains.

Policy making has to rapidly adapt to complex factors that now influence food and nutrition security. These factors include climate change, population growth and urbanisation. Policy makers should also respond to the increasing demand for new technological and commercial skills, infrastructure development and financing models.

Specific capacities must be developed ranging from data capture, analyses and interpretation in order to monitor trends as well as unforeseen new public health issues that may result from changes in dietary habits.

A much more low hanging fruit for value chain actors is that the growth of the food sector is about to cause the revision of the SME policy towards supporting agro-food trading. At the moment, there is no appropriate infrastructure for food trading in almost all urban areas due to lack of enabling policy instruments.

SMEs are taken as a homogeneous group yet some, such as food traders, need special infrastructure like warehousing and cooling facilities.

The supply side, agriculture production, has an over-supply of policies but the same cannot be said for the demand side, before we even look at the export side.

There is an enormous chance of re-writing and strengthening rules of our agricultural sector in sustainable ways. Smart ways of measuring progress in Zimbabwe’s agro-driven economy are no longer very far away. Fiscal and financial restructuring should start speaking to these developments in the food economy.

Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) (www.knowledgetransafrica.com ) whose flagship eMKambo (www.emkambo.co.zw ) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: charles@knowledgetransafrica.com ; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.

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