Agriculture in Zimbabwe: What is the future?

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Presentation by Ben Freeth, Zimbabwe

23 July 2015

If we are to understand the future of agriculture in Zimbabwe we need to understand the past. Why was Zimbabwe such a successful country agriculturally in the past? 

Ben Freeth
Ben Freeth

So what has happened to make it so spectacularly unsuccessful in recent years?  What can we do about the future?

What made Zimbabwe Succeed in the past?

By 1975 the UN Agricultural Year Book ranked this country 2nd in the world for yields of maize, wheat, soya and groundnuts, and 3rd for cotton.  In a combined ranking of these crops we were first in the world.  Our tobacco was rated the best in the world in both yield and quality. Our beef was second to none in the markets of Europe.

There is not a single natural lake in Zimbabwe; and yet when you fly over Zimbabwe you see bodies of water everywhere.  There are over 10,000 of them.   Excluding SA, 80% of the African continent’s dams were built in this country – including the biggest man-made dam in the world at the time [Lake Kariba, constructed between 1955 and 1959].

What was it that made agriculture develop so fast and so successfully in Zimbabwe?  It is very simple: property rights through title deeds – protected by the rule of law.  If a farmer was not successful, the bank sold his farm to a farmer who was successful – and that farm developed further and became more productive.

What Zimbabwe’s current situation?

But where are we now?  I don’t need to tell you.  We are in disaster!

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Graph courtesy Robertson Economic Information Services

Yes tobacco is moving back up to levels where it was 15 years ago – but at huge expense to the environment – with 300,000 hectares of trees being cut down to cure the crop each year – and if we had expanded as our main competitors have expanded we would be producing 3 times our present output.

Milk is down by 80% on what it was at peak production; beef is down by 80%; coffee is down by 90%; paprika is down by 95%; wheat is down by 95%; employment levels are at what they were half a century ago – when we had less than half the population.

The Manufacturing sector production has fallen nearly 70%. The Maize crop is a disaster every year. In fact there is not a year since 2001 when we have not needed food aid to feed the poor – most of those poor being “farmers” – farmers without property rights!

Our GDP, which was bigger than the GDPs of Kenya, Lesotho, Tanzania and Zambia, has now halved and is smaller than all those countries.  It is estimated to fall another 5% or so this year.

Why has Zimbabwe failed agriculturally? 

As a country we have fallen into poverty.  Why?  What has changed to collapse all that was so spectacularly successful in the past?  We all know the answer: the rule of law and property rights have been systematically destroyed through racist and violent policies in the agricultural sector by our government.

We have been left behind.  From being 2nd in the world in maize yields our national average maize yield is now less than half a ton a hectare.  In the USA the average yield is over 9 tons per hectare – and they grow 39 million hectares.  So we need over 18 hectares to produce the same amount of grain that an American farmer needs only 1 hectare for.

It is a tragedy.  With Zimbabwe’s current abysmal national yields we would need a land area the size of the continent of Australia to grow as much maize as the USA does.   American farmers only need a land area the size of Zimbabwe to produce that amount.

Last year in the USA we saw a new world record set of 504 bushels per acre by a farmer called Randy Dowdy in Georgia.   In our language that is 31.6 tons per hectare.

I get excited about that. But in Zimbabwe we need over 60 hectares to produce what Randy Dowdy produces on 1 hectare.  And yet our yields could be where America’s are today if property rights and the rule of law existed in Zimbabwe.

What is the future?

I am going to Singapore next month.  This is a country that is a great success story.  It gained independence from Britain the same year as Kenya did.  Both Singapore and Kenya had a GDP per capita of 500 USD.  Kenya over the last 50 years, managed to grow their GDP per capita to 3,000 USD.

Singapore had no natural resources – but they put in a policy of zero tolerance for corruption – and are ranked as the least corrupt Asian country and the 7th least corrupt country in the world; they put in an exemplary justice system; they established secure property rights and they established a small government with very low taxation.  They created what is ranked the second freest economy in the world after Hong Kong.

Singapore is now one of the 5 biggest financial centres in the world and has a GDP per capita of about 83,000 USD – 28 times that of Kenya – less than 4%.  It won’t surprise you that Kenya is considered to be in the bottom 20% of the world in corruption.

Another country I hugely admire is Botswana – right on our border.  Their economy at their independence was 25 times smaller than the Zimbabwean economy.  Their GDP in 1966 was a mere 51 million – and ours was 1.282 Billion.

Their economy was 4% the size of ours.   Their government made a strong stand against corruption – and is currently ranked in the top 20% in the world of least corrupt countries – the least corrupt country in Africa by far – while Zimbabwe is ranked in the bottom 10% by Transparency International.

Botswana established the rule of law; and they protected individual property rights and developed the freest economy in Africa after Mauritius.  Now their economy is significantly larger than Zimbabwe’s – with 8 times the GDP per capita.

It is not rocket science:  Property rights and the rule of law – with a proper justice system, a small government and a free economy [Zimbabwe is ranked in the bottom 2% in the world in terms of economic freedom].

That is it.  It is very simple.  If that happens in Zimbabwe, our economic future will be great.  If it does not, we will continue to fail as a country.

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Graph courtesy Robertson Economic Information Services

Agriculture can bring Zimbabwe out of poverty; but so long as the toxic Section 72 of our Constitution remains in place; so long as court orders are allowed to continue to be ignored; so long as the law and international court judgments are allowed to continue to be spurned; so long as our government continues to justify racism and practice it in defiance of every human rights charter ever written, agriculture will continue to fail.   Racist and corrupt kleptocracies will always fail their people.

What do we need to do?

More and more there is a realization of what needs to be done to get agriculture going again.  It really would not take too long.   The land is out there.  The former farm workers are out there.  The dams are out there.  Much of the infrastructure is still in place.

The title deeds and the survey beacons are still out there. The institutional memory within the financial systems is there.  The back-up industry is still in place – and where it isn’t, South Africa is across the Limpopo with its back-up industry.  With title deeds being respected, much of the skills base would return in one form or another.

But at the moment the State owns approximately 90% of the land of Zimbabwe – and the State [through the ZANU PF Party] is very much in control of the people on that land.  No civilization in history has ever been built successfully on such a basis – and the past 15 years has shown we are not going to change that trend.

The vast land area that is now vested in the President and the State needs to be put into the hands of private individuals.

The communal people need title.  The 20% of Zimbabwe’s land that has been lawlessly and violently grabbed and  dished out to cronies who are not farmers, needs to be returned to the title deed holders or bought by people who are going to farm it.

In Eastern Europe, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Mozambique, and other countries where predatory Marxist dictators have grabbed private property from individuals and nationalized them – that private property has been returned to those private individuals.

We all know people who have gone back with their title deeds and claimed back their property in those places.  In Zimbabwe many of those title deed holders who have had their properties nationalised will say they don’t want to farm any more.  They will then have the option to sell to farmers who do.

Whatever happens, property rights need to be re-established.  That is the future.  It seems impossible at the current time –  just as it seemed impossible in the past to people living in similar totalitarian dictatorships where private sector assets were nationalized ; but it is not impossible.  It has happened in those other countries – and it can happen here.

If Zimbabwe’s leaders in the future want Zimbabwe to go forward, they will have to take the bull by the horns and establish property rights, obey court judgments such as our one in the SADC Tribunal, and follow the rule of law.

It is our duty, for the future of our country, to employ every means at our disposal to educate, take court cases, build public opinion, present evidence, write literature, lobby, and make secure property rights something that is a non negotiable.

If we do not do that duty, and if property rights continue to be denied to the people of Zimbabwe, the countries which have property rights will have to continue to feed the people on the land in Zimbabwe who do not.  It is as simple as that.

Ben Freeth, Executive Director – Mike Campbell Foundation

  • David

    Right on target Ben. The evidence of failure is quite evident and the analysis you have supplied is helpful. The only question now is how to bring about change. Getting rid of dictatorships also shows a long history of upheavel and great sacrifice. Keep up the good work of fighting for justice.

  • Gobacktoeurope

    I would say 90% correct Ben. Where you lose me is when you say the land must go back to the title deed owners. I happened to watch your family movie about your farm the other day and I empathized with you. However I began to sincerely question the land reform and the way forward. It is not giving back the land t white people. Instead if you are so passionate about the land and Zimbabwe let’s see more effort from these great white commercial farmers sharing knowledge with the people on how to farm and increase production. If you are a son of the soil you will not stand by and watch Zim burn because u don’t have property rights. The journey toward change is not easy. In a hundred years we will have come out of this slump. And speak of how we liberated the land from you thieves. As much as I may not support ZANU PF 100% I back them fully and I wasn’t even a benefactor. And this is not racism, it’s society rebalancing itself.

    • one love

      With all due respect, 80 percent of farms were legally bought and paid for in our case with certificate of no interest from zim gov…6 years after independence. ..so to say u not racist etc is beyond me….farming is a business and not a hobby…people need to be trained and passionate about farming and not every land invader knows a thing about the art/business of farming…We are a country full of small scale farmers…sadly unproductive…This is evident with the poverty and importation of agricultural related resources…..I was born here, so we’re my folks so there’s no plan to go back to europe# just saying!!!!

      • one love

        The hatred and bitterness shines through towards the end of your article….feel so sad for people who pretend they are not full of racism…# We are not thieves but worked hard to buy a farm and develop it only for it to b stolen with a piece of paper!!!!

  • MadzibabaJoshua

    I agree with you that farmers need security of tenure,property rights and so forth for them to farm in peace and harmony,however there is another crop of farmers that you failed to mention who have done a big disservice to the country.Below is my list of these farmers:

    1 Weekend Farmers
    These `farmers` only come to the farm on the weekend with their friends or boyfriends or girlfriends for a braaing fiesta,they may spend a night or two on the farm,they move around the farm showing off to their friends the shear size of the farm and after that they go back to their homes in the big cities.

    2 Telephone Farmers
    These `farmers` always phone the guy they left on the farm,in most cases their relative,to find out what is going on on the farm.They ask how the crops are doing and they rarely set their foot on the farm because they would be busy in the big city.

    3 Internet/Google Farmers
    These `farmers` are always on the internet and on google in the big city,searching how certain crops are grown,after getting this information they rush to the farm to try and implement what the internet would have taught them.

    4 Facebook/Whatsapp
    With the coming in of technology like whatsapp and facebook,these `farmers` do not need to be have their boots onn the ground for they will just `share and post` any farming instructions to the guy on the farm

    This is part 1.

    • one love

      Well said comrade

    • General Munda

      @Madzibaba — There is nothing wrong with all these types of farmers that you mention above PROVIDED they are productive. I couldn’t care less where a business owner resides as long as his/her firm provides services which I would have contracted him/her for.

      The so called beneficiaries of farms got them after having provided a business plan to the Ministry of Lands on what they are going to do on the said farms – if they are not producing, then boot them out. We don’t want grass growers out there. That’s where it’s going wrong .. there’s no follow up on the ground to see what’s being produced/usage or lack thereof on the ground.

      I for one, do not see land going back to the previous commercial farmers. I do however see Title Deeds being processed for those that are being commercially productive on the A2 farms. The Land Tax is one of the ways that is going to sift the chaff from grain and eventually the real farmers are going to surface at the top and viola! Just my piece!!

      • MadzibabaJoshua

        Well said General Munda,we need Zimbabweans like you who debate issues in a mature manner without resorting to insults.
        I salute you.