The impact of COVID-19 on agriculture in Zimbabwe: Have we learnt anything from the pandemic?
By Peter Gambara
Whilst the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak first hit the Wuhan province of China in November 2019, it soon spread to the rest of the world, and now it has affected over 4 million people, causing over 300,000 deaths worldwide.
Recently, world leaders came together under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to discuss ways to halt its spread as well as try to find a vaccine for it.
Many world leaders, who had implemented lockdowns in their economies to control the spread of the virus, are now faced with difficult situations, as their restive populations are getting weary of the restrictive measures and are starting to demand their lifting.
Agriculture is one of the sectors worldwide that have suffered from this pandemic, as many value chains have been disrupted.
Locally, government first imposed a 21-day lockdown in the country, starting 30th March 2020.
One of the major criticisms that followed the announcement of the lockdown was that it did not provide enough time and warning to most citizens to adjust their livelihoods.
Whilst agricultural services were declared as essential services, the situation on the ground proved otherwise, with the first case pointing to contradictions within the system being the confiscation and burning of farmers’ fresh produce in Mutare.
Police raided the Mutare fresh produce market very early in the morning, resulting in the marketers fleeing and leaving their produce at the market. The law enforcement agents collected the produce and videos of them attempting to burn the fresh produce went viral on social media.
Government had to react swiftly, emphasising in a speech by President Emmerson Mnangagwa that such markets should be allowed to operate. That incident highlighted the challenges farmers had to face following the outbreak of the pandemic.
Fresh produce markets in towns were closed, leaving farmers with nowhere to take their products. With the perishable nature of fresh produce, farmers stood to make huge losses.
Suddenly, the demand for fresh produce that originated from supermarkets, hotels and the general public had disappeared overnight. Whilst supermarkets were allowed to continue operating, they had to open for shorter working hours. This meant they had to reduce the amount of fresh produce they ordered, least it goes bad due to low demand.
Hotels and food outlets in urban areas that also normally demand a sizeable amount of fresh produce were also closed, thereby further exacerbating the situation.
The general public was also locked down in their homes, thereby limiting their movement to fresh produce markets and their access to supermarkets became limited.
In some cases, the general public could not find the fresh produce they desired in supermarkets, as the shops scaled down on their orders. Demand for home deliveries of fresh produce increased as consumers found it difficult to go to their usual markets.
Surprisingly, while farmers started earning less for their fresh produce, the same actually became more expensive in the shops due to the interplay between demand and supply.
Other value chains linked to agriculture were also disrupted.
Fresh produce delivery trucks were denied access and sometimes impounded by police. Farmers could not deliver their produce to markets as they could not find transporters and in some cases, fresh produce such as tomatoes and cabbages were left to rot, resulting in huge losses for farmers.
Whilst farmers were encouraged to continue with their operations on the farms, their activities were disrupted as they could not acquire the necessary spare parts and inputs, such as oils, bearings, grease etc since shops in towns were closed.
The COVID-19 pandemic also struck at a time when the country was experiencing a shortage of maize and mealie meal.
Consumers made long, winding queues at supermarkets to purchase cheap subsidized mealie meal. This made social distancing difficult as these queues were also characterised by pushing and shoving among the shoppers as they struggled to gain access into supermarkets.
The lockdown also coincided with the start of the winter wheat planting season, which normally starts around the 1st May each year. Farmers found it difficult to prepare their lands for winter wheat as they could not easily access the necessary inputs and spare parts for their machinery.
Whilst the authorities announced a target of 80,000 hectares of winter wheat, with the private sector contributing at least 15,000 hectares, and government schemes contributing 65,000 hectares, the lockdown disrupted several value chains that were necessary in preparing the land.
Although farmers were advised that they could go about their business as long as they had exemption letters, the situation on the ground was such that these letters were sometimes rejected at police roadblocks. In face of these challenges, most farmers simply abandoned preparing for wheat.
It is doubtful therefore that the 80,000-hectare target will be reached.
There are, however, several lessons to be learnt from these COVID-19 lockdowns.
Firstly, there is need for better coordination between the arms of government. It was clearly a case of the right hand not knowing what the left was doing.
The Mutare incident was particularly embarrassing for government. Whilst the top leadership went around the country encouraging farmers to embrace the winter wheat challenge of planting 80,000 hectares, it was clear that nothing much was done to facilitate farmers to be able to acquire the necessary inputs and overcome their challenges to enable them to plant wheat early as was being preached by the experts.
Government should also in future invite stakeholders to the table and discuss the implementation strategies for different policy decisions.
One of the biggest challenges that government has in putting across messages to farmers is the lack of a suitable medium. Farmers should be better organised and form farmer associations, whose duty will be to disseminate government decisions to their members.
On the other hand, should farmers experience problems on the ground, it also becomes easy for the associations to take the messages back to government for redress. That is how the former white farmers used to communicate so effectively with the colonial government of Ian Smith.
Whilst fresh produce farmers faced challenges in marketing their products, companies that do door-to-door deliveries in urban areas such as Fresh In a Box (FIB) were being overwhelmed by demand for fresh produce.
Several experts now argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted shopping trends towards online shopping as more and more companies worldwide are moving towards contactless deliveries, in an effort to avoid person to person contact.
Goods are preferably dropped and picked up from a designated location. Therefore, once farmers have organised themselves through the farmer associations, they should move towards bulking and distributing their fresh produce as groups or get into some kind of arrangements with companies like FIB and ask them to market their produce on their behalf.
Going forward, consumers will prefer fresh produce handled in a hygiene manner, packaged to their requirements and delivered at their doorsteps.
It is also clear that the concept of using one fresh produce market for a town, e.g. Mbare Musika for Harare, is a bad idea. Not only has Mbare Musika always been a dirty, poorly run market, the market brings together buyers from all corners of town, and is very congested when running.
The market runs without adequate sanitary facilities, produce is laid on dirty floors that are neither sanitized, nor cleaned and the roads into the market are dirty and untarred.
The Harare Municipality has continued to collect fees from the farmers who sell their produce there, without bothering to improve the market at all. It is high time farmers ask to lease the market from council, close it for a while, redesign it, rearrange it and run it the way they want.
Going ahead, the only way the market will continue to attract buyers is if it complies with hygiene and sanitary requirements consistent with the COVID-19 pandemic, otherwise it will continue to be a source of more infections. That is only possible with the farmers running it, for they are the only ones who know what they want. This also eliminates makoronyera, who specialise in fleecing farmers of their produce at ridiculously low process.
Farmers should also consider processing of any fresh produce that they cannot sell fresh, including drying leaf vegetables (mufuswa) and tomatoes, canning tomatoes, fine beans etc. This will ensure that farmers do not throw away their produce, and at the same time, the country will be better prepared for crisis periods like the lockdowns in future. These dried and canned produce can also be exported and bring in the much-needed foreign currency.
Urban dwellers should also have learnt that it’s best to grow some of their vegetable requirements. Not only did fresh produce become more expensive in shops, the quality also deteriorated. Those households with access to borehole water can surely grow their own vegetables in their backyard gardens.
Government has also since acknowledged the fact that food self-sufficiency is necessary if the country’s borders are closed for long periods. This is one reason why the Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) managed by the Grain Marketing Board was created. At any one time, the SGR should have at least 500,000 metric tonnes of maize in stock. If the SGR had that much grain, then the chaos we experienced after maize meal ran out would not have happened.
Going forward, Government will seek to work with all stakeholders in the agricultural sector to ensure that the country produces not only enough for local consumption, but for exports as well.
It is also undesirable that some of our food stuffs were coming from South Africa and due to the disruptions in the supply chain we are now experiencing shortages of carrots and onions.
The next question arising from the above analysis is what needs to be done to create country food self-sufficiency?
Government has since acknowledged the existence of climate change and how erratic rains are causing havoc to the production of the staple food, maize. It has since started placing emphasis on the need to rehabilitate irrigation schemes countrywide. It has targeted to have at least 5,000 farms or 100,000 hectares under irrigation.
However, the implementation of this policy leaves a lot to be desired. Government has left the farmers at the mercy of banks to sponsor the rehabilitation of those irrigation schemes.
Whilst on paper, this looks like a good idea, the truth is that banks will demand collateral security from farmers in the form of urban properties and unfortunately most farmers do not have that collateral. It is also not a secret that only a handful of A2 farmers were given title deeds for the farms they occupy, the majority of farmers still hold onto offer letters, which are not recognised by banks for collateral purposes.
It’s high time, this is revisited and the land used as collateral for agricultural loans or in the case of asset financing, the asset becomes the collateral, with stringent mandatory servicing and insurance in place until the farmer has fully paid for the asset.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need to move towards contactless payment systems for goods and services to avoid person to person contact. However, this remains a challenge with some of our small-scale farmers who remain unbanked.
It is, however, clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions to many value chains, challenged farmers, government and private sector companies involved in the agricultural sector to rethink the best way to conduct business going forward.
It will no longer be business as usual post COVID-19 pandemic.
Peter Gambara is an Agricultural Economist and Consultant based in Harare