Zimbabwe the bread basket of Africa…..

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents.

Amongst all the chaos, there are huge opportunities in Zimbabwebabwe”.

This statement made by one of the displaced white commercial farmers I met on a recent Agri study trip to Zimbabwebabwe summarised my findings in one simple line.

Today, Zimbabwebabwe has an almost perfect climate for agriculture, wonderful land quality, ample water supply, yet it is torn apart by political corruption.

Once known as the breadbasket of Africa for its agriculture export prowess, it is now struggling to feed its 14million+ population.

The country was first colonised by the British in the late 1800’s and continued up to independence in 1980, it was then called Rhodesia.  British war veterans and those with a spirit for adventure either purchased or were granted lands in that part of Africa. After independence in 1980 it became Zimbabwe.

The big difference between the Zimbabwean ‘land plantations’ versus those in Ireland in the early 1500 & 1600’s were that the white farmers  successfully farmed the land in Zimbabwe. In Ireland, we had a lot of ‘absentee British landlords’ i.e. lived abroad, who leased the land to Irish tenants who subsequently farmed the land.

This is a critical point in the development and economic progress of the two countries over the past century. Ireland is now a first world country where agriculture is a small but world class industry exporting food to over 140 countries worldwide. Zimbabwe’s once great agricultural industry is now broken and suffering from a lack of leadership and direction.

How did this happen?

In 1964 a war of independence began between the Rhodesian government and the Robert Mugabe led rebels. This war continued for 16 years eventually ending in 1980 with Mugabe taking power and becoming the leader. He began well by embracing the commercial farmers, building roads and schools, but as his popularity waned his focus was to suppress rivals to cling to power. 

However, in 2000 Mugabe was really struggling politically, then to to win the next election and to bolster popularity he brought in The Land Reform Act which forced the removal of white commercial farmers off their land.

Pre land reform there were in excess of 4,500 white commercial farmers in Zimbabwe, they farmed most of the good agricultural land. This dropped to below 1,000 and has recently started rising again.

Mugabe ‘won’ the 2000 election, the confiscated land was redistributed firstly to war veterans, civil servants and ‘friends’ of the president, they were categorised as A2 land-owners. They got sizeable holdings upto 100ha. Then then entire black population could apply for A1 land which were plots of 4-5 ha.

In Ireland, our average farm size is 34hectares and there is a fragmentation problem, hindering commercial fulltime farming. We have introduced tax exemptions for landowners to lease land long term to alleviate this problem, a policy that is working very well.

In Zimbabwe, they managed to do the complete opposite in the land reform in 2000. The commercial farms often were in excess of 1,000 hectares, but the land reform carved them into small subsistence 4-5ha holdings.

Unfortunately, the new A1 & A2 landowners do not wish to nor have no idea how to farm commercially. I saw; a former dairy farm where people were now living in the old milking parlour and cow housing, arable farms growing weeds with centre pivot irrigation systems lying idle.

The saddest feature is construction of small dwellings with thatched roofs by the new occupants where they cut down the mature trees as firewood for sale and heating. It is said that Zimbabwe has the fastest declining mature tree population in the world at present. Climate change does not even enter the conversation in Zimbabwe, putting food on the table is a bigger priority.

The new landowners just grow enough maize corn to survive and leave the rest of the land fallow (except for the tree cutting and gathering of grass for thatching). I did learn that rewilding land in an unmanaged way is a bigger threat to the environment and humanity than poor farming practices.

The unfortunate reality is that the government dictatorship continues. It is now headed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa who was a right hand man of the former president Robert Mugabe who died in 2019. They want to keep the new landowners down at subsistence level as they bribe them with free seed and fertiliser just before election time to secure another term in power. In the meanwhile, the same government elected representatives use their positions of power to enrich themselves, often living in lavish homes in the outskirts of the capital Harare.

A third tier of ‘communal farmers’ also exist in Zimbabwe. These are old tribal communities who were moved off the commercial farms onto more marginal land by the white commercial farmers when they first pioneers arrived late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These tribes farm communally and in my experience have well developed holdings when compared to A1 & A2 land holders. I visited a number of these farms with a displaced white commercial farmer who now has a business where he buys flower seeds from these farmers to export to Europe. He collects seeds from 1,500 growers and puts significant income into these communities supporting up to 8,000 people. This business relationship has existed for 16 years since the land reform and is evidence to me that there is no inherent racial hatred in Zimbabwe. In fact, the local people could not be more friendly and welcoming.

A sad consequence of land reform was the displacement of over 2million farm labourers. In contrast to land reform in Ireland these labourers where not included in the A1 & A2 land redistribution by government as they were categorised as supporting the white commercial farmers. These experienced farm labourers have moved to the cities and are the poorest section of society today.

However, in the midst of seemingly insurmountable barriers the number of commercial white farmers is rising again in Zimbabwe. The sons and daughters of the displaced parents are innovating by finding ways to joint venture with A2 landowners and commence farming again. As one former landowner said “ if you own land you are not necessarily a farmer and also, you don’t have to own land to be a farmer”. Land leasing is not allowed and joint ventures appear to be a grey area legally, but this is not stopping the entrepreneurial spirit of commercial farmers.

In Ireland spending money on capital expenditure on a leased holding needs to be well planned with a longterm land lease in place. In Zimbabwe you could be out of the holding after one year, this is a problem for the future development of the agricultural industry. Securing bank finance is another barrier as the Jv’s are not acceptable as bank security.

In spite of this we saw a huge investment on a 100ha blueberry farm, new dairy units with mobile milking parlours, revived central pivot irrigators growing tobacco, wheat, maize, potatoes and many other crops. The ideal climate of 6 months dry (April-Sept) and 6 months wet (Oct-Mar) allows any crop or livestock enterprise to be possible in Zimbabwe.

With the world’s population projected to reach 9bn people by 2050, Africa is the only continent with the available land mass that can feed the planet with conventional agriculture.

Getting agriculture back up and running in African countries like Zimbabwe regardless of the political system is essential to meeting this food demand. It strikes me that international trade sanctions against Zimbabwe are contrary to this objective.

Failing to get agriculture up and running in Africa will probably mean people will starve to death before they burn from climate change on planet earth. Clearly, we need a balanced approach to production and climate change measures to protect the future of farming, food and humanity