Opinion: 2021 bumper harvest provides a perfect take off opportunity for the Agric sector

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Harare- The Agriculture sector is a very critical tool for socio-economic development in Zimbabwe and beyond. This sector is the main source of livelihood for most people and a key determinant of rural livelihood and poverty levels. As such the sector is the mainstay of the economy.

The sector is experiencing severe challenges such as extreme weathers like El Nino-induced droughts experienced in the previous 2 consecutive seasons. However, for the current 2020/21 season, the region is witnessing a massive El Viejo. The entire region is anticipated to attain a bumper cereal harvest thereby improving the food security situation with about 45 million citizens, 12% of the region’s population currently food insecure.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an El Viejo is the opposite of El Nino in which Pacific Ocean upwelling (rising of cold water from the depths to replace warm water) increases, bringing nutrient-rich water to the surface. It typically lasts nine to 12 months and results in wetter-than-normal conditions particularly in Southern Africa.

In 2020, when the El Nino weather pattern struck the nation, Zimbabwe managed to harvest an estimated 910,000 metric tonnes of staple maize against a national requirement of at least 2 million for both human and livestock consumption. This output was 25% below the five-year national average and a low yield of 0.6t/ha. This left no option besides raising resources to import about 1 million tonnes of grains to cover the consumption gap. However, as the 2020/21 consumption year draws to a close, the annual maize deficit remains unclosed. Statistics from Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) show that about 530,000 tonnes were imported between April and December 2020.

Nevertheless, the country is on course to achieve its first bumper harvest in three-years thanks to normal to above-normal rains being experienced nationwide. Initial statistics show that as of January 31, of the 1.5 million hectares targeted by the government to be under maize, about 1.7 million were actually planted, thus 18% above target. While the nation is still waiting for the first Plants and Livestock Assessment Report, I expect the same trend to hold across all other crops like soybeans and traditional grains.

In preparation for the 2020/21 season, over 1million households were trained under the government initiative of conservative agriculture dubbed Pfumvudza/Intwasa and were provided with farm inputs like seed and fertilizer under the Presidential Input Scheme. Upbeat of this early preparation and subsequent normal rain pattern, the government has set a maize target of 3.5 million tonnes in 2021 with a yield of 2.4t/ha. However, in my view, this yield per hectare target is over-ambitious for a country that has attained an average of 0.9t/ha in the last 2 decades. Also, there are other downside risks emanating from the continuous downpour of rains which is causing soil leaching, waterlogging, and poor weed control. Topdressing fertilizer which saves crops from leaching is in short supply and the market price is out of reach for many poor households.

Having said all that, I am confident that the country is still on course to realize the most improved agriculture performance in a decade as the persistent rainfall has reportedly managed to suppress Fall Armyworm infestations and the bulk of crops are now in late vegetative to reproductive stages. Apart from crops, pasture availability has significantly improved compared to 2019. Livestock is critical in rural livelihoods and food security lies in the provision of draught power and manure. Also, livestock act as a strategic household investment and provide safety nets during uncertain times like the 2019 and 2020 drought, floods, and cyclones.

The projected rebound in Agric comes at the right time as the nation battles inflationary pressures. Post dollarization reform period, inflation in Zimbabwe is emanating highly from excessive money supply (reserve money) growth which consequently leads to an exchange rate overrun and via pass-through effects, lead to rising average prices. Further fueling this are consecutive droughts that have caused severe food shortages when the country is facing forex shortages to augment the shortfall through imports. Granular analysis of inflation statistics shows that of the all-items consumer basket tracked by authorities, the food basket has been the problem child. According to an online tabloid, FEWS NET, most markets across the country lack maize grain and this has forced grain prices to shoot by 20% on average in January and maize meal to increase by 30% as demand peaked amidst national shortages. Food inflation pressure is expected to nosedive as the lean season comes to a close and the harvest season begins.

In my view, the government through the responsible ministry should not be carried away by the current El Viejo conditions and forgo implementing necessary long-term policies. For a reminder, El Nino weather conditions are more frequent (2 years on average). Hence this calls for extensive development of climate-friendly farming techniques and practices like robust irrigation infrastructure. Irrigation has the capacity to increase crop yield by between 100 and 400%. Despite this, the use of irrigation is very low with the country having only about 100,000ha under a functioning irrigation system. Lack of irrigation is also a problem for the entire region with estimates pointing that less than 10% of arable land in SADC is under irrigation. For instance, Zambia with three million hectares, only 156,000 is under irrigation while South Africa has only 1.3 million hectares under irrigation against 18 million hectares of arable land.

The Agric sector should be handled diligently since it has strong positive trickle-down economic effects. It also acts as the best black empowerment tool that aids in the reduction of poverty and income inequality. The majority of the population are rural dwellers deriving their livelihood from agriculture. Interestingly, this sector employs between 60-70% of the population, supplies 60% of raw materials required by the industrial sector, and contributes at least 30% to export earnings. More so, the Agric sector is a locomotive sector contributing 17% to Zimbabwe’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is why from a historical point of view, the year Agric sector performs dismally, GDP growth follows suit. For instance, during the 1992 drought, agricultural output fell by 50% and GDP plunged 9%. The subsequent severe drought years 2003, 2008, 2019, and 2020 also saw a severe double-digit decline in GDP.

However, the government defied history lessons and left the sector plummeting over the years. Recently, it spent billions of dollars in inefficient and corruption-infested Command Agriculture but there was no meaningful change in fortunes save for the 2017/18 season when the country received normal rainfall patterns. Yes, the Agric sector is the most subsidized sector world-wide but the government should not dictate what to produce, where and for whom. It is high time the private sector is empowered and with minimal govt role. Over the last 2 decades, the country has spent an average of US$1 billion importing agriculture-related products mostly grains (maize, wheat and soybeans). If the sector could have been prioritized and efficiently managed, foreign currency allocated, would have been invested in other critical areas. 

In the recently launched National Development Strategy 1 (2021-2025), the government seeks to transform the Agric sector into an US$8 billion sector by 2025. The sector is envisaged to grow by an average of 5% in the next 5 years. In my view, the government has been naturally aided in attaining these targets. With average national dam levels now at 89%, its second-highest average level in more than 50 years, increased investment in value chains and irrigation will bring closure to the oscillatory nature of the sector. The abolishment of GMB monopoly through the re-introduction of the agriculture commodity auction system will also help in price discovery and increase participation in the sector. Also, given that the land audit is complete, the state should move fast to seize and re-allocate all farms under multiple ownership and or being underutilized as well as downsize large farms. This increases land utilization and helps the nation tackle recurring food insecurity.

Given decades of economic neglect, I am mindful that there is more that needs to be done to bring the Agric sector in particular and the economy in general to a sustained growth trajectory. The projected bumper harvest provides good footing for a robust take-off.

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