After nearly five years of successive droughts coinciding with the formative years of the mass evictions of white farmers, president Robert Mugabe’s government initiated a command agriculture programme in 2005. Code-named Operation Maguta/Inala (vernacular for ‘we have enough food’), the scheme was financed by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) and implemented by the military.

It was meant to overcome food shortages precipitated by the drought and the immediate impact of the removal of white farmers. However, lack of funds at the peak of the economic crisis forced Mugabe’s government to abandon the initiative in 2009.

New programme launched

Nine years later and still facing widespread food shortages, his government has revisited the command concept to boost the cultivation of maize – the national staple. The latest version is termed the ‘Targeted Command Agriculture Scheme’. No soldiers are involved this time and the central bank’s role is absent, but Mugabe’s office has assumed the mandate of co-ordinating the initiative being financed largely by pension funds.

A worker at Anju Farm next to a winter maize crop in June. The farm, run by the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS), will form part of the Targeted Command Agriculture Scheme. (Photographs: Ian Nkala)
A worker at Anju Farm next to a winter maize crop in June. The farm, run by the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS), will form part of the Targeted Command Agriculture Scheme. (Photographs: Ian Nkala)

The programme commenced in October 2016 and will be implemented over three seasons at a cost of US$516 million. A projected 400 000ha of land will be put under maize nationwide.

The government is selecting farmers who will sign performance-based contracts. They will receive inputs, such as seed maize, chemicals, tillage services and funds to harvest the crop and transport it to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). Each farmer will be bound to deliver five tons of the staple every season to the GMB as repayment for the loans.

“We have received a positive weather forecast for the 2016/2017 season after a challenging few years,” says prominent farmer, Wonder Chabikwa. “But we have a perennial problem regarding the absence of sustainable financial support. We cannot maximise production with a farmer’s purse. For commercial agriculture to grow, there must be suitable finance.

“In the short term we need money for inputs for the season, and medium- to long-term funding is required for retooling and capital investment. I am not referring to freebies, but finance at single digit interest rates payable over ten years, not 18% interest over a season or two. This is why we welcome the command agriculture initiative.”

Meeting food requirements

In a statement following the 20th Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF-20) held in Harare from 24–26 August this year, weather experts noted that most regions within the 15 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are likely to receive normal to above-normal rainfall between October 2016 and March 2017. In its national weather outlook, the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) of Zimbabwe stated that practically all parts of the country are expected to receive such rainfall levels over the next six months.

Finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, has said the government, working with the private sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), is looking at mobilising US$1,5 billion for the 2016/2–17 farming season. Presenting a mid-term fiscal policy statement on 8 September, he said US$85 million of the required US$172 million had been raised for the command scheme this season. Approximately 310 000ha of the targeted 400 000 had been identified.

“Of this targeted land, 264 000ha consists of dryland while 136 000ha is irrigable,” said Chinamasa. “This import substitution maize production programme targets (communal and commercial) participants and government institutional farms, particularly those near water bodies. Already, more than 310 000ha of land has been identified, of which over 105 000ha is irrigable land while over 204 000ha consists of dryland.”

Bulawayo Kraal in Binga will soon get funding under the Command Agriculture Fund.The picture taken recently shows one of the giant 400metre Centre Pivots that have already been installed.(Pictures by Eliah Saushoma)
Bulawayo Kraal in Binga will soon get funding under the Command Agriculture Fund.The picture taken recently shows one of the giant 400metre Centre Pivots that have already been installed.(Pictures by Eliah Saushoma)

Farmers harvested 511 816 tons of maize this year, far short of the 2,2 million tons required for national consumption annually. The deficit of 1,7 million tons is being imported by the government, local commercial maize millers and development partners. The harvest for this year has been the lowest since 2009. The biggest harvest over the past seven years was recorded in 2014, when 1,5 million tons were reaped, still being 700 000 tons less than the national annual requirement.

Speedy implementation

Former vice-president of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union (ZFU), Edward Raradza, says while the command system is expected to enhance production and productivity in theory, implementing it may pose a challenge.

“This is a good initiative if all inputs are delivered to farms by September 2016 in readiness for the effective onset of rains in October. This projection is for dryland crop, but those who are irrigating can start earlier. This programme should empower the farmer. However, authorities should monitor beneficiaries so that they would put the inputs to their intended use, not selling or simply sitting on them.”

Chabikwa, also president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union (ZCFU), says: “We expect greater speed in terms of delivery. Time is of the essence in this industry. We can lose it if inputs don’t arrive by 30 September (2016), as the rains are likely to fall by end of this month in the southern parts of the country.”

The Bulawayo Kraal Irrigation Scheme in the arid Binga District on the eastern bank of the Zambezi River, western Zimbabwe, will boast its first crop this year since it was mooted in 2004. Cain Mathema, the provincial affairs minister for Matabeleland North, says about 250 of the 15 000ha estate have been cleared and will be put under maize.

“It is one of the biggest projects we have in the province,” he says. “Part of the land has been cleared and the project is ongoing. Huge pieces of equipment are being installed, so the irrigation scheme should form part of the targeted scheme.”

Doubts and fears expressed

In May 2015, parliament which is dominated by Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party, passed the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Debt Assumption Bill, 2015. The law was crafted after farmers, most of them being senior ruling party and government officials who failed to repay loan advances amounting to US$1,35 billion they received from the central bank between 2003 and 2008. These highly connected individuals, whose names the government has refused to disclose despite opposition demands, received implements and irrigation infrastructure under a farm mechanisation programme.

Therefore, not everyone is optimistic regarding the command scheme. Opposition parties and former white farmers have expressed fears that ruling party members and government officials might take it as yet another self-enrichment opportunity.

Too much too soon?

Ben Freeth – author of Mugabe and the White African and When Governments Stumble: Lessons from Zimbabwe’s Past, Hope in Africa’s Future (publications which tackle Mugabe’s farm seizure campaign in the 2000s and its adverse impacts) – opposes the Targeted Command Agriculture Scheme on two key grounds. He is of the opinion that the scheme is being too hastily implemented and has expressed concern over possible corruption by the elite who are likely to dominate the list of beneficiaries.

He recently wrote: “An opportunity such as this, offering the so-called ‘farmer’ status and financial benefit, will have significant appeal. In a country where poverty is dire, where the vast majority of title deeds have been nationalised and where the banks have run out of funds, it’s almost impossible to obtain funds of that scale. When the political elite secure that funding, they would realise that it is, in fact, not enough.”

Moreover, he fears there isn’t adequate time for the government to avail the promised inputs and for farmers to prepare before the rains. “The entire command agriculture concept is another blundering, totalitarian control and patronage scheme, doomed to fail in feeding the nation. In the days before food aid, other regimes oversaw comparable schemes, yet millions perished.”

Echoing Freeth’s fears, Edward Cross, a senior official of main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), warns that such government-led systems of comparable nature have failed. “Command agriculture has never worked,” Cross wrote in the Zimbabwe Independent, a privately-owned weekly, on 26 August.

“It was tried on massive scale in the Soviet Union and China, only to be abandoned as a complete failure, but only after tens of millions had died of malnutrition. Agriculture only works when individual farmers have a sense of ownership and pride.” – Ian Nkala, FarmBiz