The Sunday Mail
Ever since Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that Government would embark on Command Agriculture, farmers, planners, bankers, seed houses, fertiliser, agro-chemical companies and the general populace have been wondering what this animal called “Command Agriculture” is all about.
In this article, I demystify the concept, looking at major stakeholders concerns.
“Command Agriculture” is synonymous with Soviet style “Command Economies” that were rolled out centuries ago, with government determining what is to be produced, how much should be produced and the price at which the goods are to be sold.
Administrative organs of the State are made responsible for planning, supervision and enforcement of an agreed plan of action to meet the needs and desires of that government.
In our case, VP Mnangagwa’s Office has been tasked at the highest level.
Mr Justin Mupamhanga, a Deputy Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet, is the highest-ranking civil servant co-ordinating this programme.
Ministries like Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, and Water Resources, Lands and Rural Resettlement are all involved, coordinated by the OPC.
The VP said the scheme would involve 2 000 farmers each producing at least 1 000 tonnes of maize on 200 hectares.
Targeted farmers should be operating near water bodies, and will retain the surplus for personal use, with loans advanced to them also expected to be settled.
Last week, Mr Mupamhanga clarified that both small and large scale farmers will be contracted for three consecutive years, and receive fertilisers, seed, agro-chemicals and irrigation and mechanised equipment on a cost-recovery basis.
US$500 million has been earmarked for the entire scheme.
Zimbabwe used about US$450 million to import maize this year after an El Nino-induced season wrote off most crops.
It, therefore, makes sense to channel US$500 million to such a scheme.
For Command Agriculture to succeed, Government needs to mobilise the farmers and inputs, distributing them to beneficiaries on time.
Besides providing these inputs, Government also needs to ensure identified farmers have access to tractors and tillage equipment and funds to pay for labour.
Some major concerns on this scheme relate to the choice of farmers, funding sources, repayments, payments for maize deliveries and whether inputs will be available on time.
The indication that this programme will target 2 000 farmers who will each grow grain on 200 hectares raised eyebrows.
For a farmer to have arable land covering 200 hectares, that farmer must ideally have a farm in excess of 300 hectares as farm buildings take 15 percent of the space and conservation works 20 percent.
The perception out there is some of those with big farms only use a fraction of inputs and divert the remainder to the market.
This, hopefully, will be looked into.
Secondly, the average yield of maize in Zimbabwe is 0,8 tonnes per hectare.
How many farmers can easily attain five tonnes per hectare?
Growing 200 hectares and being able to achieve that yield is no mean achievement.
A large-scale farmer who can achieve 5 t/ha is good by our standards, and those who can achieve 8 t/ha are exceptional. However, these yields are easily achievable on small pieces of land where all attention is on that small space.
The argument, therefore, is that Government should target small to medium-scale farmers with a history of good yields, and our Agritex extension officers know them.
These officers should then be tasked to strictly supervise and monitor the farmers to ensure they deliver.
And the farmers can be grouped, sharing equipment and knowledge.
It is disturbing, though, that extension officers who are expected to supervise and monitor this scheme lack vehicles, motorbikes or bicycles.
How then will they move from one point to the next?
Government should seriously consider equipping them.
A lot of people are sceptical about whether Government will be able to fund this programme, considering its challenges in paying civil servants.
However, authorities have since conceded that they cannot go it alone and need the support of several institutions to fund the scheme.
While banks can provide some funding, seed houses, fertiliser and agro-chemical companies can supply inputs to Government on credit and get paid over, say, six-10 months.
Government, however, needs to ensure strict supervision so that only deserving farmers get inputs and that they will be repaid on time.
Failure to repay will burden Government at a time it is already overstretched.
The scheme should strictly be on a full cost recovery basis and culprits brought to book.
Government has indicated contracted farmers will be expected to deliver five tonnes per hectare as repayment.
This is incorrect.
If a farmer receives inputs worth US$800 for a hectare, that farmer will need to pay back US$912 i.e. US$800 plus 14 percent interest = US$912.
This translates to 2,33 tonnes per hectare i.e. US$912 divided by US$390/t = 2,33 tonnes or 47 X 50 kg bags per hectare.
In simple terms, a farmer who achieves five tonnes per hectare will only use about half that yield to pay back inputs.
The farmer is free to sell the balance to Government or not to.
And whether the balance is sold to Government or a private buyer is immaterial as that maize will still be in Zimbabwe and will go towards the country’s annual target of 1,8 million tonnes.
By the same token, a small-scale farmer gets inputs to grow just an acre (0.4 hectares) will be told that he/she needs to deliver about a tonne (20 X 50kg bags) of maize to repay the loan.
By contracting farmers and providing them with these inputs, Government does not need to mobilise any funding for the Grain Marketing Board to buy this maize come harvesting time.
If the contracted farmers deliver enough maize just to repay their loans, it means a total of 935 800 tonnes will be delivered to GMB depots.
Zimbabwe’s strategic grain reserve is set at just 500 000 metric tonnes, and farmers who are still eager to deliver their balances to the GMB for payment can still do so.
Government should, however, ensure funding is available for farmers to be paid upon delivery.
This habit of taking ages to pay farmers for maize deliveries contributed to loss of interest in maize production, hence our current problems.
That mistake should never be repeated.
It’s only about two months before the onset of the summer cropping season.
The major concern is whether Government will be able to mobilise inputs and deliver them to the targeted beneficiaries before then.
If farmers are to achieve good yields, land should be prepared well and not hastily.
Therefore, Government should target availing diesel for land preparation right now without any further delay.
Most soils are now dry and cannot be disced without first irrigating them or waiting for the rains.
It might be necessary to use rippers to rip most lands before either ploughing or discing.
Further, planting should be done on time; the earlier this is done, the better.
However, this is only possible if the necessary inputs are available on time.
More than 300 000 metric tonnes in the form of diesel, seed, fertilisers and agro-chemicals will need to be moved between now and the start of the season.
About 300 X 30 tonne trucks working for about 30 days need to be mobilised to move this tonnage to the farmers.
Whilst some effort has been made to disseminate information to farmers about this scheme, this has not been adequate.
Some senior Agritex and Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Ministry officials who are supposed to be at the forefront are still in the dark on the logistics.
Government should produce pamphlets, radio and TV programmes, newspaper advertisements and hold “meet-the-farmer” tours to provide information and assurances.
Those responsible should also move with speed to specify the exact inputs that will be provided and their quantities.
Obviously, different Natural Regions will have different input recommendations, and this should be made clear without any further delay.
Command Agriculture has potential to achieve its intended goal of national grain self-sufficiency.
However, Government should tighten loose ends now, moving with speed to identify the right farmers, gather adequate inputs and dispense these inputs on time.
There should be strict supervision and monitoring by well-resourced Agritex officers so that only genuine, well-meaning farmers get these inputs and put them to good use.
- Mr Peter Gambara is an agricultural economist/consultant based in Harare. He wrote this article for The Sunday Mail.