Blinkers associated with basing projections on hectares of land

While economists have been schooled into projecting agricultural income starting from the size of the land, such an approach is now found wanting in the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that land is important but valuating natural resources for investment purposes should go beyond hectares of land to the quality of soil and water, among other key elements that are often ignored. The fact that Masvingo, Mazowe, Gokwe and Muzarabani have different climatic conditions and soil types means their mize yields will also be contextual. That is why you cannot have the same hectares as projections of yields.


Human capacity as a more important part of the assessment criteria

There is an emerging realization that human capacity is a critical consideration over and above natural resources. Two farmers in the same area, given the same inputs and planting at the same time will produce different yields due to intrinsic human factors and talents. So if you do not assess human capacity in terms of knowledge within farmers at different levels you will miss fundamental factors that influence agricultural performance. Unless there is solid criteria on which farmers can be assessed, it will remain difficult to find a pathway for upgrading farmers from one level to the other.

When the right assessment criteria are used, within farming areas farmers can be found more than five different categories of farmers with diverse capacities and needs. That is why mapping knowledge pathways is increasingly becoming more important.  For instance, how much knowledge do two new neighboring farmers have?  How much knowledge are they sharing or they are just living side by side as two silos? It may take years for new farmers to build relationships that stimulate knowledge sharing. Where relationships are weak, knowledge sharing pathways are also weak.

The power of appropriate farmer classification

During Zimbabwe’s land reform, land allocation processes were not based on resources or knowledge within farmers. That is why farmers from different backgrounds and with different resource endowment levels can be found in the same neighborhood. An Ambassador can been seen sharing a boundary with a peasant farmer. This could have its own social advantages but there is no knowledge sharing ecosystem due to different classes. Such anomalies are rendering the agriculture sector more fragile because commercial farmers cannot plan with A1 farmers who have different needs. Villagers in the same communal area can easily work together because they share the same characteristics and social fabric.

Before land reform, it was easy to coordinate production among large scale commercial farmers because they had a well-developed knowledge sharing culture around clubs where they met to discuss business while playing golf. This is where monopolistic strategies were stitched. On the other hand, new farmers may have come onto the land through politics, government positions, nepotism, company executive positions linked to government or they are war veterans.  All these diverse backgrounds have turned new farming areas into a melting pot of cultures that are taking long to fuse positively.

Sense of belonging among communal farmers

Communal farmers are more bonded because having been together for decades, they have developed strong relationships enabling them to share resources.  Their classes are not different – they meet subsistence and surplus requirements. There is also a certain level to which rural communities value their sense of belonging. For instance they do not import labor but local people can easily provide labor in exchange for food or getting their land ploughed for cropping.

The notion of kuronzera/ukulagisa is a perfect example of situations where some communal families use their grazing ability to own cattle and enjoy related benefits like milk by herding cattle on behalf of the owners while they also use to grow crops.  Nhimbe is another way of sharing resources and knowledge. You just brew some mahewu or beer and neighbors bring spans of oxen to plough and plant for you. Another powerful resource which was used for different purposes including exchanging crops, seed and livestock breeds was the extended family system.  Although it still exists it has been weakened by partisan politics and imported religion.

How the benefits of proper classification extend to the market

African informal mass markets like Mbare also survive hardships because they are public institutions where knowledge travels freely through networks and relationships.  Actors like traders creatively bring their knowledge together in order to be more competitive, for example to fight imports as a group. Conversely the private sector is too competitive to the extent of not sharing knowledge or information critical for the survival of the entire industry. Farmer unions, chambers of commerce and churches also tend to cherry pick members from robust social ecosystems and put them in silos like political parties and denominations through a membership drive. This blocks knowledge sharing by dividing communities and families.  There should be a mechanism for new farmers to be brought together in ways that build strong relationships. This is more on the social side but can form the glue for economic empowerment and rebuilding social capital currently being under-utilized.

Paying lip service to proper classification explains why farmers are not protected from dubious service providers such as those who provide borehole drilling services or veterinary products. Ideally this is where farmer unions should come in and develop capacity to design terms of reference as well as contracts for different service providers including those claiming to do artificial insemination or soil as well as water testing. It is not enough to ask for quotations from service providers but there should be  contracts with clear terms of reference and payment terms.  This will ensure recourse in the case of service providers failing to deliver.

However there is a limit to what farmers can do

eMKambo is not suggesting that farmer classification will address all challenges faced by farmers. Given the complexities and technical knowledges involved, issues related to water siting and borehole drilling should be done by government agencies like the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA). These should map key natural resources like underground water, showing all information and maps about water availability or yield in different farms or production zones. This could be another income generating route for ZINWA.  The same way critical resources like roads and dams are planned should be extended to underground water and minerals.  We cannot have every Jack and Jill doing what they want.

Due to limited resources, farmers end up at the mercy of dubious service providers. With new technology we should be able to easily estimate underground water availability the same way mining companies can know that underground minerals will last for more than 40 years and start building houses and other infrastructure before actual mining begins. The same applies to soils. Communal farmers have been tilling the same soil for more than 100 years. It should be the role of government to map soils and conduct testing so that farmers do not continue expecting better yields from exhausted soils. We cannot expect every farmer to take his own soil samples when the land belongs to the government.

Unfortunately African policy makers have been blinded by imported knowledge, thinking that fertilizers like Ammonium Nitrate and Compound D can be solutions to our soils. To what extent are these fertilizers really adding value?  What if some soils now need totally new types of fertilizers? The livestock sector also need fresh experts who can examine the kinds of grasses and pastures since original pastures have disappeared, giving way to grasses that are no longer suitable for livestock production.

 How much can be left in private hands?

African policy makers should realize that there are sectors or areas that should not be left to the private sector. If governments ensure institutions like the Standard Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) get involved in certifying food standards, why not do the same for underground water, soils, minerals, pastures and other resources?  Borehole drillers should be certified. Currently anyone able to buy drilling machines can easily masquerade as a borehole driller or water diviner and take advantage of unsuspecting farmers.

Agriculture is not being taken as a serious profession or trade yet people have to be certified to practice as medical doctors or lawyers, among other fields. African traditional healers have remained on the periphery due to absence of proper certification. Absence of policy support creates a room for poor service delivery and proliferation of bogus practitioners. In many African systems, patenting of knowledge has been done through relationships built over decades and expressed through informal markets. How ca we support these pathways to become strong foundations for socio-economic growth?  / /

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