(Guest blog post by Wadzanai Mhute Fellow at International Center for Journalism)
In 2000 what began as anger with the government for a faltering economy resulted in forced land seizures of farms most owned by white farmers. The Land Reform Act in 2003 enabled new farmers to emerge from Zimbabwe’s urban areas. People who had previously worked in the city became full-time farmers with little or no financial assistance from the government. It was welcome news to some that the recently elected Zimbabwean government announced a $1 billion package to assist farmers for the 2013/2014 farming season. One of the new farmers who received land after the 2000 land seizures was Miriam Bamhare. “Banks give loans with 30 percent interest and if you default on payment then interest rises to 50 percent. If capital injection should come then it should be affordable.” The former teacher and development worker did not receive any financial assistance from the government when she was allocated her 160 hectare or one fifth of land from a commercial farm in Raffingora. Mrs. Bamhare considers herself relatively successful on a scale of new farmers as her farm is fully utilized and she has invested in infrastructure as well as equipment. She is a contracted grower providing tobacco, seed maize, horticulture and soybeans though she says the profit margin is eluding her due to the capital intensive farm. Successes of land reform have been on a small scale and mainly involves tobacco which has steadily increased since 2003. Success has been measured by families like the Gwitiras who grow potatoes, wheat, maize, soybeans and sugar beans. All their produce is consumed by the local market as well as Africa University, a Methodist institution with 1,200 students, which is a few meters from their 60 hectare farm in Mutare. While the selling price meets the costs of producing, their challenge has been not having enough money to repair all the machinery found at the farm and liquefying enough to pay workers. Mrs. Gwitira says if the government establishes an agricultural bank which can give farmers long term loans instead of the one year loans in place then they can purchase more machinery. Ten years after land reform, Zimbabwe’s former status of the “breadbasket of Africa” now belongs to Zambia which accepted hundreds of displaced mostly white farmers from Zimbabwe. In May 2013, the Zimbabwean government signed an agreement with Zambia to import 150,000 tonnes of maize. So far 12,000 tonnes have been received and another 130,000 is expected over the coming months to feed a nation that used to feed itself. In a role reversal Zambia benefited significantly from Zimbabwe’s land reform. According to Mr. Chance Kabaghe, the former deputy minister of agriculture and now head of the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, “White commercial farmers in Zimbabwe were unable to get entrenched in the country; however, in Zambia they were well received. They have contributed significantly in making the country self-sufficient especially in maize production.” Mr. Kabaghe says farmers brought technology in terms of conservation farming techniques and there was a significant transfer of knowledge to local farmers. An increase in subsidies at the same time to small scale farmers after the 2004 to 2005 drought helped in a larger production, the country has since had a deficit. As deputy minister of agriculture, Mr. Kabaghe says he used to travel to Zimbabwe regularly to beg for seed for his country but now as a director and chairman of the board for SeedCo, a company which markets seed varieties, he receives visits and calls from Zimbabwean government officials. He says Zambia is now the central regional headquarters for agricultural production in key crops such as maize, wheat and soya. While Zimbabwe’s land seizures were precipitated by the lack of land for black people who had been waiting for land since independence in 1980, Zambia has vast hectares of land and with a small population that will continue growing without pressure on land availability for an estimated 30 or more years. Mr. Kabaghe does not anticipate similar land issues. He sees the success of the new farmers as positive for the government which can now spend money on the agricultural sector with resources channeled to areas of research and infrastructure. Zimbabwe cannot feed its population but individual farmers like Mrs. Bamhare can feed her family. The success that she finds in farming, a point echoed by the Gwitiras, is the satisfaction from owning one’s land, nurturing plants and seeing them grow.