Good harvests in Zimbabwe have been rare for more than a decade mainly due to the adverse effects of climate change, but when farmers get surpluses, fair markets for smallholder farmers are hard to come by.
In the 2016-17 farming season, Ranga Mutizira, 46, from rural Shamva district, some 70 km north of Harare, harvested eight tonnes of maize from his 12 hectare plot and needed to sell off seven tonnes to get money for basic commodities, school fees for his 12 year-old daughter, the occasional medical costs and other day-to-day costs.
More importantly, a substantial amount of the money would have to go towards the purchase of seed and fertilizer, dipping chemicals for his herd of cattle, a new plough and occasional labourers to help till his land.
Just like his neighbours, he had the choice of selling his maize through the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB), but wouldn’t take the risk.
The grain utility invariably delayed his payments in the past, forcing him to go into the next farming season without payment.
This time around, he preferred selling his grain to informal dealers who prowl rural farming areas with ready cash, but that is still a difficult choice. These dealers shortchange desperate farmers, sometimes paying as little as half the $390 that GMB offers.
“Unlike GMB, the dealers give you cash on the spot and collect the maize so, at least, you have something in your pocket and cut on the costs of transporting the grain on your own. Unfortunately, what they offer is too little.
“That makes it difficult for us to prepare for the next season as there is hardly any money to save for inputs. It is particularly painful if there is drought after the good harvest because it means you can’t save enough to buy food and meet other household needs to reduce the effects of the lean season,” Mutizira said.
Agriculture is the major source of livelihoods for an estimated 70 percent of the predominantly smallholder rural farmers, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
But the farmers have to contend with increasing droughts and floods as well unpredictable farming seasons as climate change takes its toll on their activities, resulting in poor yields most of the time.
That makes it vital to build viable markets chains for the farmers so as to enhance their capacity to absorb climate-induced shocks and adapt to the changing seasons.
Markets reduce the risks of climate change related shocks among smallholder farmers, Leonard Unganai, an agro-ecological expert managing a project to scale up climate change adaptation that is jointly run by Oxfam, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) in the Buhera, Chiredzi and Chimanimani rural districts, said.
“For the farmers to be able to reduce their vulnerability, build adaptive capacity and enhance resilience to climate change,” he said, “sustainable markets are one of the critical requirements”.
Yet, as FAO acknowledges, “smallholders and family farmers are increasingly struggling to make a living from their land and labour because of inadequate access to markets” that combines with low soil fertility and reliance on rain-fed systems.
Farmers are motivated to produce more when there is a guaranteed market, noted Unganai, and “when farmers have access to fair markets, the income earned is usually invested in climate proofing the production which is critical for building resilience.”
Sufficient access to markets enables smallholders to reinvest some of the income into improving water supplies, farm storage facilities, soil and water conservation, energy sources and diversified livelihoods that can reduce household vulnerability to future shocks.
Unlike medium and large scale commercial farmers, smallholders who produce an array of crops and livestock, among them cereals, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, sorghum, soya beans and cattle, are barely market-oriented, said Unganai, and are prone producing either too much or too little while they lack adequate information on the operation of the markets.
Producing surpluses without guaranteed markets tends to increase the vulnerability of the farmers because, forced to store their produce at home under elementary conditions, the yields are spoilt and therefore wasted in the post-harvest period.
Mutizira’s neighbour in Shamva, Moses Bwoni, 35, testifies to that readily. Partly because of poor storage facilities, four of his eight tonnes of maize were spoilt by rains and weevils as he struggled to fix transport to send his grain to the GMB and spurned the side dealers for offering small prices for his grain.
His sad story extends to the green vegetables that he grew on a two acre plot at his homestead and irrigated with water from the nearby river.
His inability to secure regular transport to ferry the produce to the nearby provincial capital of Bindura, which had a glut of vegetables anyway, forced him to batter or give them away for his relatives and friends and he could not defray the costs of tending them.
But the farmers face other constraints in their quest to access markets as rural areas are often characterised by poor communication infrastructure, roads included.
The smallholders have to meet high transportation costs because of the remoteness of the markets, their produce is often of a low quality, especially in the case of tobacco, and they lack value-addition infrastructure on the farms.
And even when buyers are willing to engage the smallholders, they are often frustrated by unreliable or inconsistent supplies while making online payments is hampered by the fact most of the rural farmers do not possess banking accounts, added Unganai.
Cash shortages that emerged in early 2006 when government decided to use bond notes as a surrogate currency, resulting in the disappearance of foreign currency that the country adopted in 2009, have led to the widespread use of mobile money.
The problem, though, is that despite rural farmers getting mobile money, connectivity is unreliable in remote areas, making it difficult for them to make essential purchases. In some cases, they are charged exorbitant amounts to make transactions and this dents their pockets severely.
Climate change has, ironically, also taken a toll on potential markets, Unganai said, as extreme weather events like flooding have swept away bridges and roads, cutting off the smallholders from buyers and causing wastage.
Fixing the intricate problems related to access to markets is not an easy job, but Unganai urged the adoption of policies by government and other stakeholders that promote better information dissemination, sustainable agricultural value chains and stronger infrastructure and training of the farmers to produce in line with market demands.
Contract farming, whereby companies assist farmers with inputs, extension services and buy the produce, is an enticing option when smallholders face problems in accessing markets.
Ideally, they present a win-win situation for the farmers and the companies as markets are guaranteed and the smallholders benefit from invaluable expertise provided by the buyers.
Private companies like the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ), tobacco auction floors and horticulture firms have engaged thousands of farmers to produce for them, but in many cases, the results have been disappointing if not tragic.
Beauty Mazambani, 61, lost her farm assets when her tobacco crop failed but the contractor still demanded payment for the inputs and services it rendered, resulting in her truck, harrows and some livestock being auctioned off.
“I almost committed suicide. The contractor treated me unfairly. The season was bad because the rains were poor and they did not give me enough advice. They also delivered inputs late yet still demanded their money.
“The auction took me many years backward. Granted, some farmers have benefited from tobacco contract farming but many are crying like me. I am now failing to produce as much as tobacco or maize I used to do because I no longer have the assets to do so,” said Mazambani.
“There is need to revisit these contract farming models because the contractors are ripping farmers off at a time up to 80 percent of the tobacco is contracted. They are taking most of the money and leaving the smallholder farmers with little,” Wonder Chabikwa, the president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) noted.
Christopher Chitindi, a lawmaker from the ruling Zanu PF party who heads the parliamentary committee on agriculture, said contract farming was not favourable for the smallholder farmers who generally lacked insurance in the event their crops failed.
His committee, he said, is currently making surveys to establish the damage that contract farming has wrought on farmers to enact appropriate legislation.
“Under contract farming arrangements, there are cases cited by farmers where contractors have backtracked on…pre-agreed prices, often citing a fall in commodity prices at the global market,” Ashley Baxstrom, the spokesperson for the Zimbabwe chapter of the World Food Programme (WFP) said.
“Even under contract farming arrangements, there are cases cited by farmers where contractors have backtracked on those pre-agreed prices, often citing a fall in commodity prices at the global market,” she added.
Government and development partners have for long been urging farmers to adopt small rains as a way of adapting to increasing droughts and shorter seasons, but, according to Chitindi, there were no ready markets.
“Clearly, small grains are useful as climate change adversities increase, yet nothing is being done to motivate farmers by creating markets. GMB must work with AMA (Agricultural Marketing Authority, a government unit) to set up offices in all rural areas to ensure markets are established and farmers sufficiently educated on the benefits of small grains,” he said.
Baxstrom added that WFP was buying small and other grains from the farmers so as to motivate them to produce and the sell the crops on a larger scale and improve household income as well as savings, thereby cushioning them against future hunger.
WFP, she said, would launch its Rural Resilience Initiative in Masvingo province next year to enhance markets, farmers’ savings and insurance against drought while ensuring sustainable food security as climate change takes a toll on Zimbabwean agriculture.
“Building the capacity of smallholder farmers organisations in terms of farming as a business, aggregation, collective marketing, post-harvest handling and commodity quality, as well as improving farmers access to market information to improve the transparency between other value chain actors and farmers, are a few interventions that improve access to markets,” said Baxstrom.
For WFP, this requires policymakers, development partners, the donor community, farmers associations and the private sector to create sustainable synergies.