Are we too poor or too stupid? – A nation that cannot feed itself is not a great nation


For a nation with the highest literacy rate in Africa, it is disturbing that the success of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme is measured by how much the new farmers are making, the posh cars they are driving, the mansions that they have built,  and not on the nation’s ability to feed itself. It is even more disturbing when one considers that agriculture provides livelihoods to 80 percent of the country’s population, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Former French President Charles de Gaulle once said:  “A nation that cannot feed itself is not a great nation.”  Zimbabwe cannot boast that its land reform programme has been a success because tobacco production has reached 205 million kgs, about the same production that white-farmers realised before land was taken from them, when more than two million people are reported to have no food. Zimbabwe cannot boast that sugar production has surpassed previous levels either and that it is now producing more ethanol when the nation is starving. It does not just make sense.

Former United States President George Bush aptly put it when he said that when people talk about agriculture, they are really talking about national security because a nation’s ability to feed its people is a decisive factor for its power.

“How do we make sure American agriculture thrives as we head into the 21st century,” Bush asked in remarks to the future farmers of the United States. “I mean, after all, we're talking about national security.  It's important for our nation to build -to grow foodstuffs, to feed our people.  Can you imagine a country that was unable to grow enough food to feed the people?  It would be a nation that would be subject to international pressure.  It would be a nation at risk.  And so when we're talking about American agriculture, we're really talking about a national security issue.”

Zimbabwe’s land reform remains a laughing stock because the country is unable to feed itself. Yet this has not always been the case. During the first decade of independence Zimbabwe was able to feed itself and had enough reserves to feed the nation for more than three years. Its small grains could last the country eight years. What’s more, the bulk of the maize was now being produced by communal farmers. Their production had risen from 10 percent at independence to 60 percent by 1986.  Zimbabwe was tasked to be in charge of the food security programme of the Southern African Development Community because of its agricultural success. But all this was reversed when the International Monetary Fund told Zimbabwe to get rid of the reserves because they were costing the Grain Marketing Board too much.  Zimbabwe was advised to sell its maize and keep cash instead.

Manuel’s question comes in again. Why did Zimbabwe agree to such a stupid idea because keeping cash meant buying food from someone else? Who? Using which currency? The country could obviously not use the Zimbabwe dollar to buy food from outside, even from neighbouring South Africa or Zambia. It had to use the United States dollar or the South African rand, which meant using a currency which it did not have control over. And the raid on the Zimbabwe dollar began until the currency was rendered useless two decades later. This should be a bitter lesson for Zimbabwe because from 1991 when the country adopted the IMF’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, it has never been able to feed itself. Ironically, what Zimbabwe had been doing, keeping huge strategic reserves and subsidizing the Grain Marketing Board, is what the United States and countries of the European Union were, and are, still doing.


This is the fourth instalment is the series. Click  here to read the last instalment.  And here to read the full story. 


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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