Fertilizer companies ripping peasants?


– Sales seem more important than production

Zimbabwe’s fertiliser companies may be ripping pleasant farmers of thousands of dollars and plunging them into deeper debts by recommending large amounts of fertiliser that do not necessarily boost production. And the country is far from achieving “food security” despite the worldwide acknowledged success of the country’s peasant farmers in boosting their agricultural production after independence in 1980.

These startling revelations are contained in two research papers sponsored by the Project on Africa of the Social Science Research Council of New York City which were released to The Insider recently. Although one of the papers was presented at a seminar held just outside Harare in 1990, the findings contained in the two papers were not widely publicised here.

There is wide speculation that publication of the papers was stifled because they would have been an embarrassment to the country since they were released soon after President Mugabe had just won the New York-based Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger.

The two papers do acknowledge the peasant farmers’ agricultural success and the role played by the government in bringing this about but say very few communal farmers are responsible for the phenomenal growth.

Sam Page and Polly Chonyera’s paper presented at the Hunyani Hills Hotel, just outside Harare in December 1990, says whereas little had changed regarding the access, control and use of agricultural resources such as land, water and draught power, access to information regarding the use of inputs has broadened considerably.

This is largely because of the improved services provided by the department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services (Agritex) which saw the number of extension workers increase from one to 1 200 farmers in 1980 to 1 to 800 farmers in 1988.

They say, however, the main thrust of this information transfer has involved the extrapolation of successful technologies from the large-scale commercial farming sector into the peasant sector concerning the use of hybrid seed and chemical inputs like fertiliser.

Peasant farmers in the high rainfall areas are actively encouraged to take loans from the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), Page and Chonyera say. Agritex officials who organise the peasant farmers into groups often deal directly with one of the big fertiliser companies and some fertiliser companies even give annual awards to extension officers whose groups buy the most fertiliser.

The researchers say since there is a wide belief that the more fertiliser used the higher the yields and the more “progressive” a farmer is, these corporate rewards are not generally seen as sinister. Page and Chonyera, however, say the cost of the seed and fertiliser recommended can only be viable if the farmers have a yield of at least 2.5 tonnes a hectare.

Surveys have, however, indicated that of the 38 per cent of the communal farmers who used all the recommended inputs more than 50 per cent harvested less than 2.5 tonnes a hectare. In fact the average yield by communal farmers is 1.5 tonnes.

A survey in Chinamhora, one of the best agricultural areas in the communal lands, indicated that although 94 per cent of the farmers had sold between 7 and 308 bags of maize 84 per cent were not food secure. The only farmers who were truly successful had reduced the amount of fertiliser recommended and substituted it with cattle manure although its use was not recommended.

The same survey indicated that 72 per cent of the farmers with AFC loans had debts of up to $1 000.

The researchers, however, point out: “The majority knew they had debts only because they received no payment from the Grain Marketing Board when they surrendered their maize grain, but had no idea of the size of this debt.”

The researchers also discovered that most of the farmers who were food secure had more than twice the number of cattle that those who were non-food secure had. They had slightly more land for maize production, obtained a higher yield, marketed more bags of maize.

They also say during the survey, as the farmers filled in questionnaires which ultimately revealed the net value of their harvest, most showed surprise followed by disappointment when they realised, for the first time, that they were labouring for six to seven months for virtually nothing.

This sad story seems to be backed by reports from the AFC which has been credited with the success of the peasant farmers because it provided the necessary financial backup. In 1979, the year before independence, it only gave 2 850 loans totalling $478 000 to peasant farmers. This rocketed to 97 761 loans in 1985 totalling $52.2 million.

These loans, it appears, were just dished out to the peasant farmers more for political reasons than agricultural viability. But it seems to now have dawned on the AFC that most of the peasant farmers it gave loans were not able to repay. This is clearly shown by the drastic cuts in the number of loans being given to peasant farmers today.

The number has dropped from nearly 100 000 to just over 30 000. According to the AFC’s latest report only 44 000 loans totalling Z$33.4 million were granted to peasant farmers in 1989/90. This dropped to 30 300 loans worth Z$26.4 million in the following year.

The same report also says the AFC had to write off bad debts amounting to $37.6 million, of which $29.2 million was owed by peasant and small sector farmers.

By contrast the AFC is now giving more loans, and it appears larger amounts, to large-scale commercial farmers with their numbers increasing from 969 to 1 133 in the years covered by the report. The amount they were given also rose from $136.3 million to $195.1 million.

A paper Nick Amin, which provided most of the background for Page and Chonyera’s paper, says despite the increased sales to the Grain Marketing Board, very few communal farmers are food self-sufficient.

Amin, who acknowledges the tremendous improvement in peasant production despite the lack of major land redistribution, says although national food self-sufficiency has been maintained at a high level, implying that Zimbabwe may not therefore have a serious food security problem, evidence shows that food insecurity in the rural areas continues to be serious.

He says it has generally been agreed within the SADCC context that food self-sufficiency is “the ability of a country to meet all its staple food requirements through domestic production, and from storage of key food grains under all weather conditions while food security means the ability of individuals and households located in specific geographical boundaries to meet staple food needs on a year round basis for their own enterprise production and/or through purchases from domestic markets”.

In this context, he argues that while Zimbabwe has been self-sufficient in some basic foodstuffs, it has not been food secure. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that even when there is a national surplus malnutrition is rife in the majority of communal areas and at the same time the number of those receiving drought relief is on the increase.

Amin says the increased sales from peasant farmers attributed to the improved producer price, the use of high yielding inputs, the increase in receiving depots, the improved technical extension service and credit from that AFC, have also resulted in “distressed” selling as farmers are forced to sell their produce to pay back their debts.

Amin says when the national production data is disaggregated, it is found that the national surplus only comes from 18 of 170 communal areas and post independence commercialisation has mostly been confined to these 18 areas.

These are: Mangwende, Chinamhora, Uzumba, Chikwaka, Wedza (in Mashonaland East); Hurungwe, Zvimba, Mukwichi, Chirau, Mhondoro (in Mashonaland West); Guruve, Chiweshe, Musana, Kandeya, Madziwa (in Mashonaland Central); Chiduku and Sabi North (in Manicaland) and Gokwe (in Midlands).

In his concluding remarks Amin argues that while national self-sufficiency for the staple food -maize- has as a partial consequence of the peasant sub-sector’s performance, remained high in most years since independence, this conceals a more fundamental problem in the peasant sub-sector.

“Large numbers of households have over the years relied on state handouts for their minimum food requirements, confirming not only that there exists a substantial section of the peasantry which is “impoverished” but also that the efforts by the state to improve conditions in the communal areas have in the main, apart from periodic of free food, left the social and economic position of this stratum relatively unchanged.”

He adds that: “Even in the regions reporting large increases in grain sales to the state marketing channel, it is the relatively prosperous peasantry which has benefitted most.”

Page and Chonyera, on the other hand, ask a few pertinent questions at the end of their paper. These are:

  • Are the communal farmers being given the correct recommendations regarding the use of chemical inputs?
  • To what extent is advice influenced by fertiliser companies?
  • To what extent are Zimbabwe’s communal farmers providing cheap labour to meet the food requirements of the urban population?
  • How much of Zimbabwe’s maize surplus is made up of forced sales?
  • Why is there little interest from research in the development of a minimum input strategy which would allow the most resource-poor farmers to be food secure?
  • To what extent is overseas training for local agricultural scientists to blame fro the emphasis on high input technology in the peasant sector?
  • Who are the real beneficiaries of the communal farmers’ increased maize production?


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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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