Agricultural success is more about combining available resources appropriately than access to finance. In most cases farmers are not really sure what is critical in order to be successful producers. Some may have cattle for draught power but need a tractor. Separating needs from wants is very important just as matching farm size to available resources can result in optimum use of resources. If it was true that finance is a pre-requisite for agricultural development, countries which have received billions of dollars in the name of agriculture could have kicked poverty many years ago.
Many things in agriculture require special attention and that means critically assessing what you have before going out to look for what you think you need.
One of the threats facing Zimbabwean agriculture at the moment is the copycat syndrome. If farmers hear that tobacco is paying well, they all rush to produce it, knocking down prices. Very few farmers are passionate enough in particular commodities to be considered experts in those commodities. Indiscriminately jumping from one commodity to another results in depletion of natural resources as farmers always try to improvise endlessly.
At least 96 percent of Zimbabweans rely on informal agricultural services and knowledge systems. Our internal GDP is currently estimated at US$12 billion per year. If we are to double it to US$24 billion per year, how much of that achievement will be due to a positive attitude and entrepreneurial skills?
How much will be due to finance?
These are important research questions to be answered. We have natural resources that others are desperate for but we do not realise it. Our major problem is not lack of finance but poor prioritisation. Otherwise, how can we explain spending US$900 million importing motor cars into Zimbabwe last year when it is clear motor cars do not revive or grow the economy?
How good are farmers in using available resources?
Of the more than 500 000 smallholder farmers ready to be commercial farmers, how many are good at using resources they currently have? What extra knowledge do they need? While formal knowledge systems associate knowledge with books, practical agricultural skills are more about know-how. If you are a good farmer, how much income are you earning from farming? The decline in production can be attributed to lack of skills.
Every farmer should plan for family consumption and for the market. It is now common knowledge that three in every four years in Zimbabwe are drought years. How are farmers planning for their families and the market in such situations? To what extent should we continue blaming traditional culture for farmers’ failure to manipulate markets and funding sources?
Another critical missing skill is time management. The formal education system does not adequately teach about time management either. While farmers follow the 8am to 5pm working hour system, crops and livestock do not follow that time table.
The importance of recognising expert farmers
Like any other business, agriculture has its own experts whose expertise can be used in fighting drought and other challenges. The notion of Hurudza has traditionally been used to describe expert farmers. Every community had a Hurudza who harvested something even if there was a severe drought. As an entrepreneur, a Hurudza was not afraid of failure because he knew that every failure was a positive learning experience that brought him closer to success. The word Hurudza is now used loosely without understanding what it really meant. A Hurudza took pride in being the source of food and agricultural wisdom in the community.
Unlike the current crop of farmers, a Hurudza would not want to receive support from Government each time there is a problem. He had the mental toughness to pick himself up, brush himself off following a drought and prepare for the next season. We need such farmers at the moment. Farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs must be allowed to fail and learn from that failure.
When development partners and government departments take away farmers’ right to fail by providing hand outs, they take away creativity and resourcefulness. With rampant intrusion from external organisations, farmers are being denied an opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives and seek success on their own merits.
Unless that happens, agriculture will not be able to create sustainable jobs and stimulate the economy.
Sustainability can result from recognising Hurudza as local champions and allowing them to go as far as their talents can take them in using available resources. The African society had a way of empowering exceptional individuals like Hurudza to be exceptional leaders.
There is no reason why the current group of farmers and traders cannot use their creativity and resiliency to tackle the prevailing El Nino-induced drought which is threatening to be a permanent fixture. Food Aid should be a temporary thing in all communities where Hurudza are available.
resources as loss
From an agronomic perspective, the potential of a hectare in a particular region is known. Skills and appropriate inputs will ensure maximum expected yield. The only uncontrollable factor is drought.
However, a vibrant knowledge sharing platform will bridge the gap between Hurudza farmers achieving more than five tonnes per hectare and those only affording a quarter of a tonne in the same area with same resources such as water and soil.
In an irrigation scheme where farmers have the same resources, why does one farmer harvest three tons while the other harvests less than half a ton? This can be a knowledge and skills gap, leading to losses in the form of under-utilised resources.
Most production-related losses can be addressed through assessing and using resources adequately. At production level, farmers lack skills and knowledge because we have not done much to build the local skills base. An extension officer cannot know everything. We have not properly gathered enough information about the climate of all districts such as Mutoko district, for instance, to fully exploit their potential.
As a result farmers in Mutoko continue to produce tomatoes yet the area could be good for other commodities which have not been experimented with.
Building local knowledge systems becomes very important in fighting the bandwagon effect where farmers just imitate each other in producing one crop when they could use local knowledge to experiment with a wide range of crops and livestock.
The majority of irrigation schemes in Zimbabwe are under-utilised because all farmers focus on four main crops – maize, sugar beans, tomatoes and onions, year in and year out. If we take the trouble of assessing all available resources, is that the best we can get from an irrigation scheme? Assessing the potential of available resources versus what is produced can indicate a lost business opportunity.
Absence of a culture of
research and recognition of
A lot of research is not being used. May be one of the reasons is that the research is packaged in university language not appropriate for local contexts. Mechanisms are still needed to liberate farmers, consumers and policy makers to start valuing local solutions.
Technology should be seen as an enabler rather than a driver for change. People are the drivers because collectively they have the capacity to affect the desired change. There is no point in continuing to invest in resources that do not produce the desired impact.
While literature from the 1960s indicate that diffusion of technology is an ineffective approach, policy makers and development partners are still foisting these methodologies on communities through vertical programmes. It is important to work with communities in assessing their information and communication needs.
Economic research is also suffering from the absence of a systematic research culture supported by quality education and rigorous practice in all sectors of the economy.
Government departments and other organisations are not sharing their research findings with other Government departments and organisations.
A poor research culture entails inadequate world-views and that is leading to continuous use of old tools to solve new problems. Paying lip service to research implies that even if we were to create a whole ministry for research and innovation, its impact and work will not be felt in other ministries and sectors.
Research done in universities and higher education institutions is currently used only to earn degrees. It cannot be translated into tangible results for farmers and the whole society which pays for such education.
As an agro-based economy we have to make sure skills are a top priority. There currently a big disconnect between the people being trained and those who need knowledge or skills. Scarcity of skills is a symptom of a bigger problem.
The demise of certain industries results in associated skills becoming extinct. For instance, when it no longer made sense to export flowers and other commodities, some export-related skills vanished. Skills are about a person and people do not want skills they will never use.
Recognition of prior learning and acquired skills and knowledge is very important. There are many people whose skills are not recognised either because they were acquired before those who are supposed to recognise them were born or there are no clear mechanisms for recognising and incentivising those skills. Some people may not know that they have particular skills.
Gatekeepers of the formal knowledge system seem to think that by recognising informal knowledge they lose power to this system. They would rather continue pretending that formal knowledge is legitimate in its current state. Their fears relate to what would happen to all the investment that has gone into universities when the whole society agrees that university education is no longer a determinant of success on its own.
Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) (www.knowledgetransafrica.com) whose flagship eMKambo (www.emkambo.co.zw ) has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: [email protected] ; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.