EDITORIAL COMMENT: Horticulture can drive family farms, rural development
Horticulture exports dropped dramatically after land reform, largely because of formal and informal sanctions and campaigns among blocks of customers in some countries not to accept more Zimbabwean products.
There was also the practical point that many on the Zimbabwean side left farming and the back-up for the new farmers was not as thorough as it could be.
Since then some solid work has been done and the latest figures show that horticulture exports now exceed US$120 million a year, basically more than they were before land reform and so setting new records, and that this time there is a sustainable programme in place to increase exports continually and, very importantly, make sure that ever larger groups of Zimbabwean farmers can be brought into the export horticulture business.
We have seen many major changes brought about by making sure that small-scale farmers have access to resources and inputs and then can become prosperous middle income households.
The tobacco sector sees a record crop every year as a matter of routine now, as around 50 000 farmers combined to first equal and then exceed the crops produced by around 2 000 estate owners, and generally are able to produce a better quality since they can pay detailed attention to what they grow.
This independent smallholding pattern is important for several reasons, especially to create competitive advantages using the Zimbabwean landholding pattern of millions of independent smallholder farmers, who each benefit pretty fully from the profits of what they sell.
This contrasts with the large estates in some parts of the world, and what we had in Zimbabwe before land reform, where the estate owner receives the bulk of the income and those who do the actual work are paid fairly badly.
Ethical buying is becoming a more important factor, and people in developed countries who buy tropical products more and more like the idea that those who grow those products get a good deal and that ordinary people benefit from the trade, rather than just large estate owners or giant multi-nationals.
Zimbabwe’s environmental laws also help, since more ethical buyers like the idea that they can buy their luxuries without devastating millions of hectares elsewhere.
These advantages are not sufficient, but they certainly help to build up markets.
The fact that the British markets are now reopening to Zimbabwean products, and these were among the first to be closed, shows that we can produce and sell, and a lot of that marketing does include the fact that smallholder women farmers are the largest single beneficiary of the new markets and provide the bulk of the labour force in the value chain.
A second factor that must have helped the rebuilding of horticulture is the open skies policy where Zimbabwe is one of the African leaders. It is remarkably easy for any airline to set up routes into Zimbabwe, starting with the willingness to pay the standard landing and handling fees and obey the global air traffic and safety regulations.
The old-style air transport of horticulture involved using fairly worn cargo aircraft often in their last couple of years of service, a fairly short term operation.
Open skies means that a lot of the cargo capacity of the modern planes that fly in is available for high-value low bulk exports, like horticulture, when they leave.
Most of our other exports are bulk goods like minerals and tobacco, where rail and road transport is more obvious for regional markets and ocean transport for more distant customers. So the air capacity is available when needed for time-urgent exports, and often the planes that are using our open skies are flying directly to good markets, such as the United Arab Emirates.
We have also been adding to our product range. Blackberries have now become a major export crop, after our farmers found that we could produce a highly competitive quality at a highly competitive price.
We have also been setting up citrus exports to China, a country where a growing upper middle class population is looking for a wider variety of produce, and citrus can be shipped by sea.
In both these cases, and the new marula products from Rutenga, we have been seeking less traditional products and finding them, building new markets and creating new loyal customers.
A major surge in products can be created by the new stress on rural development.
The village borehole programme, while largely designed to improve the quality of life dramatically by ensuring ever home has access to a decent safe and convenient water supply, also has a standard of living component, with the horticulture garden in every village and the programme of a lot more modest orchards on the smallholder farms.
Some of this extra horticulture is, of course, to improve the standard of living of the farmers and their families, but there will be surpluses for sale, with the local markets only able to take so much, meaning that export markets will be needed.
This is where we can work out the necessary value chain, which will include ways to make sure that the farmers are producing the right products, those that have markets and earn the most money, and the logistics chains to make sure they reach these markets in the time and condition required.
The horticulture industry is now looking at a US$1 billion a year market by 2030, and they think that with the necessary mobilisation of resources and back-up this is perfectly possibly.
It seems an ideal accelerator of rural development, since a lot of that money will be going to smallholder farmers and those running rural industries that process and pack the produce into how customers want it.
Pumping that sort of money in the form of extra crops and extra rural processing jobs into the rural areas will help, with all the other agricultural programmes and rural industries, that Zimbabwe can achieve its Vision 2030 of being an upper middle income country, a vision that requires the rural population as well as everyone else to be made up of middle-income people.