THE Presidential Free Cotton Inputs Scheme has stood out as one of the most empowerment initiatives by the Government, aimed at supporting countryside communities.
Running for the eighth straight season, the scheme, which is administered by the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe has seen an average of 400 000 households receiving free inputs, including seed, fertiliser, and chemicals annually.
Despite isolated production dips during drought seasons, cotton output expanded from 28 000 tonnes in 2014, the lowest in nearly two decades to 145 000 tonnes in the 2017/18 season.
Apart from free inputs, farmers also receive tillage services and agronomy support. The scheme began during the 2014/15 season when then Vice President Mnangagwa was the chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Food and Nutrition Security.
It helped to fill in the gap that had been left by private contractors who scaled down their funding citing poor recoveries of their investments due to side marketing.
The scheme supports about 85 percent of farmers with the remainder funded by private firms.
The State-sponsored farmers get free inputs enough to cover a minimum of one hectare.
“Livelihoods in cotton growing regions had been disrupted, businesses had closed down and parents were no longer affording to send their children to schools,” Cotton Producers and Marketers Association Mr Steward Mubonderi said.
“This has since changed and we feel that the scheme is one of the best empowerment projects by the Government for the marginalized communities,” he added.
Since the launch of the State-assisted scheme, production has been steadily going up with occasional dips during drought years. The scheme has helped in the resuscitation of the cotton industry which is a major source of employment for countryside farmers.
Earnings have grown from US$11 million in 2016 up to US$70 million last year with benefits having been accrued along the value chain and around the cotton production ecosystem.
“We are so grateful; the scheme has transformed the lives of people in Muzarabani in terms of incomes and food security. Cotton is the only crop that thrives here and people can now use their incomes from cotton to buy food,” Chief Muzarabani told our sister publication Business Weekly in a recent interview.
Muzarabani, alongside Gokwe and the Lowveld, is among the major cotton-growing regions. The Government has since expanded the scheme to include areas where the crop has not been previously grown but with favorable climate conditions.
Mr Peter Mhlauri, a Chinhoyi-based cotton farmer, said had it not been for the free input scheme, it would have been hard for him to buy the inputs. “We live in marginalized communities and raising the money for the inputs would have been impossible,” Mr Mhlauri, who was the national grower of the year, said in an interview.
However, there are growing calls to invest more in value addition facilities. The current spinning capacity cannot absorb the 30 percent of lint earmarked for the local industry because there is not much room to value addition along the textile value chain.
“Like the Marula investment project in Mwenezi, we would also like to have similar projects in cotton growing regions; seed oil crushers, and cotton spinning facilities to further boost economic activities in these communities,” Mr Mubonderi said, in reference and Marula Processing plant recently commissioned in Mwenezi district.
At peak, Zimbabwe produced 351 000 tonnes of cotton in the 2010/11 season and the Government has since set a target to raise production to 300 000 tonnes by 2025.
Zimbabwe mainly uses open-pollinated varieties but indications are that production could go up to as much as 600 000 tonnes with the use of hybrid seeds.
Experts are urging the Government to ramp up the use of hybrid seeds to boost productivity and cut the risk of crop failures as OPVs are getting more susceptible to recurring droughts, pests and diseases. Faced with climate-induced droughts, Zimbabwe adopted hybrid varieties that need less water to boost productivity.