The narrow tar road, pockmarked by potholes and covered in dust here and there, meanders through the Beatrice farming area, just outside Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. This competition between tar and dust is a microcosm of what is happening in the country. Vast acres of idle land lie cheek by jowl with well-managed farms churning out tobacco—a picture of progress and regression.
The lack of government and financial support is curtailing some new farmers’ hopes, but others are making hay—or rather growing tobacco—while the sun shines. This wealth was once the preserve of around 4,000 white farmers. Ragtag bands of militants and war veterans seized these rich commercial farms in 2000, when President Robert Mugabe abandoned the slow land redistribution process, as he felt the pinch from unrest and political pressure. It was a swift smash-and-grab that cost many lives. A mere handful of white farmers clung onto their farms.
Agriculture has taken a battering since those desperate days, but it still accounts for around a fifth of Zimbabwe’s GDP. Tobacco is the king of the crops.
Analysts say it is possible for agriculture, with the help of tobacco, to surpass mining in foreign currency earnings. This is likely to take time and more investment.
For now, new tobacco growers are slowly turning the corner. There are around 150,000 new black farmers dotted around the country, of which around 60% are tobacco growers.
Tobacco production this year alone is set to increase by around 20%, against last year, reaching the 170 million per kilogram mark. Zimbabwe is set to rake in $600 million in tobacco earnings this year, according to the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board. It is still a long way from where production was in 2000, when production peaked at 237 million kilograms.
In those desperate days, the economy crashed and so did tobacco. The worst output since independence in 1980, was in 2008, when a mere 48 million kilograms were produced. This was a far cry from the years when hundreds of millions of dollars changed hands at the bustling tobacco sales floor in Harare.
In 2013, the growers are fighting back, according to ZB Bank chief economist, Best Doroh.
“That appears to be true, if we go by the current sales figures at the auction floors. Even the quality of tobacco being delivered appears to have improved as well. But the new black farmers still face significant challenges in terms of technical know-how, lack of financial support and equipment viability,” says Doroh.
In the bush-lined fields around Beatrice, at the end of the dusty road, farmers are toiling away towards the next crop.
Forty-eight-year-old Edson Makina is plowing with the help of knowledge accumulated in years living on a commercial farm—the very farm he now tills. He says his father worked this land for a white farmer. He is one of the thousands who took over land in President Mugabe’s land grab.
“I feel empowered; I’m now richer than a British professor. I’m getting richer each day I wake up. To me, President Mugabe is my hero, a political messiah,” he says.
With a scarcity of tobacco on the international market, most black farmers are cashing in. The Chinese have increased their consumption, snapping up 45% of Zimbabwe’s crop, the largest share after the West.
Many in the industry believe the government could do more to help agriculture out of the doldrums. Doroh says the agricultural producer price-setting mechanism needs to be refined so that it acts as a guide for farmers before they invest.
“There is need for government to make prompt payments for inputs supplied by the sector’s main input suppliers such as fertilizer companies, seed houses and agriculture chemical suppliers,” he says.
This tobacco-selling season, Makina sold around 170,000kg of tobacco.
“With each bag going for $467 a kilogram, you can imagine how rich I am now. It has changed my lifestyle. My children are attending the best universities around the world, and those that are here are at private schools. I pay all the fees without any hassle,” he says.
It is in contrast with the poverty Makina grew up in.
“The land reform was a revolution to me. I grew up on the farm. My father… was treated like a slave. I’m told at surrounding farms, if you couldn’t maintain the correct temperatures at the tobacco barns, the white farmer would flog you,” he says.
But the circumstances under which Makina obtained his farm were marred by violence. Beatrice was one of the country’s most dangerous farming districts in the land grab of 2000. Makina downplays the violence calling it a mere exaggeration by the media.
“There wasn’t the scale of violence you people reported. It was distorted. In most cases, white farmers were provoking the new settlers that were merely demonstrating against land imbalances,” he says.
Makina may be working his way to the wealth of a British professor, but across Beatrice, there are vast tracts of land lying idle. It is often difficult to ascertain who owns it. Many in these farming districts complain land reform has given rise to part-time farmers and a new breed of “cellphone farmers” or absentee landlords, often civil servants, who struggle to invest from their meager salaries.
“There are many successful stories in this area; of course others are still struggling, here and there. Most banks are reluctant to finance new black farmers. It’s because the media has been despising the new farmer. Farming is not an easy business,” says Makina.
Back in the banks of Harare, the view is less emotion, more balance sheet.
“I don’t think banks are intentionally denying black farmers access to loans. Rather, what most banks are looking at is the viability of the particular farmers or clients. Where viability is not evident, then banks have no option but to look at other sectors and clients where risk is better mitigated. Most small-scale farmers do not have sufficient security to back up borrowings, and this makes it difficult for banks to be able to extend credit on an unsecured basis at a time when there are tight liquidity conditions in the market,” says Doroh.
The Commercial Farmers Union is training new farmers.
“We began to train many of them.Some of them are now producing more than me. Those farmers still limping, it’s due to banks failing to support them,” says Makina.
Makina is a living example of how well-trained, new farmers can be a symbol of success. He attended the best agricultural schools in the country. Makina says he has built 21 houses for his workers; they admit that there is little difference in pay from the days when they worked for a white farmer.
“The salaries are okay, just that the difference is that we can easily relate well to Mr Makina, because he is black, he is quick to understand our concerns, unlike the white man,” says Keeper Martin, a worker on Makina’s farm.
So life tilling the land in Zimbabwe remains harsh. Whoever wins the elections this year would do well to help the hard working tobacco farms of the country invest in restoring the shimmer of the golden leaf.