Harvesting change: Zimbabwe’s new farmers

Published 10 years ago

A sea of deep blue flowers borders the highway between Harare and Bulawayo. The 74 acres of heavenly blues, morning glory, dahlias and lemon drops are part of an experiment.

Charlene Mathonsi’s project began a year ago, when the 29-year-old approached new farmers in the Kadoma district of the Mashonaland West province, hoping to convince them to cultivate flower seeds instead of Zimbabwe’s staple maize and tobacco crops. With seeds from the Netherlands and basic skills learned from former white farmers, the Chemagora Collective has produced seven tons of seeds ready for export.

Zimbabwe has exported flower seeds to Rotterdam for more than 20 years, peaking at $60 million in 2004, but as the economy wilted, exports dropped by nearly 70%.


Reviving Lion’s Head, the Mathonsi family farm, meant cooperating with new farmers to turn flowers into a cash crop. But the farm’s survival also relied on earning the respect and collaboration of the 40 laborers who called the farm home for generations before the Mathonsis purchased the 1,236 acres of land.

“For me, the biggest challenge was the women. I think in my first few months I actually cried,” says Mathonsi.

“If you come in as a woman, even though you have the education, these people have been working the land. I’m a young girl, 10 [years] or so younger than them, and I’m instructing them what to do.”

While the male workers immediately accepted Mathonsi in her new role as farm manager, the women resisted.


“They have an established hierarchy. You say something and they do something else. They’re not listening and you feel small,” she explains.

It was only several months later, once Mathonsi had proved that she could work just as hard as the next woman, that she finally gained their trust and respect.

“I think they’re the backbone of this. They’re the ones who work the land, so if you don’t have them on your side, you’re doomed to fail.”

Zimbabwe’s aggressive agrarian reform policies and emphasis on agriculture as a source of independence and income has resulted in a generation of women with more say on the land they till. But Mathonsi is quick to add that it is women of privilege and education, like her, and not necessarily the semi-skilled laborers, who benefit.


“The girl child and women are the most vulnerable. Working with them for me is the most important thing I try to encourage our kids to go to school and try to help financially, especially the girl children, because if you don’t educate them, they’ll be just like their mothers and be back in the field. That is not progress. It’s a cycle of poverty.”

Graduating with a degree in Agricultural Sciences from the University of Zimbabwe, Mathonsi was forced to return to the family farm when she could not find a job in a failing economy.

“It was just such a difficult time,” recalls Mathonsi, who jokes that she may have blocked out the worst memories of that period.

“We would pay salaries knowing that the money would be worth nothing the next day.”


That year’s grain harvest not only became a source of income, but a source of survival, as the family bartered grain for basic necessities and distributed the little that remained for food.

“We were lucky that we grew sorghum that year, because there was no maize in the country and the crop saved a lot of lives not only our own, but people in the area.”

The land Mathonsi returned to after her studies had changed drastically. Between 2000 and 2004, Zimbabwe’s Fast-Track Land Reform program saw 170,000 new black farmers occupy 4,000 white-owned farms. The program was a controversial one, plagued by violence and corruption. Europe and the United States reacted to news coverage of white farms being attacked and burned by sanctioning the already ailing economy.

As the dust settled, many of the new farmers struggled to maintain production rates. The commercial farm next door to the Mathonsis’ Lion’s Head became a subdivided village of 50 families, made up of war veterans, former teachers and other public servants.


Kicked off the land after more than a decade, the former farm owner who Mathonsi did not want to name, formed an unlikely bond with the recent graduate, and became her mentor.

“All the contacts, all the advice, is all [from] him,” says Mathonsi who credits her success to this vital relationship.

She was advised to convert the struggling dairy farm into a beef and crops farm.

Kadoma district is Zimbabwe’s rural heartland, and innovative ideas like the Chemagora Collective are not common practice elsewhere in the country.


In areas with better rainfall and more fertile soil, the sacrifices of Zimbabwe’s land reform policies are beginning to yield a healthy profit.

Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land is a collection of reams of data and tables of statistics that aims to prove that the land rogram implemented by President Robert Mugabe’s regime has created a new generation of farmers who are reaping the rewards. Following first-time black farmers, who turned Zimbabwe’s large-scale tobacco, maize and cattle farms to small-scale communal farms, with more unconventional crops like tomatoes and pumpkins, the publication argues that the three decades of empowering black farmers has made southern Africa’s former bread basket a model for reformation.

However, the Commercial Farmers’ Union has pointed out that Zimbabwe’s agricultural output is less than a third of what it was in the 1990s and that the country is still reliant on food aid.

“There is always a period in which farmers are learning and looking for investment,” says Ben Cousins, a researcher with the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies.

Cousins says Zimbabwe’s strategy shows that it is possible to subdivide singularly owned commercial farms to benefit more people.

“There is lots of room for agency for the farmers themselves, they do not have to be passive beneficiaries of the state,” he explains.

For Mathonsi and the farmers of the Chemagora project, circulation of the US dollar has been a relief, with their flower seeds selling at $3 a kilogram. They say the government’s goal to reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar will be a setback to the their cash crop.

“What kind of Zim dollar would it be? Would it be the Zim dollar that runs like it did the last time?” wonders Mathonsi.

While land reform has empowered half a million black farmers since independence, the policy still does not guarantee ownership, because the state-based tenure system means that land can no longer be bought or sold.

“When you get this land, what says it’s yours?” asks Mathonsi, who believes real empowerment is marked by a title deed.

“I feel safe in the fact that my parents bought this farm, my family owns it. Yes, our title deeds don’t work, but I have that knowledge that through any sweat, any tears, I know its ownership. It’s not going away, so I will do anything in my power to make sure it works out.”

Cousins agrees that ownership would make access to finance easier.

“Yes rights need to be clarified, but there’s no evidence that you need private property for land to be productive.”

Now as comfortable branding a cow as she is negotiating export rates, Mathonsi and Lion’s Head have weathered the economic storm.

To break even each month, the farm needs $3,000, but Zimbabwe’s continued political isolation and subsequent sanctions make credit impossible. Mathonsi has had to sell a few head of cattle to get the hard cash she needs to pay wages.

Despite the continuous challenges, land in Zimbabwe is as emotional an issue as it is practical. Usually ready with a smile, Mathonsi is passionate but pragmatic as she talks about what the land means to her.

“Land is where the cash is at. Working the land is the basis; I’m the block on which the economy is built.”

She is also clear that it is people who ultimately give land its value.

“It’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s driving pregnant women to the hospital at three o’clock in the morning because they are your workers, you have to look after them. You bury them. It’s like a village. You are a success if they are a success. Failing is not an option. You cannot disengage.”