Rumbidzayi Zinyuke Senior Reporter
For years, Southern Africa has been grappling with ever increasing food shortages that have made more than 40 million people food insecure this season.
According to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) 2019 Synthesis Report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security and Vulnerability in Southern Africa, 41.2 million people in 13 countries are estimated to be food insecure in the 2019/20 year.
Although the regional rainfall pattern for the 2019/20 agricultural season is encouraging as parts of southern Africa are expected to receive adequate rainfall in the first half of the season, there is need for countries to strategize and come up with sustainable solutions to ensure less people go hungry again next year.
In the case of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, there has to be more effort to feed the millions who were not only affected by the drought, but also by the devastating effects of cyclone Idai which ravaged the three countries in March this year.
The 2019 ZimVAC rural livelihood assessment estimated 59 percent (5,529,000 people) to be food insecure with limited access to food between January and March 2020.
Food security remains as one of the pillars of economic recovery and to achieve that, the country needs a vibrant agricultural sector.
Despite the challenges the sector has faced over the past two decades, agriculture remains the mainstay of the Zimbabwean economy and can contribute more to Gross Domestic Product and national export earnings, creating more jobs.
In 2012, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstats) estimated that as many as 71.8 percent of Zimbabweans were employed in the agricultural sector at a national level. In rural areas this was as high as 92 percent, and 6.4 percent in urban areas.
But low production and productivity due to a lack of skills combined with lack of capital and physical resource shortages, have kept land utilisation levels low.
However, the current economic challenges, which have been exacerbated by the inflationary pressures that have resulted in unsustainable price hikes, there is need for massive investment to make the sector tic again.
The sector has many investment opportunities ranging from the production of cash and strategic crops, mechanization, horticulture and the upgrading of agricultural equipment and livestock.
Already, government has made headway with the Command Agriculture programme that has contributed significantly to improved yield from the small holder farmers.
Although the efforts have been hampered by the drought and other climate change related phenomenon, there is still hope that the programme could live to its billing and save the sector.
Without doubt, small holder farmers are the mainstay of Zimbabwean agriculture since an estimated 66 percent of the country’s land falls under communal farmers.
It therefore follows that they should play a critical role in agricultural production and food security.
Small-holder and communal farmers produce the bulk of the country’s food, and other cash crops like tobacco, but capital investments in new farming technologies that boost production and minimise climate risk has remained elusive.
Ninety-seven percent of the country’s agriculture is rain-fed, creating opportunity for irrigation to boost output.
The country’s raw water supplies for irrigation schemes in most catchment areas are adequate, but water resources have been underutilised.
Famers are failing to utilise water in the dams to mitigate the effects of El Nino and climate change due to lack of irrigation equipment.
Although some interventions have been made to ensure vibrant irrigation development, there is still a gnawing gap that needs to be filled.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) is administering European Union support towards 20 smallholder irrigation schemes in Manicaland and Matabeleland South.
There is need to expand efforts in irrigation development and rehabilitation and Government has set targets to rehabilitate or expand more than 400 irrigation schemes in all the provinces.
While the government is constrained in terms of cash to fund these projects, it has created room for investment in that avenue.
With more irrigation schemes for small-holder farmers comes better yields that will boost food security.
Nearly 60 percent of households in the country consume their own produce while 21.7 percent of output comes from tobacco and other industrial crops.
But most investment in agriculture have been directed towards commercial agriculture, particularly tobacco, leaving out other crops.
Ailing and uncompetitive agriculture and manufacturing sectors in Zimbabwe have meant that the majority of consumable goods and groceries are imported.
Zimbabweans eat more than 200 million loaves of bread per year, about 80 000 tonnes of rice, 325 000mt sugar, 40 000 metric tonnes wheat flour for home baking and 55 640 metric tonnes of cooking oil.
And the only staples for which Zimbabwe currently has the capacity to meet local demand is in sugar, and to a small extent, cooking oil and maize through small scale and commercial farmers.
In decades past, cotton, also known as the white gold, had economically uplifted hot and semi-arid marginalised areas like Gokwe in the Midlands Province and Checheche in Manicaland. The crop contributed sustainably to rural incomes, rural developments, employment and export earnings for the country.
Besides bringing in the much needed foreign currency, the textile, oil-pressing and stock feed industries also benefitted from cotton production in Zimbabwe.
There has been steady but slow progress in this regard as cotton production, especially in the Lowveld, has increased, thanks to the Presidential Input scheme where farmers receive all inputs for free.
More than 20 000 tonnes of the white gold has been sold to the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe in the Lowveld only. This is a marked improvement from the previous years when production reached its lowest at 10 tonnes.
Since Government has limited capacity to revive the agriculture sector, collaboration between the private sector and government should come in handy.
But the private sector also depends upon an efficient infrastructure so Government also needs to play its part in providing the necessary infrastructure.
An all-inclusive approach for all stakeholders is needed as the country works towards restoring its status as the bread basket of Africa.