IN February, President Robert Mugabe declared a State of Drought Disaster in the country following a devastating drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.
His government then announced that the country required US$1,5 billion for humanitarian assistance in the short to medium-term, taking into account the fact that mitigating measures might extend into the 2016/17 agricultural season.
The 2015/16 agriculture season was one of the worst experienced in Zimbabwe since the 1992/93 drought.
Because of the El Nino factor, Zimbabwe experienced a late start to the farming season, followed by low rainfall that was erratic and poorly distributed.
Another characteristics of El Nino was the higher than normal temperatures during the cropping season.
Most areas in the country experienced two to three weeks of dry weather conditions and high temperatures for the greater part of January and February, leading to widespread crop failure.
The most affected areas were the southern parts of the country where the maize crop was a complete write off.
As of February, the peak of the rainfall season, over 95 percent of the country had received less than 75 percent of what they would have normally received.
The drought left 4,1 million people in need of emergency food assistance.
There were a few exceptions in the Mashonaland regions, where those farmers who had access to irrigation or for one reason or another planted their dry land crops late
managed to achieve some reasonable yields.
By and large, the national production of all crops was way below the national requirements and this necessitated the importation of large quantities of maize, wheat and soya beans.
Statistics presented by Finance and Economic Development Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, in his Mid-Year Fiscal Policy Statement showed that the country had harvested 511 000 tonnes of maize against a national requirement of 2,2 million tonnes.
Government interventions to provide for the national maize grain deficit of 1,7 million tonnes have been augmented by the private sector, which is importing the staple grain from Mexico as well as efforts by development partners, who raised funds in international markets to support maize importation.
Tobacco, which is the country’s main source of foreign currency, recorded sales of 202 million kilogrammes (kgs) and earned the country US$600 million during the 2015/16 season.
Production of the golden leaf surpassed the initial target of 170 million kgs.
Soya bean production declined from 57 900 tonnes, the previous season, to 47 700 tonnes and wheat production declined to 30 000 tonnes from 84 0000 tonnes.
Cotton production continues to decline because of unfavourable local and international prices.
There was a sharp decrease of the “white gold” from 105 000 tonnes in 2015 to 32 000 tonnes in 2016.
Government is expected to finance 300 000 smallholder cotton farmers to put 350 000 hectares under cotton this season in a move meant to resuscitate the cotton industry.
The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU)’s 2016 Cattle Producer’s Report indicated that the past season was a difficult year, with the effects of the El Nino-induced drought having been felt across the country.
The impact was felt more severely in the smallholder sector, particularly in Masvingo and Matabeleland regions.
“Uncontrolled veld fires and arson in areas where grass has grown remains a national problem. Uncertainty over tenure for commercial farmers remains the principle obstacle to the growth of cattle operations and even stud breeders have been adversely affected by the seemingly never ending land reform programme,” the CFU report said.
The cattle death toll continued to rise since October 2015 due to the prolonged drought, resulting in the country losing at least 30 000 cattle to the drought.
Despite the deaths, the cattle herd stood at 5,528 million, up from 5,477 million in the 2014/15 season.
Milk production stood at 31,9 million litres in the first six months of 2016, up from 27,6 million litres in the same period last year, and by year end, 72 million litres have been projected.
Consequently, agriculture recorded a decline in growth of -3,7 percent in 2016.
In 2017, agriculture is projected to grow by 12 percent, driven by higher output from major crops such as maize, cotton and tobacco, as well as milk production.
The distribution of the rainfall pattern is expected to influence the outcome of the agricultural performance in 2017.
In his speech at the 2016 CFU congress, the union’s president, Peter Steyl, indicated that the most prominent factor contributing to the poor performance of the agriculture sector in Zimbabwe was limited access to finance.
“The banking sector is reluctant to advance credit to farmers because the issues of long-term tenure of land and ownership have yet to be properly resolved. Thus lack of immovable assets to use as collateral has been a barrier for credit provision and farmers have not been able to purchase inputs necessary for increasing productivity.
“This situation has been made worse by new farmers not having been able to establish a suitable farming track record with banks to access credit,” Steyl said.
He also highlighted that the high prevailing interest rates in comparison to the returns in agriculture make financing at the current market rates uneconomic.
“Regrettably, the high interest rate regime continues to have a negative impact on the productive sectors of the economy as they culminate in high production costs, thus making locally produced commodities less competitive on both the domestic and international markets,” he said.
Financial institutions have not been able to advance long-term funding to farmers. They are currently offering farmers short-term loans of up to one year, thus limiting funding for plantation and export crops.
Coffee, tea, sugar and citrus production require long-term commitments and financing for at least three to four years.
In August, government adopted a special maize production programme, the command agriculture, targeting 400 000 hectares of land, expected to produce at least two million tonnes of maize, enough to meet national grain requirements.
In terms of water availability, following two consecutive drought years, the water situation in the south and marginal areas in the extreme north remained critical.
National dam levels averaged 37,7 percent of capacity, with Zimbabwe National Water Authority appealing to all water users across the country to use the available resource sparingly. Normally, the average dam level should be 63 percent.
The worst affected are the Save and Runde catchments in the south with Lake Mutirikwi recording a low of five percent. These catchments supply the drought-prone areas of Masvingo, Matabeleland South, Midlands, Manicaland, and Matabeleland North provinces. Underground water tables dropped to below 100 metres. Most rivers and dams had dried up towards the start of the 2016/17 summer rainfall season around October.
“It is what did not happen in agriculture that is much bigger than what happened. Despite having the most irrigation dams in Africa by far, we have continued to fail to use them properly throughout the last season and our crop yields have been correspondingly low. Dam building remains at an all-time low – with no new privately-funded dams having been built for many years and apart from the as yet unfinished Tokwe-Mukorsi, no new government dams having been built either,” Mike Campbell Foundation executive director, Ben Freeth said.
Despite government repeatedly announcing an end to the land reform programme and the introduction of agrarian reforms, the ethnic cleansing of white farmers quietly continued throughout 2016, with new listings, new invasions and continued lawless reigning supreme.
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“This continues to affect confidence and severely hamper investment. The lack of property rights in Zimbabwe with section 72 of the Constitution remaining in place will unfortunately continue to constrict investment. It will mean we will continue to rely on the international community for food aid from one season to the next. When this is coupled with the indigenisation laws, our recipe for starvation is well known,” Freeth added.
Two major new pests surfaced during the 2016 agricultural season and are expected to affect the 2017 crop. The Asian stalk borer is proving to be very difficult to control with the available chemicals. It is causing huge damages in the maize crop. The other pest, tuta-absoluta — a South American leaf miner affected the tomato crop. Control of both pests is proving to be very difficult.
National fertiliser demand for the 2016/17 agriculture season is expected to be 350 000 metric tonnes, comprised of 170 000 tonnes basal Compounds and 180 000 top dressing fertilisers. Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser is currently priced at US$590 per tonne, while a tonne of Compound D is priced at US$550. The local fertiliser industry continues to struggle due to competition from imports, a liquidity crisis, poor production history by farmers and high costs of production.
With prospects of normal to above normal rains in the 2016/2017 agricultural year, crop production is expected to improve in all sectors that rely on rain-fed agriculture.