A new start for Zimbabwe?
IDS Professorial Fellow, Ian Scoones, Challenges the myths about Zimbabwean agriculture and land reform
By Ian Scoones
September 15, 2008 - lalr.org.za
The long-awaited political agreement in Zimbabwe's is to be welcomed. After
years of political impasse and economic instability, there is a potential for a new
start. But an informed debate on the future is needed and a focus on land and
the agricultural sector must be central to these discussions. The new government
will be offered advice from all quarters – consultants from around the world will
arrive by the plane load, and the donor community and foreign think-tanks of all
persuasions will forward their preferred plans and programmes.
But the new government must be careful. Too much of the past period has been
coloured by ideological posturing and misinformation – from all sides. For a
sound, sustainable policy approach for the future, a hard look at the evidence on
the ground must be the starting point. This must involve engaging with field
research aimed at understanding the unfolding dynamics of land, agriculture and
livelihoods – and the perspective of farmers and land users themselves.
The 'Livelihoods after Land Reform in Southern Africa' programme has been
doing just this. Led by the University of the Western Cape's Programme for Land
and Agrarian Studies, and involving researchers in South Africa, Namibia and
Zimbabwe (www.lalr.org.za) work in Zimbabwe has focused on Masvingo
province in the south east of the country. The detailed study has tracked the
evolution of land reform in the province since 2000, assessing the consequences
for people's livelihoods and the wider economy. It has revealed some important
insights that challenge the 'conventional wisdoms' dominating media and
academic commentary alike. The research to date raises some fundamental
challenges to five oft-repeated myths about recent Zimbabwean land reform and
offers some important insights for the future direction of rural policy in Zimbabwe.
Myth 1: Zimbabwean land reform has been a total failure
There is no single story of land reform in Zimbabwe: the story is mixed – by
region, by type of scheme, by settler. In Masvingo province, 1.2 million hectares
have been redistributed to around 20,000 households. Across these there is
much variation. On the so-called A1 schemes (smallholder farming), where there
is low capital investment and a reliance on local labour, settlers have done
reasonably well, particularly in the wetter parts of the province. Households have
cleared land, planted crops and invested in new assets, many hiring in labour
from nearby communal areas. Within these new resettlement areas, there has
been a rapid socio-economic stratification – some do well while others struggle.
Some have left, often because misfortune, ill-health or death (often precipitated
by HIV/AIDS) although overall attrition rates have been small.
On the A2 schemes – aimed at small-scale commercial agriculture – the
economic meltdown of the past few years has prevented substantial capital
investment, and new enterprises have been slow to take off. There are some
notable exceptions, however, where new commercial farming enterprises have
emerged against all the odds, although these have struggled given hyperinflation
and lack of credit. On the redistributed areas of the sugar estates in the lowveld
there is a similarly mixed story, with some new farmers making a go of sugar
production on 30ha plots, often converting some of their land to vegetables and
other crops to spread the risk. However, again, constraints imposed by economic
conditions have put pressure on these new operations; and the estate system,
geared to large scale production, has been slow to respond to the new situation.
In interviews with new settlers, despite the problems, there is universal acclaim
for the resettlement programme: 'Life has changed remarkably for me because I
have more land and can produce more than I used to,' said one; while another
observed, 'We are happier here at resettlement. There is more land, stands are
larger and there is no overcrowding. We got good yields in 2006. I filled two
granaries with sorghum'.
The contrasts between A1 and A2, small and large scale, smallholder and
commercial are rather arbitrary and misleading. There is much blurring between
these different models. Since 2000 the old dualistic agricultural economy, the
inheritance of the colonial era, has gone for good, and a new agrarian structure is
fast emerging. This creates challenges and opportunities, winners and losers, but
cannot be characterised as abject failure. New policy frameworks will have to
recognise this new reality and avoid the temptation of re-imposing old and outdated
models. As a senior extension official commented, 'We don't know our new
clients; this is a wholly new scenario'.
Myth 2: The beneficiaries of Zimbabwean land reform have been largely
While no-one denies the operation of political patronage in the allocation of land
since 2000, particularly in the high value farms of the Highveld near Harare, the
overall pattern is not simply one of elite capture. Across the 16 sites and 400
households (341 under A1, 59 under A2) surveyed in Masvingo, 60 per cent of
new settlers were classified as 'ordinary farmers'. These were people who had
joined the land invasions from nearby communal areas, and had been allocated
land by the District Land Committees under the fast-track programme.
This was not a rich, politically-connected elite but poor, rural people in need of
land and keen to finally gain the fruits of independence. As one put it. 'Land is
what we fought for. Our relatives died for this land… Now we must make use of
it'. In terms of socio-economic profile, this group was very similar to those in the
communal areas – slightly younger and more educated on average, but equally
asset poor. Others who also gained from the land reform included former farm
workers, some of whom organised invasions on the farms where they had
worked. This group made up seven per cent of the total, a similar number to the
war veterans who had often led the land invasions, and who, as a result,
generally had slightly larger, often 'self-contained' plots.
On the new resettlements, particularly in the A2 schemes, there were significant
numbers of civil servants (14 per cent across all resettlement sites) – usually
teachers or extension workers who had been allocated land. With non-existent
salaries from their government jobs, access to land became critical for sustaining
livelihoods. A further 5 per cent were identified as business people, often those
with businesses such as shops, bottle stores or transport operations in town.
Finally, there was a group, mostly given land on the A2 schemes, who were
members of the security services – police, army, intelligence officers with strong
political connections. This group made up three per cent of the total beneficiaries,
and was the one which was probably most associated with political patronage
and ruling party connections.
These latter groups – civil servants, business people and security service
employees, however, have added in different ways both expertise and
connections which assisted the broader community. This wide social mix in the
new resettlements contrasts with older resettlement schemes and thecommunal
areas, offering opportunities for social and economic innovation in the longer
An understanding of this social composition and its potentials will be critical in
any future policy support for the new resettlements. It is important not to assume
that the A1 schemes are 'just like the communal areas' and that the A2 schemes
are 'just small commercial farms'. With the new agrarian structure, a new social
and economic order is emerging in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, one that will
require carefully attuned policy support to foster the undeniable, but as yet
Myth 3: There is no investment in the new resettlements
International media images of destruction and chaos have dominated the
headlines about Zimbabwe's land reform. While there has certainly been
substantial damage done to the basic infrastructure of commercial agriculture
operations in some parts of the country – perpetrated by both new land occupiers
and former owners – there has also been significant new investment; almost all
of it private, individual efforts with vanishingly little provision through the state.
Changes to the production system – from large-scale commercial farming to
largely smallholder mixed farming systems – means investment is not in the form
of pivot irrigation schemes or mechanised dairies, for example, but more modest
and appropriate to immediate needs and ambitions. The new settlers, particularly
on the smallholder A1 schemes, have cleared substantial areas of land (on
average around three hectares per household), involving substantial labour in
clearing bush, de-stumping and ploughing.
Settlers have also built new homes, 41 per cent made from bricks, many with tin
or asbestos roofing. A key investment has been cattle, with herds building up
fast. 62 per cent have cattle on the resettlements, with an average herd size of
five. They have also acquired equipment: 75 per cent of households own
ploughs; 40 per cent own bicycles; 39 per cent own ox-drawn carts and 15 per
cent own private cars. This level of asset ownership is higher than comparable
samples in the neighbouring communal areas and since acquiring land most new
settlers have been accumulating, despite the hardships.
The investment picture on the A2 schemes is less promising. Most A2 schemes
in Masvingo province are little different to the A1 areas, with only a small portion
of the land utilised. However a few – with access to alternative sources of
investment income, usually in foreign exchange – have managed to invest in new
equipment and develop new enterprises. One, for example, has developed an
irrigated wheat farm, with a new pump station, irrigation piping, tractors and
hiring in combine harvesters. Another is developing a dairy, combined with a beef
production feedlot system. Others have started horticultural enterprises,
resuscitating abandoned irrigation equipment.
These successes are few and far between and most have been unable to invest,
due to the state of the wider economy. The key policy challenge for the
immediate future will be the stabilisation of the economy and, with this, provision
of credit for new farmers – not just those undertaking so-called 'commercial'
enterprises, but the many commercially-minded smallholders too. If fostered
sensitively a vibrant agricultural economy will almost certainly re-emerge –
though transformed and requiring substantial investment in new market chains
and support systems.
Myth 4: Agriculture is in complete ruins
Agriculture in Zimbabwe has been through difficult times. Radical restructuring is
inevitably painful and especially so when combined with economic collapse and
recurrent drought. All statistical indicators on all commodities are down –
reflecting the collapse of the old, formal, commercial agricultural economy but not
the whole agricultural economy, particularly in the smallholder sector.
In Masvingo province the former commercial agricultural sector was dominated
by the beef industry and the wildlife sector – and in the estates, sugar and citrus.
The beef industry has transformed radically and the wildlife sector is suffering
due to the decline in tourism and hunting. But former beef ranches have been
taken over by small-scale mixed agriculture, with significant new investment in
multiple use livestock herds and flocks, combined with arable agriculture, mostly
maize with small grains in the drier areas.
While operating well below potential due to the poor supply of inputs – notably
seeds and fertilizers – this sector, particularly in the A1 schemes, is certainly
producing. In the relatively wet season of 2005-06, around 75 per cent of
households in the northerly sites in Gutu and Masvingo districts produced more
than one tonne of maize, sufficient for household provision, some sales and
storage. However, this was not replicated in the drier areas – or in recent drier
years when the food security situation has been very precarious.
This demonstrates the potential of small-scale agriculture on the new
resettlements, as one among a number of sources of livelihood which includes a
diversified portfolio of off-farm activities, trade and remittance income. The
potential of agriculture, as the core livelihood activity for most, will need to be
nurtured and enhanced by policy interventions that ensure input supply and wider
extension support, both currently sorely lacking. For the drier areas, water control
is the key constraint, and investment in small-scale irrigation and water
harvesting is unquestionably a major priority for the future.
Myth 5: The rural economy has collapsed
While the wider formal economy is in dire straits, and inflation running wild, the
rural economy in Masvingo province has been adapting fast. The radical shift in
agrarian structure has altered value chains – formerly dominated by large-scale
commercial agriculture, white-owned businesses and government parastatals –
The beef value chain is a good example (see Mavedzenge et al 2008). In the
past there was a reliance on a few suppliers from the large-scale ranchers, going
through a few abattoirs or the Cold Storage Company. Today a huge range of
sources supply meat and many new players are involved. The collapse of the
export market due to foot-and-mouth outbreaks has led to a focus on local sales
and market connections. There have been significant supply constraints, as new
farmers build up their herds and avoid selling – beef is no longer sold through intown
supermarkets, but through small butcheries and pole slaughter outlets in
the rural areas and townships.
Newly emerging supply chains are linking the resettlement areas with feedlots
and butcheries in very different patterns of ownership and management to
before. This means that new players are participating in the rural economy, and
benefits are being more widely distributed. Economic activity has thus relocated,
linking local supply and demand, as well as new trading links, often involving
illegal cross-border economic exchange.
There is also evidence of substantial investment in new businesses in and
around the new resettlements, including shops, bottle stores, butcheries and
transport operations. Such investment has generated a variety of new economic
linkages, creating some much-needed rural employment. These multiplier effects
have, however, been undermined by the wider hyperinflationary pressures,
together with the imposition of price controls and other measures. But, with
changed conditions, these new businesses will be revived and new economic
activity will undoubtedly emerge.
Future strategies must work to enhance economic stability – boosting local
production and spending power. At the moment the overall net benefits of
restructuring following land reform are unclear, but, with the right support, wider
economic growth can be realised. What will be essential is to ensure that such
support does not undermine the diversified entrepreneurialism that has emerged
in recent years. The complex new value chains are perhaps a bit haphazard,
unregulated and chaotic at times but their benefits are more widely distributed
and economic linkages more embedded in the local economy. In the longer term
such new economic arrangements can enhance broad-based and resilient
growth and livelihood generation in ways that the old agrarian structure could
Let us hope that the new government – and the donor community who will
hopefully rush to support it – will take heed of such findings, and act to support
positive change, rather than – as so often happens with hasty decisions and
ideologically-driven positions – undermine the clear potentials and opportunities.
Much needs to be done: there is an urgent need for economic and political
stability; there are substantial requirements for focused investment and support
in agriculture; but, at the same time, there is also much to build on and positive
dynamics to catalyse. Let us hope that a positive spiral will emerge which builds
on the redistributive gains of the land reform and the real potentials of smallscale
agriculture to be the motor of economic growth and regeneration.
Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the
University of Sussex, UK. He is an agricultural ecologist by original training and has
worked in rural Zimbabwe since 1985. His PhD thesis was entitled Livestock Populations
and Household Economy: A Case Study from Southern Zimbabwe (University of
London, 1990). He is the author of numerous articles, chapters and reports on rural
Zimbabwe, including the 1996 book "Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in
Dryland Zimbabwe" (Zed Press). He is a member of the Livelihoods after Land Reform
project team. All views presented in this article are personal ones.
For more information on the Livelihoods after Land Reform in Southern Africa project, see
www.lalr.org.za, including the background paper Redistributive Land Reform and Poverty
Reduction in Zimbabwe, at www.lalr.org.za/zimbabwe.
For work on the changes in the livestock sector following land reform, see
On 'real markets' and the changing beef commodity chain, see: Mavedzenge, B.Z., J.
Mahenehene, F. Murimbarimba, I. Scoones and W. Wolmer (2008) The Dynamics of Real
Markets: Cattle in Southern Zimbabwe Following Land Reform. Development and Change, 39(4):
For a focus on crop-livestock integration, see: Scoones, I. and Wolmer, W. (eds.). (2002).
Pathways of Change in Africa: Crops, Livestock and Livelihoods in Mali, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe
(James Currey) www.ntd.co.uk/idsbookshop/details.asp?id=697
For an historical perspective on land and landscape change in the lowveld of Zimbabwe, see
Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions Conservation and Development
in Zimbabwe's South-east Lowveld (James Currey)
For more depth on livelihood issues in southern Zimbabwe, see: Scoones et al (1996) Hazards
and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Zimbabwe (Zed Press)
www.ntd.co.uk/idsbookshop/details.asp?id=301 Also: the Sustainable Livelihoods in
Southern Africa Programme, www.ids.ac.uk/slsa and Wolmer and Scoones (eds.) (2003)
Livelihoods in Crisis? New Perspectives on Governance and Rural Development in Southern
Africa, IDS Bulletin, 34. www.ntd.co.uk/idsbookshop/details.asp?id=751
Visit: Zimbabwe Watch