Robust irrigation schemes key to sustainable economic growth

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Hebert Zharare
The command agriculture programme for 2016-17 mainly targeting maize production, indeed, saw the demand for farming inputs such as fertilisers surging to over 400 000 tonnes in one season, reminiscent of the era when the country was enjoying the region’s breadbasket status.

The season was overwhelmingly successful and farmers harvested over two million tonnes of maize, more than enough for both human and livestock needs in a single season.

For most agro-related businesses, this entailed significant demand for farming inputs that ensured sustenance for firms that support this lucrative sector.

However, it is disturbing that although the Government had mobilised enough support for the farmers for 2017/18 farming season, the yields were not that impressive for mainly maize due to a dry spell that affected most parts of the country.

The tobacco sector, however, performed extremely well, breaking the 237 million record, earning the country hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign currency.

What started as a promising season for many maize farmers last year was dumped by the mid-season drought although there was a remarkable recovery later that saw some fortunate farmers salvaging part of their crop.

This is not the first time that the country has suffered from mid-season dry spells – and it appears not many lessons have been learnt because authorities at times take too much time to come up with solutions to this challenge.

While spelling out the new economic order and even during his campaign rallies for the just ended July 30 harmonised elections, President Mnangagwa made it clear that the agriculture sector will be the mainstay of the economy under which all other future developments will be underpinned.

Indeed with timely support, the sector will not disappoint as the country in the 2016-17 farming season farmers produced over two million tonnes of grain, the first time in decades to reach such impressive yields.

Riding on the success of the maize command agriculture programme, Government has announced a similar farming funding scheme to cater for tobacco, livestock and fisheries among others to ensure the farmers realise maximum benefits from the agriculture sector.
Leveraging on successful irrigation schemes

For the agriculture sector to sustainably anchor the country’s national economic development trajectory, there is, however, a greater need for it to be backed by vibrant and highly mechanized irrigation facilities supported by a well thought out national strategy.

For farmers to contribute significantly towards economic development, there must be support for the creation of a strong value chain system anchored on producing more food and cash crops, as well as establishing strong local and foreign market for the produce.
It is only when farmers are supported by robust irrigation infrastructure and are able to produce high quality crops that we can, as a country start talking of export strategy and meaningful of agriculture contribution to the Gross Domestic Product.

All government food initiatives should be crafted in a manner that ensures that all farmers in the country, small and large scale, have support packages that suit their levels of production until they graduate to the next level.

Need for sustainable water infrastructure
The country has vast swathes of water bodies, some of which by onset of the next rainy season will still be over 80 percent full with the resource being underutilized. This is unacceptable in a country that at times suffer dry spells that end up affecting the country’s food supply situation.

It is against this backdrop that after a hugely successful land reform programme that benefited over 400 000 families, there must be an irrigation policy that caters for specialised requirements of small and large-scale indigenous farmers for them to produce round the clock and ensure national food security and surplus for the export market.

Zimbabwe has one of the best climatic and ecological regions that suit many crops and with a highly mechanized irrigation infrastructure, there are more than enough farmers to produce for both local and the export sectors.

The best climate and soils that allow for sustainable growing of a wide range of crops, makes Zimbabwe a major investment destination for the international agro-focussed firms and those undertaking crop and animal husbandry research that has potential to also benefit other countries in the region.

Government should ensure all farmers are taken aboard
Most of the water bodies were constructed by white former commercial farmers in areas they felt deserved to be supported with irrigation facilities, but following the land reform programme, there is a need for Government to build more water reservoirs to benefit new farmers resettled in dry areas.

Lack of irrigation facilities has hindered many farmers, mainly small scale plot holders from venturing into lucrative sectors such as horticulture and tobacco farming that have seen many transforming their lives.

Recently, an agriculture economist Midway Bhunu, concurred that rain-fed agriculture was increasingly becoming unreliable given the vagaries of recurrent droughts that have also affected farmers in planning.

Poor agriculture activities for an agro-based economy such as Zimbabwe mean the value chains through forward and backward linkages suffer, in the process affecting the economy as a whole.

Bhunu said President Mnangagwa was spot on because the agriculture sector during its zenith supported industries through forward and backward linkages, created millions of jobs directly and indirectly and attracted massive foreign direct investment.

To this regard, he argued the country cannot talk of meaningful agriculture contribution to the economy without implementing the agriculture irrigation strategies that are already in place.

“There is a need for strategic partnership between Government, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and farmers themselves as far as developing viable irrigation is concerned. The structures are there and what is needed is to operationalise the ideas. We have a lot of water bodies and massive potential.

“Following the land reform programme, there were thousands of small holder farmers that got land and there was no deliberate plan to follow-up with some irrigation schemes that suit this new crop of farmers,” he said.

Training can help maximize production
To that effect, some farmers need training on basic business management skills for existing irrigation facilities as well as old ones while new ones are being constructed.

Taking farming as a commercial business, farmers need to ensure that irrigation facilities are key infrastructure that needs to be taken care of where ever they are established.
A local farmer based in Hurungwe, Thomas Mhereyenyoka, said the development of irrigation schemes was capital intensive, making it imperative for all key stakeholders to play ball if Zimbabwe is to stop being an importer of food.

“The development of irrigation is capital intensive and the $5 billion budget Government announced (2017 national budget) is not enough to develop irrigation for the country. This therefore calls for banks, the private sector and farmers themselves to develop the infrastructure. It therefore brings the issue of security of tenure into play.

“If the farmer is going to be on the land for 99 years and that lease becomes bankable, he or she can develop key property such as dams on the farm. Water is not only needed for crops but for livestock too. If you look at our erstwhile white former farmers, they were funded by banks. We need to look at the land tenure system so that farmers can borrow against their farms,” he said.

When farmers are assured of uninterrupted farming, then other key infrastructure like driers and silos will follow.

However, there is concern that banks are not accepting the offer letters and Government working with the financial institutions is working on amendments to make them bankable.

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