Agriculture is one of the greatest inventions human kind has made. It has been an indispensable life force that ensures men’s survival on earth. The world’s dependence on agriculture will rise as the population increases, especially in South Asia where half of the world population lives.
As youths start taking agriculture serious, this remarkable journey is not only going to help sustain life and livelihood, but will also contribute to the economic growth. While the conventions in farming have remained intact, agriculture has become more important than ever as food security becomes a growing concern for our landlocked economy.
However, our approach to pursue agriculture as the mainstay for livelihood and development has been undermined as other sectors begin to receive more emphasis. At one point in time, agriculture was left to the mercy of farmers, without much introspection that food shortage could spark an overwhelming shockwave across the economy. The assassinating policy option that allowed import of all commodities at the cost dumping whatever little our agrarian society could produce throttled the farming tradition and agriculture sector altogether.
In 1986, when the Zimbabwean government decided to create incentives for export production, including foreign exchange and marketing subsidies, making commercial production more profitable. As a result, many large-scale and smallholder farmers moved to the commercial production of cash crops such as tobacco and maize for export. But by 1990, the government could no longer sustain subsidies. Instead it embarked on a program of deregulation.
Declines in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar, coupled with increases in the prices of fertilizer, feed, and transport, rendered commercial farming an expensive endeavor. As a consequence, large-scale commercial farming of more profitable crops such as tobacco increased. Tobacco became the country’s single largest foreign exchange earner.
But small-scale farmers generally did not benefit from increases in tobacco production. They did not enjoy economies of scale. They also lacked access to capital, markets, technology, and extension services. Small-scale farmers therefore focused on other less profitable crops including maize, cotton, and groundnuts. Still, in the first two decades after independence, small-scale and resettlement farmers were not able to compete with large-scale farmers without continued subsidies and increased market access.
There were other constraints. Investor confidence is largely based on the maintenance of the status quo of the agricultural sector in countries such as Zimbabwe. Prior to the end of the 1990s the Zimbabwe government did not want to send mixed signals to the investment community and jeopardise its investment profile or potential. As such the government was loath on embarking on large-scale subsidy and asset nationalisation schemes to develop small-scale commercial agriculture.
In the absence of donor funding to develop training, extension services, credit facilities, and market access, the Zimbabwe government had few economic options available to incorporate smallholders into the agricultural sector without scaring away much needed capital.
Then we have countries in sub-Saharan Africa that commit resources to promote agricultural innovations. This is based on the assumption that rural livelihoods are mainly agricultural and that the innovations will increase agricultural production and household income.
As resources come under pressure from growing populations and natural resource degradation, governments and donors want to see that agricultural research and innovation has an impact. They want to see “success” and “value for money”.
But success is understood in different ways. It depends on how it’s framed and by whom.
Rural communities are dynamic and complex. Imposing innovations that don’t speak to the needs of these communities won’t achieve rural development. Studying conflict in agricultural innovations can lead to a better understanding of the appropriateness of certain technologies in terms of how they’re designed, promoted and how they’re linked to rural livelihoods as opposed to forcing innovations for communities.
Four decades later on, It undoubtedly remains challenging to integrate local populations meaningfully into the agricultural sector as producers of food and cash crops. This is partly a result of harsh economic realities, including economies of scale and market access. But, as can be seen throughout Zimbabwe, the new breed of youth has emerged, (both on commercial and the newly settled communities) that are eager to thrive when they are given training and investment that supports the production of food, cash crops and livestock farming.
While many young people in Zimbabwe used to view agriculture as the domain for the less educated and consider rural to urban migration as the only ticket out of poverty, today’s youths are slowly taking the lead in yet another generational fight for economic independence through working the land.
An increasing number of local youths are slowly laying claim to the country most treasured heritage, the land and steering what appears to be a changing of the guard through leading what appears to be embryonic mini-agriculture revolution
On one hand, we blame our farmers for the insufficiency of domestic produce, while equal amount of vegetables is rotten in the villages due to lack of proper forward-and-backward linkages between the farm and the market. On the other hand, we have consumers, who are not keen to pay the differential amount of the price of local and imported products. We expect a break through in organic farming, but consumers are not prepared to pay farmers for the tremendous effort and resources invested in producing them.
The issue is aggravated with various stakeholders fixated on their own rules, not making an attempt to even take an extra step to facilitate farmers to take their produce to the market. This age-old robotic way of working has cost everyone in society dearly yet the concerned agencies have proposed options which are not implemented fully. The silver line is this paradox has rippling implications both to the agricultural sector and to the enthusiasts, who are willing to take up agriculture as a profession.
Today, statistics shows that the highest portion of economically active population (54 percent) is working in the agriculture sector, but the sector contribution to GDP remains the lowest compared to others. Furthermore, majority of people engaged in this sector are either illiterate or semi-literate, with close to 40 percent of them above the age of 50. When this cohort exits farming and a limited number of youth with shares in this sector, the share of population engaged in agriculture will shrink significantly over the next few years.
Consequently, a handful of farmers in the field would land up feeding the urban population, which is skyrocketing with youth and others looking for greener pastures in the towns. This is already happening, putting our food security objectives at stake. Therefore, our educated youth is the future of our food basket.
However, the current agriculture ecosystem, which society tries to encourage our educated youth to take up as a life-long profession, is a mirror image of an obsolete system. It is a flawed business prospect enforced upon fresh minds, so no wonder we have negligible takers.
The traditional system of farming, small access to finance and market, and unprofitable returns do not attract youth, although young cohort in agriculture seems to appear promising in terms of taking the sector forward. Therefore, a paradigm shift in how agriculture is pursued at this age must be initiated and the reform should begin by creatively shifting from the existing conventional method of farming to the innovative and modern farming system.
Bringing in innovative entrepreneurship and climate resilient technologies, ensuring accessible market, end-to-end support for sustainable commercial farming must be the linchpin to boost the withered morale of the youth towards agriculture.
While all eyes and talks are on our youth to take up agriculture, the only rationale behind this reinforcement from the Government and society as a whole is agriculture as an option to employment since the government is obsessed with the ability and innovative ideas to create jobs anymore, thinking out of the box is stagnated. Moreover, no individual and agency thinks others can equally take it up. In fact, the vision of agriculture revolution could be advanced by giving youth a leading role in the sector as well as creating a new approach.
Here are some of the rationales for these prospective options:
Civil and public/civil servants must take up agriculture
It is a little difficult to make an entry to the civil service system. But once entry is made, an individual finds her/his life through the job safe and secured till the civil servant attains the superannuation threshold, unless the individual wishes to resign to pursue more lucrative jobs. It is unfortunate that the parent agencies do not track them to the extent that some of them have exited the system after thirty or more years of latent existence.
Hence, it is not late to identify this set of employees and let them take up agriculture instead of asking unemployed graduates to go farming. They would be better off since they, at least, have experience and knowledge of how the system is designed and build better linkages as they embark on the farm-to-fork business. Such precedence, if set today, could instigate hopes in the minds of youth, whose morale has been nipped in the bud.
There cannot be a guarantee but certainly today’s youth can perform much better in the office than farms, as much as non-performers have to find their way to farms, where they may better perform than they could in civil service. If this cohort of people takes up farming, youth, consequently, would be encouraged as well, at the same time others following suit. Then, to ask civil servants to ‘think out of box’ and innovate would be more relevant.
Today’s system does not keep track of the employee’s performance, neither their capability. A civil servant enters a system and exits the same way he entered, without any footprint, and without even having to. We have many researchers, who have not yet written a single research paper, planners, who have never been part of the planning processes, policy analysts, who do not know the policy protocols, human resource managers, whose role is confined to recruitment and attending endless meetings, and senior officers, who have been pushed up the ladder but literally not aware of what they are supposed to do. In the process, they have either held others back or bred Luddism in the system.
Hence, it is time innovation finds a place in the system to track employees and their footprints. If an employee cannot keep a footprint in the last twenty years, the system must find a way out for them.
Farming Civil Servants
If there is a possibility to initiate one reform in the civil service, pertinence must be drawn to revalidate requirement of some obsolete posts. Who operates the telephone, dispatches letter, picks and drops letters, today, and how relevant is the administrative assistant and equivalent posts anymore?
Why only unemployed youth? This cohort can also join the farming fraternity by being civil servants at the same time. Civil servants, who wish to take up farming, must be facilitated to do so by still being part of the system. We will have farming civil servants driving the agriculture revolution 4.0.
Policy tools and enabling environment
Our youth are advised to take up farming as a profession for some time now. However, looking at the challenges facing our farmers today, deters the zeal that pushes youths off the rail. Unless farming is made attractive and flawless through efficient policy interventions, our youth will still choose to keep themselves away from the storm of challenges.
Agriculture has been the lifeline for Zimbabweans and will be forever. Farming should be everyone’s profession, not an option. Food security and sovereignty is what Zimbabwean youths are/must strive for.