President Robert Mugabe's government is launching an ambitious plan to revive Zimbabwe's agricultural production, which plummeted following the chaotic expropriation of white-owned farmland for redistribution to landless blacks seven years ago.
The government's fast-track land reform programme dispossessed about 4,000 white commercial farmers of prime agricultural land, ostensibly to correct a history of skewed ownership. Critics allege the newly settled farmers were not given adequate state support, while senior members of the ruling ZANU-PF party and other government officials, including high-ranking army and police officers, took over the best estates.
Since the onset of the land redistribution programme the country has recorded increasingly acute food shortages, and international donor agencies estimate that more than a third of the population, or 4.1 million people, require emergency food assistance. Zimbabwe has suffered poor rainfall since 2002 and the government called 2007, a year of drought.
The government has declared the forthcoming agricultural season, which has just begun, "The Mother of All Farming Seasons", and agriculture minister Rugare Gumbo told IRIN that farmers were planning to plant two million hectares of maize, with 400,000ha set aside for small grains, such as sorghum and millet, while soya beans would be cultivated on another 120,000ha.
"These are targets which we want to achieve, and the fact that there are figures being mentioned in terms of hectarage is an indication of how serious we are in terms of ensuring food security," he said.
Optimism not shared by all
Gumbo said the government had already sourced the required seed and fertiliser, and was attempting to ensure that new farmers and those working communal lands had adequate inputs and equipment, which would re-establish the country as a net exporter of agricultural produce.
Gumbo's claim is being disputed by seed and fertiliser producers, who told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Lands, Land Reform, Resettlement, Agriculture and Water that there was insufficient seed and fertiliser for the new farming season because the government's recent price controls had resulted in unrealistic prices, which had created shortages of these inputs.
A delegation representing the Seed Trade Association told the portfolio committee, "We are facing problems getting seed from growers, who are not willing to release their seed due to the price, which they say is not viable." Out of a total 20,000 metric tonnes (mt) of seed required, they had only received 10,000mt.
Ngoni Masoka, permanent secretary in the ministry of agriculture, said the fertiliser industry was not operating at maximum capacity because of the unavailabilty of foreign exchange for the purchase of raw materials.
"We can meet our targets, as we have almost put together all the necessary inputs and mechanisation except for a few aspects such as fertiliser and timeous seed availability," he said.
Mechanisation of agriculture
A newly created Agricultural, Engineering and Mechanisation Ministry, in cooperation with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, aims to increase the mechanisation of agriculture. The government has already begun distributing hundreds of tractors, combine harvesters, planters and discs as part of phase one of its plan.
Phase two has seen more than 50,000 animal-drawn implements such as harrows, ploughs and cultivators being given to small-scale farmers, although
critics say that once again senior politicians and security officers have been the beneficiaries of the bulk of the government's largesse, while those without political connections have been left in the cold.
There are also reports that the tractors, of Chinese origin - which were delivered without spare parts - were being used to provide transport in rural areas because of a chronic lack of public transport, instead of being used for ploughing.
Reserve Bank Governor Gono, himself a beneficiary of land redistribution, was upbeat about the government's plan. "A mother symbolises stability, care and everything good about life. Let's put every inch of soil under crops or grazing. Let's see Zimbabwe being all green, and let's see a hive of activity in the rearing of livestock as well."
Although the country is experiencing an acute shortage of foreign currency and is battling an inflation rate of more than 6,000 percent - the highest in the world - Gono has pledged to pay for half the farmers' produce in foreign currency, and purchase the remaining produce with the local currency, the Zimbabwean dollar.
Another hurdle the mechanisation of agriculture initiative faces is the crippling shortages of fuel, although Gono dismisses any suggestion that this might hamper the revitalisation of agriculture. "We are making efforts, and we are expected to launch a programme that guarantees only enough fuel supplies but not an excess," he said.
Subsidised fuel for the agricultural sector has often been resold on the parallel market, while this year's disastrous winter crop was blamed on frequent regular power outages, which meant irrigation systems and other farming equipment could not be used.
Rains have started but planting has not
An agricultural expert in Zimbabwe, who declined to be named, told IRIN the latest government pronouncments were another detour in "fantasy". "Farming is a matter of detail and if you get one thing wrong it affects everything," he said. "It's not just about the weather."
Fertiliser was not available, and there had been no land preparation for the 2007 farming season; there was no fuel, the oxen envisaged to be used for draught power were in a very poor state after a dry year, and each day planting was delayed resulted in lost yield. He said a 10-day delay can contribute to a 20 percent reduction in yield.
The agricultural expert said the average cost per hectare to produce maize in neighbouring South Africa was between US$600 and US$800, but in Zimbabwe this would be more because of the distortions in the hyperinflationary economy, resulting in higher farming costs, in a country where farmers had no access to capital.
He said he was pessimistic about Zimbabwe producing enough food to feed itself from this farming season, and expected food shortages to continue after the harvest and well into 2008.
Former Grain Marketing Board chief executive Rensen Gasela, now the shadow minister of agriculture in the main political opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, told IRIN the government was expecting too much from this farming season.
"Certain things need to be in place for that [food sufficiency] to be met, and that includes adequate maize seed ... at this rate, including local deliveries and imports, we will end up with 35,000mt when we require about 60,000mt of maize seed," he said.
"The rains have started falling, but there is no maize seed or fertiliser in sight. There are people with farms, who are not farmers, who access seed and fertiliser and ... it pays them better to sell ... [the inputs] off instead of using them on the land."
He said the country could experience another bad season because communal farmers, who traditionally produced 60 percent of the country's food requirements, were unable to afford the seed and fertiliser available on the parallel market.
Gasela said the maize seed shortages were a consequence of the fast-track land reform programme, as white commercial farmers had previously produced seed for sale.