Food security is a topical issue at the moment, and with good reasons. During drought periods Zimbabwe imports over 800 000 to 1 000 000 tonnes of grains into the country, a logistical nightmare. According to a United Nations commissioned food vulnerability report released this week the country harvested only 800 000 tonnes of maize going into April 2020, leaving about 7,7 million people at the risk of starvation. Statistics are hard to come by on the actual impact of any drought in the country but it goes without saying that a bad agriculture season often results in the massive importation of food into the country at great expense.
Coming at a time the economy is struggling and trying to mobilise all the foreign currency it can lay its hands on, this news could not have come at worse time. As policy makers grapple with the droughts that have become an almost certain feature in the country’s economy, it is no longer enough to fold our hands and wait for rains. The time to introduce supportive solutions to these almost certain challenges is now.
From a framing perspective, the problem in our country’s agriculture sector at the moment is our over reliance on unpredictable models of farming, especially rain fed agriculture. Why is this so, traditionally the country’s food crops, mainly maize have been grown by small scale and communal farmers who have no access to irrigation equipment and have little commercial orientation when it comes to growing crops.
Non-food crops like tobacco and cotton have been grown in selected areas and output has been rising especially for tobacco, which this year reached 258 million tonnes. Unpredictable prices and inconsistent trading policies have also contributed to uncertainty in this sector. Over 75 percent of Zimbabwe produced tobacco is exported to over 80 countries as a blending flavour earning the country over USD700 million annually from the crop.
On the food side the story has not been so rosy and this is a major source of concern as it means the foreign currency earned through tobacco is being used to import food, fuel and electricity. The problems facing the economy are therefore feeding off each other and the government must recognise this when planning for the future. Important questions to ask from a macro economic planning point of view are;
- 1. Should Zimbabwe continue to invest in rain fed agriculture? Or is this a waste of resources since we seem not to get a good return from it?
- Does Zimbabwe have enough water bodies to engage in irrigation programmes throughout the year? How much land is irrigable and what output can be expected from such farming activities?
- Is the consumption of 5 million litres of petrol and diesel per day sustainable?
- Can the country continue to important power to meet its serious deficit and for how long?
- 5. For how long can the government continue to hang on to inefficient parastatals such as ZISCO, Air Zimbabwe, National Railways of Zimbabwe, and ZESA among others? Will the economy recover without these parastatals?
- 6. Will Zimbabwe survive in a world where the forth industrial revolution is in full gear without itself participating?
The list of questions is long and I could go on and on. I will stop here armed with the knowledge of the issues holding the economy back and use them to focus on the desired outcomes that we should focus on as nation. That the government is working on addressing some of these challenges in the short term is clear, and expected. However, there is serious danger concentrating on solving problems as they come up, macro-economic matters and economic planning in general will take a back burner.
The second part of my article will therefore focus on the things the government should be working on to steer the economy away from a treacherous path. In any problem solving situation clear objectives and expected outcomes are required. What are the things we want to see in the economy?
- Food security
- Jobs, jobs, jobs
- Protection of vulnerable groups
- Reliable and affordable supply of Energy
- Affordable and accessible health care
- A stable currency
- An innovation driven economy
Again the shopping list is long, however, I believe these are some of the outcomes many Zimbabweans would like to see in the country. Once one is clear about outcomes the next stage is to look at the strategies to be implemented to lead to these desirable outcomes. None of these outcomes are going to materialise without conscious effort on the part of government and its citizens. Everyone has a part to play and it starts with us setting up clear strategies as a nation. Just as an example on the important matter of food security, the Ministry of Agriculture can look at what is causing the sub-optimal performance of the agriculture sector. Is it land tenure, is it lack of fertilisers, is it the unpredictable weather patterns, or uncertain markets. What is it? Each ministry must have a team dedicated to researching and collecting data to be used to create programmes, projects and activities.
Armed with knowledge the ministry can come up with a strategy that will be the basis upon which programmes to address land tenure, fertiliser availability and clear marketing structures for commodities will be introduced. The government, businesses can embark on projects and activities to take advantage of these opportunities created through the various programmes. Without a deliberate approach the country will continue to come up with firefighting measures and not realise the most out investments in the various sectors of our economy.
Attracting investments through clear polices will be easy. In the area of agriculture for example the government can finance research programmes where experts come in and work on identifying and implementing solutions. If one looks at the expected outcomes I listed above one can see that the same approach can be taken to create jobs. Due to the fact that the challenges and outcomes are intertwined there will be multiplier effect in the economy as the government begins to support various programmes, projects and activities. The beauty about this approach is that impact will be measurable due to the fact that these initiatives are time bound.
An agile approach is definitely required to address the mammoth challenges we face today. These problems are but opportunities disguised as unsurmountable obstacles. What is required is to harness the skills and resources available to us today. They may not be enough but they can be used to bring about some change in the economy, which is what is needed to send the correct message to the world.