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Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Southern Africa. However for many years now agriculture in the country has been aid-dependent. ICRISAT together with many development partners and Zimbabwean national research institutes is studying new approaches for a smooth transition to development, as well as preparing farmers to adapt to new challenges such as a warmer climate and rigorous food standards.

1.4 million - Number of people who received food aid in 2012 in 37 districts of Zimbabwe (7 million in 2009 -source: WFP)

↘30% - Zimbabwe's agricultural production from 2000 to 2008

75 to 90% - Percentage of land in Zimbabwe that does not receive any fertilizer [EIARD conservation agriculture case study] 

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General context

Once known as the breadbasket of the Southern African region, landlocked Zimbabwe is now characterized by chronic food insecurity and is heavily dependent on international aid, particularly food aid. Zimbabwean agriculture has always been dualistic with a few thousand large commercial farms (so called A2 scheme) producing cash and export crops like tobacco and a majority of subsistence smallholdings (A1 scheme) growing staple food, in particular with a mixed maize crop system.

An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans (1 out of five) have left the country since the late 1990s. A political crisis combined with the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (forced redistribution of white-owned commercial farmland to black smallholder farmers), hyperinflation, capital constraints and government controls on markets, led to sharp falls in production and a collapse of the rural market economy. Zimbabwe's real GDP declined by more than 71% between 2000 and 2008, with overall agricultural production declining by 30% over the same period.

Since 2009, relative political stability has helped in the partial recovery of the agriculture sector. With Robert Mugabe’s recent re-election and "indigenization" policies, the future is quite uncertain.  

There are significant differences in poverty rates among the provinces. Matabeleland North has the highest poverty rate in the country, with 70 per cent of its inhabitants classified as poor or extremely poor. Poverty is also concentrated in the south-eastern provinces of Manicaland and Masvingo, which are among the driest and least productive areas in the country.

Importance of agriculture sector

Agriculture contributes about 20% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). About 7.6 million people live in rural areas and depend mainly on agriculture.

Maize is the fundamental staple crop, representing up to 70% of the total dietary energy supply but dryland cereals, sorghum, pearl millet (mhunga) and finger millet (rapoko), less affected by government controlled prices, have seen a steady increase during the 2000s.

Zimbabwe, located between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, has five agro-ecological regions that are based on the rainfall regime, soil quality and vegetation among other factors. The South and West of Zimbabwe (Matabeleland and Masvingo) have less fertile soil and a drier climate.

Agricultural production in general has suffered as a result of weak support services, lack of credit, and acute shortages of essential inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and fuel. In drier areas, water scarcity is a major challenge for farmers. Agriculture depends a lot on inputs and credit from aid programmes such as the Protracted Relief Programme (PRP) ). Both government and donors have to shift from an assistance-aid approach to a developmental one, such as the use of a voucher approach. 

ICRISAT research in Zimbabwe

The reconstruction of a disrupted, aid-dependent agricultural sector calls for transitional schemes to gradually shift towards agricultural development. A study (Agrodealer Strengthening Program assessment)  showed that the input voucher scheme helped 60% of the participating agrodelaers in improving their business.  

The agricultural sector has to move away from a reactive food aid and emergency relief approach towards a more proactive production and development approach. ICRISAT is testing sustainable ways to enhance the access of smallholder farmers to better quality inputs such as the marketing of small seed packs of improved varieties of millets, sorghum, groundnut and other smallholder crops  (read Seedco case study).

Because most smallholder farmers are resource-poor, research also focuses on low inputs and agroecological practices. In the drought-prone regions of Masvingo and Matabeleland, over 300,000 farmers have improved their yields by applying fertilizer microdosing and adopting soil and water conservation practices [read EIARD case study].

Improving rural livelihoods is also about understanding better on-farm uses of natural resources. In mixed crop-livestock farming systems, for instance, we study what could be the optimum use of crop residues.  (Ref collaboration with Systemwide Livestock Programme).

ICRISAT together with national climate and agriculture research institutions in Zimbabwe and Kenya is developing a climate analogue location concept to build rainfed farmers' adaptation strategies. Matobo farmers were paired with farmer community in the 2 degrees warmer Chiredzi, to test different practices, such as assessing the performance of various crops and varieties, under the two climate conditions. [read CALESA newsletter on Zimbabwe].

An inclusive market-development approach will be key in the coming years to improve the rural economy and lift smallholder farming families out of poverty and malnutrition.

In addition to better farm productivity, value chains have to be more efficient and safe. Under the  South-South cooperation initiative between India and Africa, ICRISAT is supporting the setting up of Food Testing facilities to build Zimbabwe's capacity in food safety, quality control and certification, essential to tackle serious food hazards like aflatoxin.

Important documents on Zimbabwe agriculture

Zimbabwe's agricultural reconstruction, Afd / South Africa Dev Bank, 2012

Zimbabwe’s rural poverty country profile, IFAD

Photo: ICRISAT
For years, most Zimbabwean farmers have depended heavily on free input distribution. 
Phtot: ICRISAT
Planting basins and other conservation agriculture practices improve yields. [EIARD impact study].
Women farmers in a sorghum participatory trial - Pairing up farmers with future climate twin (CALESA project).
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