Zimbabwe wants to court new markets for its agricultural produce

Agriculture contributes around 15 per cent of gross domestic product

A worker at a farm owned by Zimbabwean commercial farmer Rob Smart pulls irrigation pipes for a potato crop at Lesbury Estates in Headlands east of the capital Harare on February 1, 2018 days after Smart was allowed to return to his land.
When the riot police arrived, Zimbabwean farmworker Mary Mhuriyengwe saw her life fall apart as her job and home disappeared in the ruthless land seizures that defined Robert Mugabe's rule. Mhuriyengwe, 35, watched as police carrying AK47 rifles released teargas to force white farmer Robert Smart off his land in June 2017 -- perhaps the last of 18 years of evictions that helped to trigger the country's economic collapse.

The UAE imports most of its fresh produce, an ideal market for an agricultural economy such as Zimbabwe. This extends to the entire Arabian Gulf region, which will grow imports of fruits and vegetables to $53 billion by 2020, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The Agricultural Marketing Authority of Zimbabwe (AMA) has been holding countrywide workshops with farmers to highlight this to its members. Some Zimbabwean products are finding their way to the UAE, but through third party exporters.

"Some of our products have been entering the UAE market indirectly through South Africa, so we need to leverage a system where we go directly," says AMA director Maxwell Chikanda.

Should Zimbabwe provide consistent quality, the UAE could in time become a steady importer of its goods.

Finding new markets is crucial to a country of about 8 million people and an unemployment rate of 80 per cent. Currently around 70 per cent of Zimbabweans make their living from the agricultural sector, according to a study by the economics department of North West University South Africa (NWUSA). Many of these are barely subsisting off patches of land from which they grow food with a little extra to sell.


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Agriculture contributes around 15 per cent of gross domestic product. In addition, it contributes more than 40 per cent of national export earnings, a figure likely to climb as the country re-establishes itself in the global market.

The country possesses large mineral deposits ranging from diamonds, gold, platinum and coal. Mining however requires large capital investment and can take years to develop. The current mining firms in the country are also constrained by lack of adequate power and poor railway infrastructure that will limit increased production for some time to come.

However, farming offers the quickest route to economic growth if it can jumpstart the sector again. Up until the land seizures began in 2001, Zimbabwe produced around 5 per cent of Africa's maize. Today, it contributes less than 2 per cent of Africa's total, according to the NWUSA study.

In another study, The Zimbabwe Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper notes that more than 90 per cent of rural people live in extreme poverty.

With investment, the agricultural sector could flourish. The country's ripe soil raises flourishing cash crops like tobacco, paprika, fruits, flowers and beef exports. Realising its potential, though, depends heavily on how new president Emmerson Mnangagwa handles the thorny issue of land tenure.

The 4,000 or so white farmers pushed off their land over the past two decades are unlikely to be reinstated; doing so would entail a huge relocation of millions of people who settled on the abandoned farms. However, Mr Mnangagwa has told those who remain that they are now safe from expropriation, while inviting others to return.

Farmers who have clung on have generally did so by striking informal deals with local people, sharing parts of their land as well as expertise and equipment, in exchange for a tenuous security to be allowed to keep producing.

In the meantime, Mr Mnangagwa seems eager to put as much distance between his administration and the chaos of his predecessor Robert Mugabe.

"Zimbabwe has lagged behind in many areas as a result of isolation for the past 16, 18 years," Mr Mnangagwa told business leaders in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year. "Now we are saying to the world: Zimbabwe is now open for business."