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Zimbabwe's farmers protest grain busting operations

August 01, 2022
topic:Political violence
tags:#Zimbabwe, #maize, #food security, #labour rights, #agriculture
by:Cyril Zenda
Although the government of Zimbabwe claims to be making huge strides in transforming its agricultural sector, hunger remains endemic. The government now seizes grain from farmers who are reluctant to sell at low prices.

Samuel Moyo, a 43-year old substance farmer in the Chirau communal lands - located roughly 150 km west of the capital Harare, counted himself lucky when he got a good harvest from a portion of his land that he planted early. He got six tonnes of maize (corn) when most of his neighbours barely got enough to feed themselves.

Maize is a staple food for this southern African country. 

Moyo’s luck has since turned, however, and now he has to engage in a hide-and-seek game with state security as he tries to get a fair price for his produce.

"GMB is a non-starter," Moyo told FairPlanet. "I can’t be forced to sell my maize at the throw-away price that they are offering," added the distraught father of six.

Farmers Reluctant To Sell

Grain farmers in Zimbabwe, unhappy to be paid in the worthless local currency by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) - the state entity that has monopoly to purchase grain - when they incur inputs costs in USD, are reluctant to deliver their produce to the parastatal.

With cajoling, regular price reviews and early delivery incentives yielding no result, the government evoked the law that gives the parastatal monopoly over all grain and unleashed the police and soldiers to move around the countryside and seize grain from farmers (to deliver it to the GMB). This has left affected families with barely enough grain for sustenance.

According to the Lands and Agriculture ministry, a paltry 5,000 metric tonnes of maize had been delivered to the GMB by the end of May, about two months after the marketing season had opened on 1 April.

This prompted the ministry’s secretary, John Basera, to instruct the GMB - which holds the state’s grain reserves - to implement the Communistic measures that allow it to seize any grain not promptly delivered to its depots.

Provisions of Statutory Instrument 145 of 2019 state that "no person or statutory body or company or entity shall buy or otherwise acquire any maize from any farmer or producer otherwise than through the Grain Marketing Board." The same law also bans the transportation of bulk maize from one area to another.

In a 23 May memorandum, Basera ordered the GMB to work with security services to conduct what he described as "grain busting operations" to seize large stocks of maize held by farmers, including intercepting its movement.

"You are therefore required to operationalise the provisions of S.I 145/19 in order to prevent and avert side marketing of grain with immediate effect," Basera wrote to GMB chief executive officer Rocky Mutenha. 

"This includes - but is not limited to - conducting grain busting operations at various points such as roadblocks. You are also encouraged to ride on our partnership with members of the joint operation command in the execution of this important task."

Prices Too Low 

Farmers are reluctant to sell their maize to the GMB for a low price. A tonne of maize is pegged at Z$75,000 by GMB, which is now less than US$75 at the ruling parallel market rates. To encourage maize deliveries, GMB announced that it would pay in USD for 30 percent (US$75) of the maize delivered and the other 70 percent in local currency. This would see the farmers earning a combined value of roughly USD $150 per tonne, a significantly lower amount compared to regional maize rates, which reach USD $350 per tonne.

Farmers also argue that inordinate delays in payments by GMB invariably mean the local currency component is worth much less when finally paid, and many prefer to sell to private millers who are willing to pay in US dollars.

'Farming is a business'

Andrew Pascoe, president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), expressed concerns that the government was turning grain farming into an unviable business.

"Farming is a business and we as farmers would like to sell what we produce at the best price that is available in the market," Pascoe told FairPlanet.

"It’s unfortunate that the government has chosen to restrict our ability to sell to those that are offering the best price," he added. "It is very demoralising for the farmer to labour, to grow a crop and be made to sell at a price that is way below what is available in the market."

A government crop and livestock report showed that Zimbabwe harvested 43 percent less grain than in 2021 due to erratic rains. The grain shortfall will have to be filled with imports, and Pascoe said that farmers would be happy to be paid the same rate that GMB offers for imports.

"The price that have been offered by the other buyers is import parity so we feel that in order for GMB to be able to compete in the market they need to be offering the same price that the other consumers of maize are willing to pay," Pascoe said. "GMB should be able to pay farmers the same price that it is paying for imported maize."

He added that CFU, as a union, are always engaging the government and highlight the effect of such polices on the morale of farmers. 

"We understand that food is a strategic commodity, but we do not believe that it is fair for farmers to subsidise the price of food," he said. "The reality is that if we are not given a good price, a fair price, we will not be in a position to produce in the coming season and food shortages will become a big problem."

The head of CFU said that GMB monopoly was in place since the early 2000's and that it did not solve but rather worsened food shortages.

"It is basically economics that determine our ability to produce."

Fair value ensures viability

Zimbabwe Farmer’s Union (ZFU) executive director, Paul Zakariya, told FairPlanet that there were cases where farmers produced grain under a contract from the government or other private players, but would try to sell the produce on the open market. 

"As a union, we understand that most of the grain was grown under contract," said Zakariya.

"It is therefore prudent that farmers observe the conditions of the contracts that they entered into," he added. "Farmers who self-financed only need to satisfy the condition where their details are checked (and not found) in the shared database of those contracted. They are then cleared to move their stocks to markets of their choice. It is however important that farmers are paid a fair value for their grains in order to ensure grower viability."

Farm workers left worse off

Some desperate farmers are trying to find buyers for their grain on social media, with some hiding hundreds of tonnes from state agents. For those running big operations, the margin of loss they would incur by selling to GMB could devastate their enterprise. 

Phillip Mafundu, general secretary of the Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers Union of Zimbabwe, said that farm workers, who are already trying to have their monthly wages increased from the present level of about $30, become hapless victims in the tussle between farmers and the government.

"Raiding farmers of their grain will make the welfare of the workers even worse and will make our job as unionists difficult, as farmers, who are the employers, will have excuses for not paying fair and reasonable wages," Mafundu told FairPlanet.

"We believe grain should be sold at a 'willing buyer willing seller model'… let the supply and demand pressures determine the prices," he added. "We have condemned the slave wages published by the National Employment Council for Agricultural Industries in Zimbabwe, and raiding grain from farmers will make the situation for the workers, which is already dire as we speak, worse.

"We call upon the government to find less confrontational ways to encourage farmers to deliver grain to the GMB."

He added that grain seizures run contrary to the government’s 'Zimbabwe is Open For Business' mantra. 

"We believe Zimbabwe is open for business and that the current government is committed to ease of doing business. We do not believe that this can be achieved by command pricing and command economy."

Image by Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Maize stored at Ivordale Farm outside Harare, Zimbabwe.
© Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Some desperate farmers are taking to social media to try and find buyers for their grain.
© Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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