For the past few decades, agriculture in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi has been characterised by two main features, inherited from the colonial time and generally perpetuated since independence:
In terms of food production and consumption, with some variations between countries, this system has shaped and impacted both the agro-ecologic environment and the socio-economic landscape in various ways that we could describe as follows .
- The maize ‘mono-cropping’: maize represents the main crop for a large majority of small scale farmers and the main staple food for consumers
- The duality of the production system, in short shared between an estate-based commercial sector and a smallholding sector predominantly subsistence oriented
* A fragile agro-ecologic environment marked by:
* A socio-economic landscape dominated by:
- Soil degradation and decreased fertility, due to intensive use of chemicals, and increasing in turn the requirement for fertilisers and hybrid seeds
- ‘replanting’ patterns and a related several months duration of the planting season due to the rain pattern, which rely on the readily and cheap availability of agro inputs, provided by the State or the private sector
- Estates and commercial farms occupying a large part of the arable land, generally the most fertile and disposing of adequate sources of water for irrigation
- Subsistence farming on less fertile soils, more reliant on rain fed agriculture, with limited access to land: 60 to 80% of the population are smallholders, with less than 2 hectares / household.
A very integrated system maintaining low prices and limiting fluctuations on food and inputs markets is both a condition and a result of the above. Farmers, consumers, estates, traders, the State and the milling industry are bound in a strong interdependence. This system is costly and depends on revenues from other sectors such as mines, industries or cash crops. It relies also on the fragility of the livelihoods of the poorest who have been kept dependent on off farm labour.
- A milling industry playing a key role in the State controlled and supported marketing system, receiving price-controlled grain and ensuring the distribution of maize meal in a national -private or public- marketing system
- Central and pivotal role of parastatal entities in charge of the purchase of maize to farmers, sale to millers and resale of subsidised food (maintaining pan-territorial and pan-seasonal low food prices )
- The dual system maintaining many smallholders in a situation of high dependency on labour in other farms, estates and mines to complement their income and sustain their livelihood .
A number of factors have disrupted or weakened this system for all three countries: drop in the international price of certain products, decline of the mining income (especially for copper in Zambia), inappropriate or unsuccessful Government policies, failure of the market liberalisation and political instability for the specific case of Zimbabwe.
In 2000-2002, the food production was reduced because of another combination of factors: the scarcity or the high costs of inputs for smallholders resulted in reduced areas cultivated and yields; it also prevented replanting while it would have been required by erratic rainfalls and also floods in parts of the region. At the national level, the drop was also due to the tendency of commercial farmers to shift from maize to cash crops in the recent years. Price volatility also increased the need for small farmers to access alternative sources of income with off farm labour, with as a result less manpower and less area planted. Simultaneously, opportunities for off-farm labour reduced because of regional evolutions and negative markets trends for some products such as tobacco.
Outside the agricultural sector, the economic decline mentioned above also results in an impoverished urban or peri-urban working class, more and more affected by unemployment and less and less able to cope with seasonally high levels of food prices.
The food crisis in Southern Africa is therefore and before anything else the crisis of a system in which maize plays a central role: a "maize drought".
Today, a number of policy options are being discussed as ways forward: turning back to / maintaining the system (e.g. reinstalling some forms of price controls, modernising and maintaining a strong role of parastatals) or moving towards some new paths (continuing market liberalisation, cash crops and crop diversification, developing new farming methods, land reform,...).
Relief interventions and development programmes come in this broad debate and we will see that they participate to it, voluntarily or not.