Thursday, 24 April 2014

How have the ‘new farmers’ fared? An update on the Masvingo study III

In last week's blog, I looked at farm production, and the difficulties faced in recent drought years, and this was contrasted with patterns across the previous decade. But crop production is only one part of a wider, diversified livelihood portfolio. What other contrasts have we observed in the more recent period compared to the 2000s, the focus of our book, Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities?

Comparing the survey data between 2007-8 and 2011-12, what is significant is the accumulation of on-farm assets. And this in only a few years. This is most striking in cattle numbers. 281 cattle were purchased across the sample of 400 in the 5 years prior to 2011. This amounts to an outlay of perhaps US$100,000 in total. Interestingly, these purchases were concentrated in 'success groups' 2 and 3, the poorer end of our sample, who have shown the capacity, despite the challenges, to accumulate. Goat numbers have remained more stable, but sheep numbers have increased, although totals are not huge. It is cattle where the investment has been concentrated, and this represents a significant commitment to rural production.

In addition, people have bought ox carts, ploughs, cultivators, and a variety of forms of transport in large numbers, all indicating that people are keen to invest in land-based activities, despite disappointments in crop production in certain years. Cell phones and solar panels have featured prominently in assets purchased in recent years too, and house building has continued apace (see next week's blog). This shows an on-going commitment to staying in the resettlements for most, but with 'modern' houses, solar electricity and phone connections assured. I will discuss this pattern of investment and its value in next week's blog, but the total numbers and values are striking.

Another interesting change is the decline in remittances being sent to households in our sample, especially from the major sources abroad (notably South Africa, but also the UK, Botswana etc.), except in the site close to the South African border in Mwenezi. This reflects perhaps decreases in incomes in diaspora communities due to the post-2008 global financial crisis, but also a sense that in the post 2009 period, new settlers need less support given the 'recovery' of the Zimbabwean economy.

However, to counterbalance this, in 2010-11 there were greater percentages of households engaged in local off-farm income earning activities, across all categories (building and carpentry, brickmaking and thatching, fishing, wood carving, tailoring, transport businesses, grinding mills, trading and piecework employment), except pottery and basket-making. This suggests that, with the return of a viable cash economy, off-farm diversification is more feasible. But it also indicates the importance of such diversification, especially for poorer households, when crops fail, as they did in this period.

While there has been turnover in households – through death and inheritance as well as exits – there has also been a continued process of attraction of new household members, and a growth in household size, from 4.0 to 6.5 overall between 2007 and 2011-12. In part this is due to a predictable pattern of cyclical demographic change as younger families become older, and produce more children. But it is also the consequence of attracting relatives and others to work on the farms.

There has however been a slight decline in farm employment on A1/informal farms between 2007 and 2011-12, while on A2 farms permanent farm employment has increased a little, with temporary labourers declining slightly in this season. Across the full sample there were 244 permanent jobs and 384 temporary ones. This is an important source of livelihood for these people, with the permanent employees each with families linked to the farm, in addition to the core household members gaining livelihoods from the new resettlements.

With disappointing crop production overall (although with some doing relatively well nevertheless even in these drought years), but increased on-farm investment and off-farm diversification yet broadly static employment levels, what is going on? Have livelihoods changed since 2009 when we completed fieldwork for the book? The answer is: yes and no.

The broad pattern that we recounted in the book remains similar: a particular pattern of differentiation, with some successfully 'accumulating 'from below'. Clearly people remain committed to the land and to an agricultural future, and livestock in particular seem to be a major focus of investment. But people also realise that surviving only on crop production given the vagaries of the weather, is not enough, and other sources of income, especially if remittances decline, are important.

Data from more recent harvest seasons have been collected from the same group of households, along with some more detail on household turnover and exits, but the data has yet to be fully analysed. I will keep blog readers updated on the changing fortunes of our sample farms, as the longitudinal perspective really does give a sense of the peaks and troughs, trials and tribulations, opportunities and disasters of farming as a core livelihood in the land reform areas of Masvingo.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

The on-going Masvingo study research is conducted by Ian Scoones, Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene.