ZIMBABWE’s agricultural sector is reeling from crippling power cuts of up to 20 hours a day — just as is the case with commerce and industry — worsening food insecurity in the troubled country.
Experts told The Financial Gazette this week that the blackouts were having a devastating effect on productivity in the sector, as well as the management of costs by stressed farmers — some of whom were resorting to expensive energy generating systems to irrigate their crops and to process milk.
On their part, farmers confirmed that the sector was “in the main currently recording massive losses” as it operated in critical time windows in which key activities such as irrigation, harvesting and packing required reliable power.
They said the country’s winter wheat production, in particular, had been hit hard by the worsening power cuts, revealing further that the previously projected harvest of 375 000 tonnes for this year could be halved as a result — necessitating even more imports of the commodity.
“The effects of load shedding are devastating, as yields will be very low … and this also means that the farmers’ ability to make money is very limited,” agricultural economist Peter Gambara observed.
Maivepi Jiti, the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) vice-president, chipped, in saying the sustenance of wheat farming in the country was in
danger due to the severe power cuts, which were now in phase three.
“Wheat farmers need at least 60 percent of uninterrupted power supply … without electricity, we will not survive … because the crop is not getting the required amounts of water, which will affect yields,” he said.
The ZCFU boss added that wheat producers were not the only ones affected by the current crisis, as tobacco and horticulture players, among others, had also been hit hard.
Jeremiah Tevera, a fellow ZCFU director, said despondency about the blackouts was setting in among farmers, who were also having to contend with other challenges.
“The situation is dire, as the hours without power are consistently long, with no solution in sight. We are now encouraging farmers to irrigate their crops at night when the power comes on, because the use of generators will make them unprofitable,” he said.
This comes as Zimbabwe’s wheat output had increased in recent years to about five tonnes per hectare — from as low as one per hectare previously — a situation that had resulted from ousted former president Robert Mugabe’s chaotic land reforms.
The experts and farmers who spoke to The Financial Gazette also bemoaned the fact that although ZESA had promised to ring-fence the country’s productive sectors — including industry and agriculture — from the crippling power cuts, the situation on the ground was worsening.
Usually, electricity was only available for many farmers and industrialists for four to five hours a day, and at odd hours between 11pm and 4am.
Meanwhile, and amid the power crisis, economist Dale Dore says that it is critical for Zimbabwe to concentrate on other crops that the country has “good advantage on” — like tobacco — and use the proceeds to import wheat, rather than grow it locally.
He argued that the country’s wheat production was mainly driven by “illogical policies” that the country must become self-sufficient in food production, although international trade and prices made this idea irrelevant.
“If you compare the world price, and even the landed cost, to our production costs, it makes no sense at all for us to grow wheat,” Dore said.
“International trade is based on comparative advantage, but Zimbabwe has neither an absolute nor a comparative advantage in producing wheat,” he said.
“This is because unlike the prairies (of Canada), we expend huge subsidies on irrigation and electricity (reflected in the producer price), which is ultimately paid for by consumers in the price of bread or taxes,” Dore added.
“The other issue is the import substitution policy that tries to save foreign exchange. The obvious alternative is to export things to earn foreign exchange,” the independent researcher said.
“A market economy requires the production and exporting of goods which you have a comparative advantage … and competing on the international markets in order to import things we require such as wheat,” Dore said.
“For Zimbabwe to become an efficient producer, it requires a competitive domestic market, and factors like land, capital, inputs and so forth as well as farmers who can bear the risk of production. But for as long as senior government officials receive free irrigation equipment and inputs … production will remain way below potential.
“Government should focus on getting infrastructure … That’s how economies grow. Sadly, this government is locked into things like command agriculture because it offers huge patronage opportunities,” Dore said further.
In the meantime, ZESA has said that it may soon escalate its power cuts to phase four, which will mean at least four days a week of complete darkness.