New technologies needed for food and nutrition security

Today, I attended a seminar to plan a Food and Nutrition Expo scheduled for 8 July 2015 and the conversation was wide-ranging, especially on ailments and solutions facing food production. One of the issues discussed was how Malawians could share their experiences with Zimbabwe on ways to increase the production of maize - a key indicator of food security in many Sub-Sahara African countries.  I found myself reflecting on the exchanges of experiences between Malawi and Zimbabwe in this critical area of production policies and technologies.  I arrived at a conclusion I had not anticipated.

After 1980, Zimbabwe found itself faced with a series of droughts affecting a population that had just come out of a ten-year war that had destroyed much of the infrastructure in the rural areas where small scale farmers earned a living under very difficult conditions - characterized by small parcels of land holdings, marginal soils, and inadequate inputs.  The Government embarked on a program where targeted inputs distribution, strengthening links between small farmers and commercial infrastructure, running feeding programs for the vulnerable, and adopting measures that helped small farmers become more efficient.  By 1990, peasant farmers in the Communal Areas (characterized by a communal land tenure system) were producing over 60% of national maize requirements, rural incomes were rising, and human development was recording impressive rates.  Public Works Programs (PWPs) where poor households worked for food, inputs, and sometimes cash had for instance been rolled out for nearly two decades.

When Malawi was faced with a severe drought in the early 2000s, the Government and World Bank teams working on response strategies looked into lessons from Zimbabwe and developed a program where PWPs were implemented with cash transfers and inputs distribution (maize seeds and fertilizer).  These PWPs helped communities improve rural access roads, rebuild community bridges, build new earth dams to capture rain water, rehabilitate run down irrigation programs, plant community woodlots, and undertake other activities that helped communities rebuild their capacity for resilience.  Malawi in 2005 for the first time produced more maize than its national requirements; and was to sell the surplus to Zimbabwe for more money than Government had invested in the entire production program.  The transfer of well tried global technologies to tackle food insecurity and strengthen safety nets for the vulnerable had gone on to strengthen economic recovery; with improved rural infrastructure contribution to greater and efficient movement of goods and services to and from rural areas.

When in 2007 Zimbabwe wanted to know how Malawi had turned round its fortunes, it was interesting to note the reaction of Government. The thinking in Harare had shifted to an approach that free tractors, combine harvesters, diesel, fertilizer, seeds, and other inputs was the future instead of building on experiences from the 1980-1996 period.  The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe was for several years to try this new formula without reaching anywhere near the Malawi success; although spending many times what Malawi had spent.  The needs of a small group of well-connected "telephone farmers" had over-ridden evidence-based policies that had worked in Zimbabwe and Malawi.  In the post-2005 period, Zimbabwe continued to experience food shortages in spite of these expensive programs that transferred Government resources to a small group of inefficient large scale farmers without the attendant rise in production.

Today, Government has embarked on a large-scale program of tractor distribution; but this time with the idea of increasing production through group farming.  Again, this flies in the face of several years of community survey results that show that rural farmers want solutions to water management, improved infrastructure, and access to markets.  While PWPs with safety nets dimensions will not solve most of the problems raised by communities in these surveys, maize production in the urban, peri-urban, and communal areas could be increased several-fold if PWPs with cash and/or vouchers for agricultural inputs (piloted in 2010 in several Zimbabwe districts) were adopted.  Not all the old technologies are relevant today, and Zimbabwe could also explore a new combination of increased use of farming implements (supplied through commercial channels), expanded contract farming, and expansive rural dissemination of household-level technologies could be the foundation of a new era in African farming.   Given the large-scale transfer of better land to new small scale farmers now resettled on old commercial farms, a new packaging of production technologies could put Zimbabwe at the forefront of a new agricultural revolution in Africa.  For this, new and appropriate technologies for food production, processing, preservation, and storage would be needed.

Innovators and entrepreneurs stand challenged!