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Zimbabwe command agriculture and the politics of subsidies

But despite everything – and significantly because of the excellent rains – the programme seemingly delivered.

I cannot find reliable data that details how much of the 2.15 million tonnes of maize produced in the 2016-17 season (as well as improved soya production too) is attributable to command agriculture (some say 1 million tonnes), nor any results of detailed economic evaluations, but the basic point is that if you throw inputs (notably nitrogen fertiliser) at improved seed in well prepared soil, and there’s good rainfall, increased outputs will result.

There is no agronomic surprise there. But with the GMB buying maize at $390 per tonne, way above world prices, and questions about how the financing works, there are clear concerns.

The big question is of course, how sustainable is this approach for the longer term – economically and politically?

This is the concern raised by economists and other policy analysts, including the IMF.

There are precedents of course.

This is not the first time Zimbabwe has embarked on massive agricultural subsidy programmes.

Indeed the successful origins of white commercial agriculture in the country were built on huge subsidies from the state.

Is this just a well-timed kick-start to the struggling A2 farms, which have lagged behind due to lack of financing, allowing them to find their own feet, as white farmers did before?

In the 1980s and 90s, there were regular fertiliser subsidy (or cheap credit) programmes aimed at boosting communal area agriculture, resulting in a short-lived ‘green revolution’ in the country.

In the 2000s, subsidy programmes – from Taguta to the mechanisation progammes led by the Reserve Bank – were attempts at spurring growth in the sector following land reform, but failed due to poor implementation, patronage and corruption.

More widely in the region, Malawi had a period of intensive investment in (mostly) maize production through the FISP (Fertiliser Input Subsidy Programme).

This produced a significant growth in production, with Malawi becoming a regional exporter of maize.

The same occurred in Zambia, through a range of programmes across successive governments.

All of these subsidy programmes however became fiscally unsustainable, and while producing food and reducing import bills became very, very expensive, taking up significant proportions of national expenditure (with opportunity costs elsewhere – in schools, health services, road building and on).

A bad rainfall year (or even a middling one) may unravel things quickly, loading more onto an already crippling national debt.

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