How are the children of Zimbabwe’s land reform beneficiaries making a living?

How have young people who grew up on farms allocated to their parents as part of the ‘fast-track’ land reform fared in the period after leaving school? In our studies, we have explored the life courses of those who are now aged between 20 and 31, and whose parents were in our study sample on A1 farms in Mvurwi, Wonedzo and Chikombedzi areas.

I want to share some of the results from one site – Wondedzo, a set of A1 land reform farms in Masvingo district, not far from the provincial market town of Masvingo. We are working in two resettlement sites – Wondedzo Extension (a ‘self-contained’ A1 model, where plots are 20-30 hectares) and Wondedzo Wares (an A1 villagised model, where original arable allocations were around 6 hectares, and where grazing areas are communal).Across these, we had a sample of 57 women and 65 men for a survey, and subsequently we carried out in-depth biographical interviews with 25 of them. This week, I want to share some of the findings, mostly from the survey data; next week I will explore some emerging themes and share some of the life histories interviews.

Where are people living?

As the table below shows, around half are living at home, mostly with parents, although some (see below) with independent homes. Others are living elsewhere in Zimbabwe. Most women in this category are married, and living with their husbands; most men are in towns trying to find jobs in the informal economy, often working for a few months, coming home, then returning. There are very few in stable employment or training in Zimbabwe. Some have left the country, mostly to South Africa, where they are working, again in often temporary jobs on farms or in towns; unlike in the past this involves both men and women.

  F M Overall
At home 53% 46% 49%
Elsewhere in Zimbabwe 33% 34% 34%
Overseas 14% 20% 17%


Education, education, education

In Wondedzo, education is seen as key to successfully leaving home and getting employment. This is especially so for girls. In our sample, 65% of women and 78% of men had continued to Form 4, with many doing multiple re-takes. 16% of women identified education (i.e. retakes) as their primary occupation (see below). The commitment to education, both among young people and adults, is tangible, but it’s costly. Many poorer parents cannot afford the fees, and kids drop out, either to seek local jobs in the informal economy (mostly men), or help with farming (men and women) or to get married (mostly women).

What are people doing?

In answer to the question of what individuals were doing now, the primary and secondary activities are listed below (secondary percentage in brackets). Most identify themselves as being ‘at home’, and helping parents or farming on their own. Very few are employed ‘in a job’ in Zimbabwe or overseas (although slightly more of the latter). For women the most common is various forms of domestic work, while for men it is more varied, but in our sample mostly low paid, manual jobs. More are ‘self-employed’, being a secondary activity to farming or hanging around at home. This is characterized as informal, temporary, low paid and insufficient to sustain a livelihood. Some will leave home to do this, but many try their luck at a range of activities in the area, ranging from piece work laboring to gold panning to vending and trading.

  Female (N=57) Male (N=65)
At home, unemployed, helping parents 35% (12) 32% (8)
Employed in a job 7%(2) 2% (8)
Employed overseas in a job 9% (0) 14% (0)
Self-employed 4% (18) 8% (23)
Farming on own 33% (53) 17% (55)
In education 16% (12) 3% (6)

Life cycles

Following a period in the kukiya kiya (zig-zag, informal) economy, many return home following getting married. It’s easier to make a go of it at home, with the support of family, especially when there are kids to look after. Overall, 63% women and 57% men in our sample are married. Women tend to get married earlier (average age 19.7 years, compared to men at 23.2 years). Earlier marriage among women is common, especially when alternative livelihoods are scarce. Most move to live with their in-laws, so for girls in our sample out of the area; but interestingly there are some cases where husbands come to live with their wives’ parents in the resettlement areas, as there is land available for farming unlike in the communal areas. Men delay marriage in order to try to find jobs to establish themselves, and only later come home. In our sample, a quarter of women and 15 % of men are both married and farming independently with an established home. Compared to earlier generations this is a relatively low proportion, showing how many are struggling to become independent, existing in an intermediate state between dependent childhood and independent adulthood.

The average number of children is 1.5 for women and 1.2 for men; and of those with children, the average is 2.1. First children are born at the age of 19.7 (women) and 23.2 (men), average, 21.7 years, although 34% of individuals in the sample have yet to have children, showing how ‘waiting’ affects reproductive careers too. As people establish families, priorities change. The informal economy in town is difficult to navigate with a family involved, so as a result for those with children, ‘farming’ as a primary occupation doubles (from 14% to 30%), while being ‘self-employed’ triples (mostly complemented with farming at home), while overseas work nearly halves.

And what about farming?

Just over half of the women in our sample were farming (usually with parents, until they married) and 58% of men were farming, nearly all with allocations in parents’ plots. Land allocations usually move from sharing with parents to allocation of 1-1.5 ha plot within the A1 farm (a few inheriting the whole farm on the death of parents/grandparents). Inheritance of land results in the sharing among brothers (and sometimes daughters); rarely is land handed only to eldest son as is ‘custom’. Some of our sample of young people had grown up with grandparents, and were in turn sharing land/inheriting from them. With relatively large amounts of land in the resettlement areas, those who benefited were often asked by other poorer relatives from the communal areas to take on children. This ‘magnet effect’, seen both in the 1980s resettlements and in the post-2000 scenario, has resulted in a particular demographic composition in these areas, which we are now seeing the consequences of. The net result is lots of subdivision across these A1 farms as the next generation makes claims, especially as many of those who acquired the land in 2000 are now passing on. The implications for land ownership and livelihoods of the next generation are only just now becoming apparent

Challenges faced

In the survey we asked men and women to identify the main challenge they faced.

Challenge Women (%) Men (%)
Lack of jobs 23 43
Family tensions/disputes, illness 14 14
Land/water access 9 9
Education quality/failure 26 11
Cash/finance for inputs, etc. 14 18
Food insecurity/drought/climate change


12 6

The lack of jobs and finance is the dominant theme, especially for men (43% as against 23% for women). The absence of any job or other source of finance restricts access to inputs for agriculture or other businesses. Educational access and quality and failure in exams was repeatedly mentioned, particularly for women (26%), as passing O levels was seen as a route to a better life. Despite many emphasizing the importance of farming as a source of livelihood (and particularly irrigated agriculture), it was perhaps surprising that land and water access was not highlighted as the primary issue by most (only 9% identified it as the major challenge). Some however highlighted drought and climate change, and the consequences for household food security, which was emphasized in particular by women (12%). Most individuals managed to secure some land and/or water, even if borrowed from a parent/in-law. The key constraint is capital and inputs for on-farm investment (14% for women, 18% for men), rather than underlying natural resources it seems.

As young people emphasized in discussion, they don’t want large areas, just small irrigation plots. As people move between work and home, often failing to get a job that sustains them for long, or in the period when young people are retaking school subjects, stresses at home are frequently mentioned. As young adults being dependent on parents and living in close proximity can create tensions. Those marrying into homes where the husband does not have a separate residence can also result in difficulties and conflicts. Combined with other illnesses, deaths and other personal issues, these less tangible, but nevertheless very real experiences were identified as the major challenge by 14% of both men and women.

Limited opportunities and the importance of land

With work in the wider economy, and even in South Africa, highly risky, challenging and precarious, carving out options at home is a choice made by many, particularly after marriage and having kids. As the life histories show, there is much moving back and forth from home to places of work, often with very short-term contracts, coming back to help parents on farms in between. This is very far from the old migrant labour economy of the past. Without stability and ‘proper’ jobs, this is stressful, unrewarding and a perceived as a challenge to self-respect and identity.

Those who are resident in Wondedzo thus combine farm production, mixing some risky dryland maize growing with a more secure focus on small-scale horticulture, on a combination of land allocated by parents or accessed through various routes, sometimes illegally, along riverbanks and by dams. This is combined with what many refer to as ‘projects’. The life histories show a huge array of examples, including running a: shop, doing local hairdressing, running a grinding mill, brick moulding and selling, vending of everything from clothes to mobile phone juice cards’ to vegetables etc.

Across all the options that people are trying, there are vanishingly few opportunities for accumulation, and, with a few exceptions, full-time wage employment in a stable job (as imagined by so many of our Form IV school leavers) is simply not an option, given limited means, poor education and lack of access to key networks. This means in practice, small-scale irrigated agriculture is seen as the most viable option by many, and the one that many – men and women – are trying in Wondedzo, making use of their (grand)parents’ land.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland