Commercialising horticulture in Zimbabwe: some case studies

Last week the blog offered an overview of horticulture growing across our research sites in Zimbabwe. The blog emphasised the importance of a ‘hidden middle’ connecting growers to a range of other activities, all generating employment.

This blog focuses on a number of case studies of producers distinguishing the more commercial growers from those who are developing a business by specialising in particular products, those who are operating as contract farmers and those who are aspiring producers, not yet able to invest in expanding to a more commercial operation. The cases are accompanied by a series of photographs taken over the past weeks, highlighting the diversity of operations.

As noted last week, horticulture is an important dimension of diversification of farming across our sites, facilitated by growing demand and the investment in small-scale irrigation. These producers are supported by local labour, both permanent and temporary, transporters who ferry produce to markets and various forms of financing, including investment from off-farm jobs, diaspora linked contracts for purchasing vegetables and contract growing of particular crops.

The commercial growers

There are an increasing number of commercial growers of vegetables across our sites. These are mostly men who have reduced their focus on dryland maize production and have invested in horticulture. Most have a pump based irrigation system (increasingly relying on a solar pump) and many have their own transport. They have developed good relationships with particular markets, including supermarkets and in one case diaspora buyers linked by mobile money transfers. While they concentrate on the dominant horticultural crops – notably tomatoes, cabbages and green leaf vegetables – they produce at scale and can guarantee sales through good market networks. All employ labour and generate a significant profit, certainly compared to relying on dryland cropping, although market constraints due to lockdowns during the pandemic presented problems for them all.

I am GD from Matobo district. The place lies 74 km from Bulawayo along Kezi Maphisa road. I am a father of two, and I was formerly employed as bank-teller, but now am a vegetable grower. I have ventured into cabbage and tomato production on the back of my successful broiler business. I am assisted by my family and two casual workers. I got a bank loan and bought a solar powered sand abstraction pump. I have a 0.5 hectare plot. I have a good relationship with Savemore supermarket in Maphisa. I make batch sales of cabbages with weekly deliveries using my own truck. For tomatoes, I sell in Bulawayo every Monday morning, delivering 20 crates, with each going for US$10.  My major challenge has been labour. Young men want a fast dollar and they will always flee my farm when the produce needed more attention.  I thought of an idea to give them a stable salary when producing, and then pay them on commission when the produce is reaching the market. This worked wonders and l am able to anticipate good profits. Across the year l have three tomatoes plots staggered to avail the produce all year round. After the US $400 production costs, I get $2000 profits per annum.

I am BK from near Mvurwi. I produce tomatoes all year round. I buy inputs from Agricura, Windmill and Farm and City in Mvurwi town. I make use of a free flow irrigation system, which works throughout the year. I hire tillage and also labour for weeding, trellising, spraying and so on. It’s a labour-intensive activity. I manage to get some pesticide and fungicides from tobacco farmers who get it on contract. I sell my output in Mvurwi and Guruve to local vendors depending on demand. I own a pickup truck, which I use for delivering tomatoes to the market centres.

I have a perennial garden and grow a whole variety of vegetables, plus also sugar cane. I have a reliable well now with a solar pump system. Vendors come from all over to buy from my garden. They all make a good living from selling my vegetables – mostly tomatoes and cabbages. During COVID we suffered a big problem as the police would stop people moving. They would demand permits, vaccination certificates and so on. It was a real problem for my business. Now it is OK again, but I have also diversified and grow sugar cane too, which is not perishable so can be stored. No one grows it nearby and I can get a good price, as it’s sold in the township and at the bus stop. My garden produce is very popular with diaspora people whose families live here. They transfer money electronically and it’s a good deal as it’s quick and efficient and in US dollars. A big problem is elephant damage, but we now have a project to produce chili cakes, which we burn at night. The Gonarezhou park people help us to do this, giving training to farmers. If we don’t elephants can destroy the garden in one night.  

The specialists

The case studies of specialist growers include those focusing on butternut, kale, oranges/grafted trees and water melons. In each case, a particular market has been sought out and the producers gear production towards the market, linking to it via mobile vendors or particular relationships with sellers, including supermarkets. These producers are commercialized, but on a slightly smaller scale. Without significant capitalization they have specialized and know their crop and its market well. All employ labourers and they all are investing in irrigated production. Technical knowledge is gained from a variety of sources, including training courses and support from agricultural extension workers.

I am a young man in a newly resettled farm in Clare in Gutu. I started my project of butternut production in 2020 after a long time of tomato production. I lost my tomatoes to disease, and going to market was a big challenge too, as my tomatoes rotted. This challenge makes me switch into butternut production. I have 0.2ha of butternut ready for marketing right now. I am looking to sell them in Masvingo and Gutu. I am also happy if I sell locally to neighbours and in Chatsworth township. I am expecting a big profit of about US$250-$300 this season. The major constraint is transport to market and the high cost of diesel for my engine pump. I am looking forward to install solar powered system if my produce fetches good prices at the market. Butternut has got more advantages compared to tomatoes. Shelf life; easy to transport to market; less diseases attack hence cost of inputs is minimised especially on chemicals. Also, butternut production has no stiff competition in the market. Last year I experienced cracks on my butternuts caused by cold and also powdery mildew on leaves. But through the help from Agritex staff I managed to overcome the problem. I have one permanent worker but at peak periods I employ more casual workers.

If you want an easy life in newly resettled area the only possible solution is to venture into horticulture production each and every day you get at least US$5-$10 in your pocket.  I am a newly resettled farmer allocated in Hillsbrough farm in Chatsworth area, Gutu. I have a small vegetable garden of about 0.8 ha. My main crop is Covo (Kale). 2021 is the year I started vegetable production project after comparing maize budget and horticulture production budgets with the help of my agricultural extension officer. With the little I get from maize production I managed to buy a 5000 litre tank with a small solar panel to pump water to my reservoir. This was done through the help of my family members and also with support from my councillor. I have about 0.2 ha of Covo, tomatoes, rape and watermelons. To me the market is not a major problem as I am close to the Harare-Masvingo highway. The local leadership helped me to source a market at Rufaro high school. Sometimes I supply Rufaro high with about 500-600kgs of Covo per month but competition there is very stiff. Sometimes the market supply gets flooded, which makes me dry my vegetables and sell them as mufushwa. Furthermore, I also travel as far as Zoma where I sell my produce to gold panners (makorokoza) at a price of US$1 per mug cup. I also sell my vegetables at Mwazha church conference at Chaka. It is about 2.5 kilometres from my garden to their meeting place. They gather there at least three times a year so I make sure I have something on those days. In terms of problems, I have a problem of pests, such as aphids and flies, and the cost of fertilizer is too high. For example, I bought 50 kgs of ammonium nitrate at US$46! I mixed it with compost and animal manure in order to save on cost. I am planning to drill a borehole if things go well next year. I have two workers during the peak period and I hire 2-3 casual workers to help me with harvesting. I am looking forward to expand my garden in the near future.

For some time, I worked in South Africa doing a variety of jobs. I ended up working in a citrus planation. It was like slave labour. I worked hard and earned little, but I did learn how to cultivate oranges and graft trees. I decided to return home and started my own orchard with oranges, lemons, guavas. I sell these at the small-scale farms, to the Zimbabwe Republic Police station, to the workers at the hospital, to rangers at Gonarezhou, at circumcision parties and to local vendors in Chikombedzi township. I also now sell grafted trees and sold 300 this year. I get inputs from cross-border traders who come from South Africa as the price is cheap. It’s good business and now my life is definitely better.

My father worked at Hippo Valley and one time there was a free course on horticulture. I attended and learned a lot. That is where my passion started. It then increased when I worked in South Africa. First as a haulage driver and then later with an agricultural inputs company. I learned about farming, including irrigation there. I decided to return home and set up my project. I bought a 5 HP engine for pumping and started with green maize growing for selling in Chikombedzi township. It was good money, but I decided to switch when I saw the demand for melons. This is my main focus these days. I make a good profit, even in times when rainfall is low. I sell to vendors who come from afar, as well as to government offices and workers in Chikombedzi. I am the biggest supplier in the area and my melons are sold in Chiredzi and as far as Masvingo. Problems include getting fuel for the pump, as we don’t have service stations nearby. The biggest problem is elephants though, so we have to protect our gardens, even at night. I employ labour for weeding and hire tractors for ploughing and opening up irrigation furrows. I pay for all this from my garden’s profit, but also from building projects that I do in the area.

The contract farmer

Contract arrangements are springing up for a variety of horticultural crops with particular markets. In this case, the focus is on chili production, supported by the national park trust, which has linked to an company so that chilies can be made available for making cakes for burning and deterring elephants.

I belong to the Kacholo chili project, which was set up by Gonarezhou National Park. Chillis are used for scaring elephants. We burn them around our farms, and it helps scare the elephants that come from the park. I am contracted to grow 3,000 plants this year.  We get USD 1.75 per kilogramme. It’s not bad money, but the company gets lots of money as the chillis are valued all over the world, and there are lots of export markets, as well as the local use for scaring elephants.

The aspiring gardener

There are many aspiring gardeners who are upgrading a ‘backyard’ type operation. The key to scaling up production is the opportunity to irrigate and to secure labour.

I have a garden that I established with the help of my husband. Sadly, he passed away and I was left alone. I only have a brushwood fence and animals can get into the place. I am also no longer young and work is hard. However I do my best and vendors come and buy vegetables from my garden. They come with donkey carts, cars and so on. I sell to those who cook at the big open-air markets in the area (bacosi). They want vegetables for relish particular for the month-end markets. It’s a good business. I am hoping to raise enough money to buy a pump, but for now I am watering by bucket from the well that was built from money that my late husband had from his temporary teacher job.

This is the last of eight ‘hidden middle’ blogs focusing on maize, poultry and horticulture. We are now working on two more blog series, one on ‘technology’, the other on ‘finance’, again highlighting how innovation is occurring across farming areas, with pathways to agricultural development in Zimbabwe emerging that are not of the ‘textbook’ sort. The blog will be taking a break for a few weeks while this work is completed. As in previous elections (see here for 2018 and for 2013 – also here), I was planning a blog on election manifestos and their positions on agriculture, land and rural development, but a month out from the 2023 election there are it seems still no manifestos out., but watch out for a quick reflection blog if they appear.

Thanks are due to the team in Chikombedzi, Triangle, Masvingo, Gutu, Mvurwi and Matobo and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating the work and compiling the huge amount of information and many photos taken by the team, a few of which are included here.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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