Small-scale agricultural mechanisation is taking off in Zimbabwe

A couple of weeks ago, the FAO hosted a massive gathering on ‘Sustainable agricultural mechanisation’, with the tag line efficiency, inclusivity, resilience. There were about 8000 delegates at the hybrid event and the FAO gave it a high profile. Agricultural mechanisation is back after a long hiatus. But the question remains, what type of mechanisation for whom?

At the exhibition linked to the conference in Rome, manufacturers from across the world displayed their wares. The emphasis was on high-tech solutions for ‘precision’, ‘smart’ agriculture that were going to boost production efficiency. Robots, drones, satellite-based applications and artificial intelligence supported machines were all advertised in the FAO pitch.

But are these the styles of mechanisation that small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe want? Probably not. This blog kicks off a short series on what we have been finding out across our sites. Clearly there is a growing demand for mechanisation – for production, processing, transport and more – but the technologies need to be appropriate in scale, capital requirements and the ability to repair when they go wrong.

Agricultural mechanisation: the allure of the big machine

Mechanisation was all the rage in agricultural development policy several decades ago. New machines for tillage, cultivation, processing and so on were going to address labour shortages, boost productivity and generate income. Big programmes were set up and departments in ministries of agriculture established, many – including in Zimbabwe – still operating.  Large, expensive, two-axle tractors were often at the centre of these efforts.

Zimbabwe, like many countries, has been seduced by the narrative of tractorisation over many decades, but as much research has discovered – from the early post-Independence support of tractors through the District Development Fund (studied by Jo Rusike for his Masters’ thesis back in 1988) to the more recent More Food Africa tractors from Brazil – the story has not been all positive. Tractors are expensive, difficult to maintain and for small farms really don’t make sense, while the collective arrangements for shared use don’t always work. That said, in the post-land reform resettlement areas where farm sizes are larger, there remains a big demand, especially as cattle populations have declined due to drought, disease and so on.

This blog series however doesn’t focus on the shiny new technologies being promoted by the FAO exhibition, nor get into the old tractor debate (see earlier blogs here and here for some commentary), but on the less obvious, but perhaps more important set of innovations that farmers are making use of these days.

Alternative styles of mechanisation: more hidden, less flashy

In the last decade or so there has been for example a massive expansion of small plot irrigation, requiring a mix of pumps, pipes and increasingly solar electricity generation. This is the case especially in the land reform areas where the opportunities to invest are higher. These modular units are cheap, flexible and can be scaled up when farmers get enough profit to warrant it. There are few barriers to getting started, meaning that nearly everyone can buy a small Chinese-made irrigation pump and start growing vegetables. This has been vitally important for young people without significant land as they carve out a living in the resettlement areas.

The way irrigation equipment is deployed is incredibly varied, with interesting adaptations to allow for water storage, focused irrigation delivery and the moving of pipes between different plots to allow irrigation water to be delivered accurately and efficiently. This is in some ways the ‘precision’ agriculture celebrated by the FAO, but without the need for robots, satellites or AI.

The scale of innovation across a diversity of forms of mechanisation surprised us as we dug into what was going on in each of our sites. We had seen more machines being used – beyond the old standards such as grinding mills – but the extent of their use and interestingly their adaptation to local circumstances was striking.

In debates about mechanisation, some claim that new forms of machinery can be labour displacing, resulting in the squeezing out of smaller operators and farm labour. Mechanisation is therefore a route to farm consolidation and so commercialisation. However, this narrative doesn’t chime with the realities on the ground as CIMMYT- led research found in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Small-scale operations are often the most efficient and may have crucial deficits in labour and other forms of power. Mechanisation in such settings rarely results in the wholesale displacement of one type of farm power (human labour) with another (machines); instead, mechanisation is used selectively to relieve particular bottlenecks and so boost efficiency, but without major displacement of labour.

This is a similar story that researchers have found in the middle hills of Nepal where a massive expansion of small-scale engines linked to pumps, threshers, shellers and tractors has allowed farmers to stay on the land, improve production and do so at reasonable cost. The same goes for Bangladesh where machines are used across many, many small land parcels and are scale-appropriate, whether two-wheeled tractors or small-scale transport.

Participatory design and manufacture

The arrival of locally manufactured and co-designed machinery in farming areas can instead generate employment. In the workshops and garages in our study area, there are many people generating incomes from making everything from wheelbarrows to scotch carts to ploughs and cultivators.

No longer do people rely on the standard manufacturers bought from the agro-dealers in the big towns at a price. Instead, the entrepreneurs working in workshops in small townships in the rural areas or on the farms themselves are copying existing designs and manufacturing them at a much lower cost.

They are also adapting these standard formats in discussion with farmers – there is now massive variation in a standard cultivator, mouldboard plough or thresher, for example, as different elements are added to improve the machine’s use. In the subsequent blogs we will look at some examples of this flourishing innovation.

Principles for agricultural mechanisation

What are the principles at the centre of the processes of mechanisation that we see in rural Zimbabwe?

These are low tech, low cost designs that can be manufactured locally with local expertise, materials and equipment. The engineering is ‘good enough’, not top quality, and machines can be replaced easily or repaired. They can work together with other purchased equipment – such as cheap engines or solar panels/pumps imported from China or elsewhere – and can be deployed in a modular way so as to be flexible and adaptive. The equipment can be repaired locally and adapted easily, through some simple welding for example, changing the design incrementally.

Crucially, the process of innovation is interactive, with farmers being very much part of discussions on design, then testing out prototypes and adapting to local circumstances. This is a participatory style of design, engineering and manufacture suited to the context, and very much located in the rural areas, rather than some remote engineering firm as before.

At the FAO event, participants were asking what is ‘sustainable mechanisation?’ The answer probably lies in the practices seen in Zimbabwe’s rural areas rather than the flash, expensive equipment being displayed in the Rome exhibition: in what some call ‘appropriate mechanisation’. In the next few weeks, we will share some examples in three key areas where mechanisation is becoming increasingly important – production, processing and transport – before concluding with some reflections on scaling up such processes through policy support.     

Thanks to Steve Biggs for sharing some his work with Scott Justice, David Lewis and others (linked above), including an excellent as yet unpublished paper on “Rural and Agricultural Mechanization in the Himalayan Rural Economy: The Spread of Small Engines in the Nepal Mid-Hills”. Also thanks are due to Frédéric Baudron who shared the findings of the ACIAR-funded FACASI project (Farm Mechanization & Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification) and many linked publications. This much more in-depth work from elsewhere in Africa and across Asia gave us confidence that what we were observing in our sites is a much wider phenomenon worthy of further study and policy attention. And of course thanks to the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Masvingo, Gutu and Chikombedzi for documenting what is going on and sending the photos that appear in the blog.

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

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