Subsistence in sub-Saharan Africa

Stephen Garrett reports on a visit to the Sizanani Women’s Co-operative in Zimbabwe

Earlier this year I made an exploratory field trip to the small village of Bambanani, in the region of Filabusi in south west Zimbabwe. It was part of a PhD research project I am undertaking into a ‘farmers market’ model of direct-sales food retailing amongst smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Filabusi is in the Matebeleland South province in Zimbabwe. It is the district capital of Insiza and a service centre for the surrounding mining and farming areas. Filabusi was originally created in 1899 as a mining settlement, serving several different local areas. In the past, it was a major producer of gold but all the mines are now closed. Mining in the Filabusi area is now mainly small-scale gold mining. Agriculture comprises cattle ranching and small-scale farming –  the latter mainly on recent resettlement land.

I chose this location partly because I have had links with Zimbabwe in the past, undertaking several projects and was keen to continue working there. I was invited to visit the Bambanani village by Bekezele Nsingo, founder of the Cardiff-based African Mothers Foundation International. This provides support to a group of women in Bambanani, which happens to be Bekezela’s home village. They have set up the ‘Sizanani’ cooperative to undertake a number of overlapping activities including a food-growing horticulture project with which they aim to grow food for themselves and  produce a surplus for sale in the nearest city of Bulawayo 100 kilometres away.

I was keen to find out more about whether a group like Sizanani could in fact generate income from a relatively small piece of land by producing vegetables on a small scale and by marketing their produce directly to the public in a a relatuvely far-flung urban centre.

A core aim of the trip was to gain first-hand knowledge of the social, legal, economic and political context in which Sizanani’s food growing cooperative is operating. I wanted to devise a ‘research question’ which would give me the best chance of understanding how smallholder producers in Zimbabwe have accessed markets. I wanted a clearer idea of the problems facing market development for small producers, and at the same time to be of practical benefit to the Sizanani cooperative itself and its future development.

I feel this aim is in keeping with my general perspective on the purpose of my research –  that it should combine academic rigour, comprehensiveness and informed insight, with contributing to the general pool of knowledge in this particular field. Above all, I wanted to contribute some practical value in supporting the Sazanani cooperative.

I spent nine days in Zimbabwe. Soon after my arrival, it became apparent that there would be some practical limitations to the information I could gain in such a short period of time. Phone communication was erratic, and appointments with key staff at an institutional level were hard to set up and subject to last-minute changes. In spite of this, I was able to have several interesting meetings and generated some useful thoughts and ideas on how to progress my research.

Bekezela acted as my host person, together with her extended family contacts. She was able to organise and expedite the many difficulties associated with day-to-day living in a country whose economy and infrastructure has decayed so much, especially its transport and accommodation.

I spent roughly half my time staying in a small but comfortable house at Bambanini, and half my time staying with the family of a woman involved with the Sizanani coop, at her house in a suburb of Bulawayo. The amenities at both places were basic but completely adequate, and supplemented by an extraordinary level of kindness and hospitality. There was no running water, or electricity at the village – some felt this was due political reasons since nearby villages had been given access to power. Water was brought in from a nearby well and heated over open fires. One or two solar panels were available in the village to enable the charging of mobile phones and laptops. At certain specified high spots in the village – generally marked out with a special stick – it was possible to get a mobile phone signal. There was talk of internet access possibly coming to the village at some point in the not too distant future.

The day after I arrived at Bambanani, there was due to be a ‘launch’ event to formally and publicly celebrate the growth of the Sizanani food-growing project. However, on the evening before the event was scheduled, it transpired that the police in the administrative centre of Filabusi, about an hour’s drive away, did not feel that they had been given sufficient notice of the event to allow it to proceed. A delegation of three grandmothers from the village were immediately dispatched to visit the police to see what could be done One of them insisted that if permission was not granted for the event, she would ‘tear off her clothes’ as an expression of protest.

Nothing was heard back from them until the next morning, when we were informed that everything was agreed. Until this point there had been a real fear on the part of local residents that the event should be cancelled, and also that I should have to leave the village immediately and return to Bulawayo to avoid any difficulties with the police. Possibly naively, I was unwilling to do this – to the misplaced admiration of the village elders – as I had barely had time to unpack.

This small incident illustrates the level of concern and fear which local villagers feel with regard to the police and to government agencies in general. This particular part of Matabeleland is known to have supported the Movemenet for Democratic Change (MDC) in the last election. As a result it has been on the receiving end of some dramatic incidents of violence and retribution from the police and the army over the years. So there is an understandable insistence on the part of the Sizanani co-op that their activities are consistently apolitical. The aim is to defuse any possible negative perception or reaction by government agencies.

On the morning of the garden launch event, several local government agency staffers arrived at the village, and significant group of local VIP’s had gathered. We all walked down to a makeshift shelter which had been set up next to Sizanani’s food growing garden. By this time all of the Sizanani co-op members were present, in their smart matching yellow shirts which had been donated by the Cardiff group. A cow had been slaughtered, to provide food for everyone at the conclusion of the event.

Children from the two nearest secondary schools were present. I could only look on in amazement at their stoicism as they sat out in the full heat of the sun listening to a series of what seemed like very long speeches from the worthies who were present. The numerous speeches were generally delivered in Ndebele and translated by a local teacher into English – primarily for my benefit, I suspect – and indespersed by a number of songs, plays and dances performed by the children.

It was encouraging to hear the high level of praise and support from all the speakers for the Sizanani horticulture project. Even taking into account the possibly limited value of any fine words uttered by politicians on such an occasion, the group must have felt encouraged and relieved that their efforts were being appreciated and recognised, in principle at least, by the local powers-that-be. A group of CIO (secret police) arrived in a white pickup truck in the middle of the proceedings, apparently to check that there was no political content to the event, and left seemingly satisfied before the end.

The Sizanani food growing project has some significant advantages. The land on which their Garden is located seemed of good quality, and there was a perennial spring close by. This access to water was a particularly important factor, because rainfall has been very erratic in the region in recent years, and crops regularly fail as a result of drought. There is a committed local group, and ongoing support from AMFI in Cardiff.

At the same time, Sizanani  have some serious obstacles to overcome. – The most basic is probably the need for a pumping system to  convey water to the garden instead of the time-honoured method of buckets balanced on the heads of the women. Some of the co-op members are in their seventies if not older, and so this seemed an unnecessarily severe way of solving the irrigation problem.

I also felt that the area of land which they had under cultivation was small in comparison with the scale of their ambitions. However, I was encouraged by the abundance of available land adjacent to the Garden which Sizanani had been given permission to use by the village chief, provided they could secure the resources necessary to put up fencing strong enough to keep out the many cattle which range freely in the area.

A neighbouring farmer was rumoured to have a hand-operated water pump for sale, and I visited him to have a look at this and at his operation in general. He was considered to be one of the most successful farmers in the village, and this was reflected in the scale and diversity of his smallholding. It included a shed for a number of chickens which were being raised for sale, and several well-irrigated fields of maize and other vegetables. He confirmed that he felt there was a great potential for vegetable production in the area, and that the soil was fertile – provided the irrigation problems could be sorted out. After looking at the pump, I realised that a solar pump would be a much more cost effective and efficient solution to the irrigation problem.

After two more days in Bambanani talking to local people in the village, Sizanani members and the local Councillor I relocated to the city of Bulawayo. The second largest city in Zimbabwe after the capital Harare, it has a population of 1.5 million. It is located in Matebeleland, 439 kilometres southwest of Harare. A first priority for me there, was to look at the range and type of fresh produce markets in the city. Partly due to the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, there has been a proliferation of what appears to be largely unregulated vending on the streets. Certain locations are well-known as ‘bend-over bazaars’ – because all goods are laid out on the ground and require customers to bend over to look at them. Vendors here seem to be a mix of relatively well organised stalls selling produce and items which they have in turn purchased from wholesalers, alongside a wide range of ‘micro vendors’ selling either small amounts of vegetables which they have grown themselves, or minimally capitalised items such as sweets and a variety of household goods. The central bus station is the site of one of the largest bazaars,  with a selection of stalls geared to the rural population which passes through, selling such items as cattle bells, steel baths, and harnesses as well as food for consumption on the buses.

The quality of the produce available at the markets and bend-over bazaars was very variable. However, with careful shopping around it was possible to find good quality produce at a fair price. Everything was priced in US Dollars or South African rand. In addition to the street bazaars there were several more formally organised small fresh produce markets in central Bulawayo, with attractive looking produce, some of which was locally grown and some bought in and imported. Prices were slightly higher, but there seemed to be plenty of customers. I felt these would be the ideal type of selling location for the Sizanani’ produce. In contrast, the quality of the fresh produce in the supermarkets I visited was abysmal. The idea of purchasing vegetables at such stores has apparently not yet become a part of mainstream life in Zimbabwe, for reasons of price and, I would surmise,  tradition.

The very busy and bustling atmosphere of the market areas was in sharp contrast to the shops and department stores in the city, which are often deserted, with an air of indifference and despondency on the part of the few staff still lucky enough to be employed in them.

Bulawayo city centre seems busy enough, but the low level of consumer activity reveals the parlous state the Zimbabwean economy. There is a 95 per cent unemployment rate and currently the lowest life expectancy of any country in the world. I visited several formerly thriving small industrial centres on the outskirts of the city in search of a water pump. However, many of the units were closed or semi-derelict – the result of a combination of intermittent power supplies, a collapsed economy and no type of government support. This is all the more depressing when it is remembered that up until ten years ago Zimbabwe had a thriving economy and agricultural sector and was considered to be ‘the breadbasket of Africa’.

People in the city do whatever they can to survive. Margaret, the woman I was staying with in Bulawayo, was typically entrepreneurial. She and several of her neighbours had collaborated to purchase thirty day-old chicks which were kept in her front room and looked after on a rota system by the group for five weeks, at which point the chickens were shared out as a source of relatively cheap protein. Considerations of animal welfare – or even of the health risks of sharing a house with a bunch of chickens – were clearly a luxury by people who were mainly concerned with ensuring they could feed themselves and their families on a day-to-day basis. Margaret also made and sold candles and floor polish to her neighbours.

My first formal meeting in Bulawayo was with the regional director of the British Council. She had lived in Bulawao since the seventies, and during an hour or so gave me an in-depth insight into recent political history, the current state of the local economy and the main issues which are being faced by the city’s people. This was useful background for understanding the otherwise rather hidden social, economic and political realities of the area. The picture she painted was not a pretty one, with high levels of deprivation and apparent government indifference.

From an earlier contact made at the recent Commonwealth Local Government Conference in Cardiff, I had already arranged to meet J.J. Ndebele, Bulawayo’s Chief planning officer. I recorded an interview with him covering his perspectives on the food selling plans of the Sizanani group, and also an update on the ambitious urban agriculture activities currently underway in the city. JJ, as he likes to be known, was very supportive of Sizanani’s plans. He said the city was in the process of constructing a new market on the outskirts specifically to provide a location for small producers to trade their goods directly with the public.

In the meantime, JJ felt that the Sizanani group should have no trouble finding a stall in one of the existing fresh produce markets in the city, where they could sell directly to the public, or could sell their produce to another market vendor who would ‘sell it on’. This option would be less time consuming for Sizanani, but would result in a lower return to the group. They will have to weigh up the pros and cons of similar alternatives as they develop their business plan.

As a result of this meeting, I then paid a visit to a peri-urban food production project about twenty minutes from the centre of Bulawayo, which has received support from JJ’s department as well as from several NGOs which are active in the area such as World Vision. This project was adopting a combination of intense rabbit and chicken raising,  cultivation of mushrooms and horticulture in aiming to create a viable enterprise which would feed and employ up to forty people (mostly women) from the surrounding area. The project seemed very well organised, and there was a high level of pride and optimism amongst the participants.

The next day I had a very constructive meeting at the Lupane State University’s Bulawayo base with the Vice-chancellor, the Registrar and two senior lecturers. This is a relatively new university has a particular interest in agriculture and rural development. All were very enthusiastic about the possibility of establishing a link with the Sizanani project, and of supporting them with specialist knowledge and information about food growing. The project was also seen as a possible location for students to undertake field research around a number of interrelated agricultural and rural development themes. Another level of interest was in establishing links with the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cardiff University, They promised to prepare a draft Memorandum of Agreement which could be circulated and agreed between the two institutions.

My aim with this initial field trip visit to Zimbabwe was to form an overview of current local food production and marketing practices in the area. I wanted to assess the opportunities for an expanded level of local food production and marketing, and the legal, practical and cultural obstacles facing the Sizanani women’s co-operative in setting up a small horticultural enterprise which would sell surplus production from their garden plot at a market stall in the nearby city, and to explore other marketing opportunities.

The project seems to have the full support of local and national government representatives, as well as from the city planning department and a strong interest from the Lupane State University. As such I feel that it merits further research and has the potential to yield information which could contribute to a worthwhile research project which would be of interest and value to similar food growing and marketing initiatives in the region, and in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Stephen Garrett is founder of the Riverside Community Market Association in Cardiff.

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