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ZIMBABWE: Farmers Can't Afford to Leave Markets – Literally

Tonderai Kwidini

HARARE, Aug 19 2008 (IPS) - It is a wintry Tuesday evening at one of the tobacco auction floors in the Zimbabwean capital Harare. A group of small-scale tobacco farmers are preparing food for the night.

Small-scale farmer Ruth Chikweya working on her land near Harare. Credit:  Tonderai Kwidini/IPS

Small-scale farmer Ruth Chikweya working on her land near Harare. Credit: Tonderai Kwidini/IPS

This is the second week for some of them in Harare after their arrival at the tobacco auction floors to sell their produce. They have just been paid 20 Zimbabwean dollars (re-valued), or one U.S. dollar on the parallel market, as initial cash payment for their produce.

But this amount is hardly enough to cover a day's costs for a single person in the hyper-inflationary Zimbabwean environment, where a loaf of bread is priced above one U.S. dollar.

The rest of the payment is made in cheques. But accessing the cash is a tall order for the farmers as a result of constant cash shortages. Several banks have closed their rural branches where most of the farmers reside. As a result farmers are now forced to travel to the city to get money.

After selling their produce at the markets, farmers are left stranded as they still do not have enough cash to pay for transport home. Farmers are forced to seek sanctuary at markets and auction floors in the capital.

The deaths of 14 farmers in a truck accident in June this year has led to a chorus of farmers calling for the establishment of centralised markets. The farmers died when the lorry they were travelling in plunged into a river while on its way to Harare's Mbare Musika market.

In the past there were several markets around the country where buyers interested in different types of produce would converge. But all this changed as a result of the chaotic farm invasions of 2000, which left many farming communities resembling ghost towns.

Most of the farming communities, such as Mhangura, Mvurwi, Chipinge, Chegutu and Karoi, were a hive of activity but all this is now a thing of the past. Some of the former trading centres are now being used as storage facilities by non-governmental organisations.

‘‘Farming now means nothing to us because, even if we work hard in the fields, it is not helping. When you sell your produce, the money you get is useless and the cheques take time to clear. This is our second week here. We are waiting for the money from the bank,’’ Cecilia Madzanise, a small-scale tobacco farmer from Concession, a farming community located about 80 km from Harare, told IPS.

It costs 50 Zimbabwean dollars (re-valued), or 2,50 U.S. dollars, for her to travel back to her rural home. But when she sold her produce she was given an initial payment of 20 Zimbabwean dollars. She now lives on credit because she has no money to return to Concession.

‘‘It is better for them to bring the markets to us so that we don't waste money travelling to Harare where we end up stranded like this. The money we are being paid is very little and accessing it is difficult too,’’ Madzanise said.

She is just one of the many farmers calling for the establishment of centralised markets in rural areas to reduce the distance that farmers have to travel to reach markets in the cities.

The farmers are currently paying high transport costs to take their produce to the markets. Efforts to establish transport clubs where a group of farmers from a particular area hire a truck together have not worked. Transporters, seeking to maximise profits, are charging them individually.

Small-scale fresh farm producers have been the hardest hit. They have to travel to the cities at least once a week with their produce. Previously they would meet the trucks with their produce in the towns but now it is a common sight to see them perched on top of vegetables or tomato crates on trucks in a bid to try and cut costs, risking their lives in the process.

‘‘We are wasting a lot of money on food and transport costs travelling to Harare. Had the market been in the rural areas or if the buyers came to buy in the rural areas, it would be better. Now we can't pay school fees or buy food for our families because all the money goes towards travel costs,’’ Alec Ngwende, a small-scale vegetable farmer from Chihota communal lands, east of Harare, told IPS.

Andrew Ferreira, the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association president, supports the establishment of regional markets: ‘‘From the growers’ perspective, anything that eases the transport problems is a plus. But we have to be careful with how we do it because it also affects the prices that will be paid for the produce.’’

Some of the traditional buyers from Europe who procured goods directly from small-scale farmers have since stopped, in protest against the country's human rights record. Europe's largest supermarket chain, Tesco, announced its withdrawal in June this year.

An official with Zimbabwe's Fresh Produce Producers Association said Tesco was their biggest customer in Europe, buying 50 percent of the association's products.

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