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ZIMBABWE: Small-Scale Farmers Gearing Up to Take Cotton Buyers on

Stanley Kwenda

HARARE, Aug 19 2009 (IPS) - Zimbabweans like to believe that there is strength in numbers, which is the idea behind a local non-governmental organisation’s attempt to organise small-scale rural cotton farmers in cotton producer associations.

Cotton farmers at a meeting with ZIMCODD in Gokwe. Credit:  Stanley Kwenda/IPS

Cotton farmers at a meeting with ZIMCODD in Gokwe. Credit: Stanley Kwenda/IPS

The Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD), which campaigns for trade justice, has started the project as one possible solution to the problem of the small-scale farmers’ unsustainable livelihoods.

The associations serve as platforms where farmers share knowledge on the use of appropriate and affordable technologies aimed at increasing their agricultural produce. They help to establish strong working relationships between farmers and service delivery institutions and to create strong linkages with agribusinesses and lending institutions.

They are voluntary organisations formed by smallholder farmers to mobilise their resources for collective action. The aim is to commercialise smallholder farming practice using a high value commodity, such as cotton, as the vehicle for socio-economic transformation.

Initially the project, started in 2005, was about providing information to help farmers with market access issues but it now involves a broad range of issues.

“These associations help farmers negotiate and claim their rights to support services and market access from relevant authorities as well as lobbying for pro-farmer policies,” ZIMCODD director Dakarayi Matanga told IPS.

He added that his organisation is also taking a deliberate approach to promote the rights of female farmers who are usually marginalised in decision-making processes.

“This will result in marginalised women experiencing increased market access to support services and fair trade markets for their commodities,” Matanga said. “Men want to make decisions on behalf of women and youths. In this regard, producer associations ensure that women and youths can influence decision-making.”

The cotton sector in Zimbabwe was liberalised in 1994, following the commercialisation of the then Cotton Marketing Board (CMB) which became the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe (COTCCO).

The liberalisation meant that new players became buyers of cotton from small-scale farmers. The changes have been disadvantageous to small-scale cotton farmers who are being exploited by cotton buyers.

The cotton industry is marked by unjust national, regional and international trade policies for small-scale cotton farmers. The farmers have less bargaining power than the buyers. The negotiation process in the buying and selling of cotton takes place between two extremely unequal partners.

The farmers face challenges such as lack of organisation and manipulation by powerful players in the trade, which results in unfair contracts and low prices.

This state of affairs has led to unsustainable livelihoods and poverty in the rural areas where the farmers stay. In Zimbabwe, cotton is grown predominantly by small-scale communal farmers, with an estimated 220,000 households scattered across the country accounting for over 98 percent of the annual yield.

Gokwe and Sanyati areas are the prime cotton growing areas. People there live in poverty, with very little access to clean water and health facilities. Cotton is seen as their only way out of poverty.

ZIMCODD believes the cotton growers associations can assist farmers to effectively represent their interests. “There is a lack of a strong rural voice. The majority of smallholder farmers cannot influence agricultural policies to receive services that should be provided to make them successful farmers,” argued Matanga.

“They do not have much say in the pricing of both the inputs received in contract farming arrangements as well the outputs. The buyers are better organised at organisational and industry level through the Association of Cotton Buyers and Ginners of Zimbabwe.

“While some farmers are dependent on contract farming inputs because of their poverty, it could be true that the arrangement is perpetuating the farmers’ condition.”

ZIMCODD recently launched a translation of the WK Kellogg Foundation’s “Field Manual for Developing Commodity Associations”. The manual was translated into the vernacular Shona language as a practical guide for promoting effective organisation amongst smallholder farmers.

The organisation believes the manual will complement the producer associations initiative.

Zimbabwe National Farmers’ Union vice president Garikai Msika said unless issues to do with the production and marketing of cotton were addressed, cultivation of the crop as an agricultural option will falter.

“We have been getting a raw deal for a long time and we hope such help from civil society groups will help farmers get the true value of their crops,” Msika told IPS. “But that doesn’t mean that the government should not do anything for farmers.”

Msika wants to see the government raising the bar when it comes to the rewarding of farmers by bringing it on a par with other sub-Saharan countries.

Neighbouring Zambia is set to enact a Cotton Act meant safeguard the rights of farmers while, in Mozambique, the ministry of agriculture sets the producer price. In Uganda a Cotton Act that protects the interests of farmers is already in place.

Tanzania’s cotton industry is regulated by the long-established Tanzania Cotton Board, which has facilitated the growth of the industry in recent years. This has seen the country rising from seventh biggest lint exporter in Africa to third place in five years.

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