Agriculture Business Food

How fragmented agricultural projects are undermining African food systems

Agricultural market

By Charles Dhewa

If there was more harmony and consolidation between agricultural interventions in Africa, most African countries would have defeated food and nutrition insecurity many years ago. Unfortunately, it seems there are people who benefit more from projectizing agricultural interventions than properly organizing and coordinating food systems.

Fragmentation is due to the fact that most agricultural interventions are driven from the outside with agendas that are different from the needs of smallholder farmers and local economies. Like other African countries, Zimbabwe has seen an increase in multi-year agricultural programs that leave smallholder farmers and rural communities worse off. As if that is not enough, the programs are evaluated by external consultants chosen by the funders, not by intended beneficiaries. Authentic voices of beneficiaries are excluded from evaluation reports in order to preserve continuous funding.

Zimbabweans have endured massive agricultural programs like the famous seven-year Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP)[1]. Funded by DFID to the tune of GBP 68.5 million, the LFSP failed to prevail on high poverty levels in districts where it was implemented.

Among other several disjointed interventions by diverse organizations, the LFSP has overlapped with another seven-year programme (2016 – 2023) known as the Smallholder irrigation Revitalization Programme (SIRP)[1], funded to the tune of USD53.34 million by the International Fund for Development (IFAD) and OPEC Fund for International Development. Coming on the heels of SIRP is another seven-year Smallholder Agriculture Cluster Project (SACP[2]) (2022- 2027), worth USD67.43 million, from the same funders.
Not to be outdone in the agricultural funding competition have been development organizations from other countries including Americans, the Japanese, and European Union that have supported projects that do not speak to each other in similar or adjacent districts. For example, under the €40 million Zimbabwe Agricultural Growth Programme (ZAGP[3]), the European Union has been funding several initiatives including the Transforming Zimbabwe’s Dairy Value Chain (TransDVC) which started in 2019 and has been extended by another 12 months. The European Union has also just announced a €400 million facility to support climate change, gender equality, empowerment, and drought-tolerant farming practices.

Whose role is it to coordinate and harmonize agricultural interventions?

With all these programmes and others not mentioned, why should hunger, starvation and food aid be the order of the day in Zimbabwe? In spite of being the biggest government department in Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development has failed to organize, coordinate and harmonize agricultural interventions for the good of farmers and the whole economy. If the ministry was up to the task, the minister, his two deputies, the Permanent Secretary, and dozens of Chief Directors would not allow a situation where many people continue to survive on food aid when millions of pounds, Euros, and United States dollars are poured into Zimbabwe in the name of agriculture development.


One of the critical approaches fuelling the fragmentation of agricultural interventions is the long-held tendency of external development agencies to select a few districts in which to concentrate their activities. In a country of 60 rural districts, what impact can be achieved by randomly cherry-picking 14 districts like what the Smallholder Agriculture Cluster Project (SACP) has done? If this project had taken an authentic food systems approach, it would have realized that districts do not exist in isolation. All districts exchange food, seed, and other resources in sustainable ways that are not visible to development agencies and policymakers. Paying attention to such dynamics can add more value than using less informed criteria to select participating districts. For instance, what criteria were used to exclude Guruve and Mbire district from beneficiary districts in Mashonaland Central?
From a food systems perspective, there is a close relationship between Mbire and Muzarabani districts which can be destroyed by external interventions like SACP which do not pay attention to existing relationships, food flows, trends and local socio-economic trends built over years. More importantly, some development organizations are already working in Mashonaland East districts of Murehwa, Mutoko, and UMP such that lack of consultation and coordination will see too much duplication of efforts and multiple claims of impact. In Matebeleland North, careful baseline work could have revealed to SACP implementers that it does not make socio-economic sense to target the Lupane district and leave out the Tsholotsho district since the two districts have strong ties which outlive external interventions and have a bearing on the resilience of local food systems.
Genuine market development as a coordination framework
While market development has been mentioned as a key pillar in almost all programme documents, nothing tangible has been done on the ground to solve perennial market challenges affecting farmers for decades.  Instead, the majority of farmers continue to depend on mass food markets that are characterized by poor infrastructure. Limiting the notion of market linkages to formal systems like abattoirs, butcheries, processing companies, and supermarkets has led to development organizations and the ministry of agriculture providing piecemeal solutions. They have ignored mass markets which take more volumes of commodities than all formal market institutions combined. Support has not been extended to market systems in the form of market infrastructure and logistics. If SIRP had bought a truck for at least one irrigation scheme, farmers would not be depending on public transport to take their fresh commodities to the market. What is the point of investing in irrigation infrastructure when excess produce cannot be taken to the market?
Need for a new playbook that tracks commodities in transit
A critical component of organizing and coordinating food systems that should be supported by the ministry of agriculture and development organizations is putting in place systems for tracking commodities in transit. It is now common knowledge that more than 75% of food commodities in Zimbabwe are distributed through mass markets. Various modes of transport move these commodities from production zones to mass markets. The modes of transport include hired or owned trucks ranging from 1 to 30 tonner depending on the distance to market and type of commodity.
Another channel is a self-organized public transport system comprising conventional long-distance buses. Also common is hitchhiking vehicles in transit like trucks. Different transport systems used to move commodities from production zones to markets are a major contributor to uncoordinated and disorganized supply to markets as there is no system to track which mode of transport is carrying which commodities, in what quantities, from where and times commodities get to the market. Absence of a monitoring system for trucks and all modes of transport moving commodities from production zones to markets and markets to markets (for example, Harare – Bulawayo), means policymakers do not have a distributed monitoring system for commodities.
Food supply chains and distribution systems are a combination of commodities and the mode of transport carrying those commodities – where the commodity is coming from, and where it is during transportation from the intended destination. Introducing a tracking system will make it becomes easy to track commodities through trucks. In other words, tracking will not focus on physical vehicles but the load – what quantities are in transit, what commodity types, sizes, and volumes, where are they going and where are they now? This type of information is needed by the market to avoid cases where commodities just ambush the market.
Like any other business, for markets readiness is key. They need to know what to expect in the next hour, day or week. Such readiness ensures sanity and proper organization within the market. It is that level of organization missing in most African countries, contributing to high food losses. When farmers are not linked to markets and transporters, they end up using two to three modes of transport in one journey, which is very costly.  Most attempts to build local markets by development agencies and government have failed because they have not paid sufficient attention to the role of data in organizing and coordinating food systems. That has to change if true food systems transformation is to be a reality not a just a slogan.
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Byron Adonis Mutingwende