The look of desolate and lifeless rural economies is a challenge for many African countries.
It’s no wonder we either resign ourselves to such a situation or do the little we can to at least ensure our rural dwellers have something to eat.
Yet as years go by not only do rural areas remain poor but young persons troop out to towns and cities in search of a better standard of living.
The drive by the Zimbabwean Government to transform rural livelihoods is most commendable. The success of the programme to a large extent depends on a radical mental transformation by state institutions in the way they perceive and respond to challenges of rural development.
History has shown us that simply putting a new dam, borehole or even nutrition garden is not enough.
Since independence the Zimbabwean Government has invested significantly in building new dams and supporting rural communities with agricultural inputs.
The results so far suggest only a few communities have transitioned from poverty into successful farmers and entrepreneurs. We need a paradigm shift in the way development in rural areas is structured.
The starting point is to recognize that the rural population is clear about what needs to be done. In most cases they need better access to markets and support in desired areas.
The Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) seems to have discovered the key to unlocking value in rural communities who largely depend on cattle rearing but have systematically failed to secure markets for their animals.
For the first time in many years the authority conducted Zimbabwe’s first open cattle market in Mpalawani area that borders Midlands and Matabeleland South.
The area which is administratively in Insiza district faces many developmental obstacles despite being surrounded by leading companies such as Unki, Mimosa, Murowa Diamonds, Zimasco and Palawani Lakeworld Resort.
The administrative centre is situated some 150 kilometers away which poses communication challenges. To make matters worse part of the communities place their allegiance to Midlands while others align with Matabeleland South.
The chiefs in Mpalawani are also divided on the basis of the two provinces. At some point a presidential commission was appointed to deal with the problems and recommendations are still being awaited.
It is no wonder that communities in Mpalawani have for a long period being getting the wrong end of the stick from middlemen who took advantage of their long distance from main cattle markets to offer sub economic prices.
Just as well, the community finally came together and realized that as long as the exploitative situation persisted, so too would be their collective impoverishment.
They approached the Agricultural Marketing Authority and sought to ensure that open cattle markets which were no longer being held in Zimbabwe are once again revived.
The regulator which has also been transforming itself into a relevant national body was alert to the opportunity and realised that it had the capacity to mobilize buyers and stakeholders to ensure that the anomaly was fixed.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 5.5 million herd of cattle most of which are held in rural areas. If you add other forms of livestock such as goats and chickens, it is evident that the rural population largely depends on livestock. With better prices and competitive markets lives in rural areas can betransformed in an instant.
Instead of single fly-by-night buyers who had now turned the cattle rich Mpalawani ‘s “De Beer” into a place they made quick riches from by buying cattle for as low as 60 cents per kg this first auction attracted 8 buyers.
A total of 137 cattle were brought on the day with over 80 being sold at no less than a dollar per kg for ‘live weight cattle’. The result was that villagers who used to earn less than US$ 200 per beast, this time around added an extra US$ 150. It was a good start and a lesson on how simply facilitating solutions to rural communities can have long lasting transformative power.
However, it was also evident that building rural markets would not be an event but a process requiring serious investment by a cross section of stakeholders.
A number of cattle farmers that participated in the first auction were neither conscious of the grade of their livestock nor aware of prevailing market prices.
A number were also seeking to make huge amounts of money without having invested in ensuring that their livestock were in the best shape.
The rural district council which benefits from levies from the open cattle markets could have prepared itself better. The measuring scale brought on the day was archaic and collapsed before use.
In the end auctioneers resorted to traditional methods of using a belt to approximate the weight of cattle that were being auctioned. Besides creating doubt in the farmer, this method dampened spirits of all who were at the inaugural market.
It was clear that for proper markets to function there is need to educate the farmers on many areas required to ensure their cattle are kept in best condition and sold at the right time and for the right price.
Mining companies such as Mimosa and Unki are investing in increasing population of livestock in their areas but require support to ensure that these programmers have a commercial outlook. The miners also require support by stakeholders in educating farmers to take care of donated beasts.
By working together, we not only minimize loss of capital but are able to direct efforts to ensuring that the rural farmer is enabled to transition from a perennial challenge of poverty.
In time it is possible that mining companies will start buying their food requirements from these same farmers. At this happens the once derided rural area becomes a place where young people can dream of making permanent homes.