By Jeffrey Gogo
Mrs Marian Mbara had to throw caution to the wind because more than six tonnes of tomatoes had already gone bad due to too much rain.The thought of further loss because of flood-triggered impediments to markets was simply unbearable.

“The roads are bad, impassable even, but we had to sell,” the 43 year old small-scale farmer told The Herald Business.

She farms tomatoes on a one hectare plot at the western border of Rusape and Headlands (Village 9, Lesberry Farm), which she sells to supermarkets and individuals in Harare and Rusape.

“At some point, and for some time, the trucks carrying our produce had to drive through a rock pavement (ruware) for up to a kilometre or more, trying to avoid the bad gravel roads and the flooded narrow bridge at Hande river,” Mrs Mbara lamented.

After seeing off the worst of a devastating flood, small-holder farmers in Headlands now have to contend with tough hindrances to market access, a dilemma faced by many farmers across Zimbabwe, as harvests of maize, sorghum, millet, tobacco and other crops begin.

This is because the flooding of the last three months has left a number of roads in Headlands and elsewhere severely damaged, and bridges collapsed, making it difficult for farmers to deliver produce to markets, mostly to key markets in Harare.

The bill to repair the damage to road networks and bridges countrywide tops $100 million, according to Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister Dr Joram Gumbo.

He said $15 million is available so far to do the work, with additional funding to be secured from the roads authority, Zinara.

But the repairs aren’t coming quick enough in a season of expected plenteous harvest, one seen ending the hunger of the previous years of successive drought.

Mrs Mbara booked over $5 000 in losses from the six-tonne write-off of rotten tomato.

She went on to salvage up to 14 tonnes of the vegetable between December and February, after a hailstorm earlier on in the season had taken down its own share.

Much of the tomato has now been sold, but only because Mrs Mbara had to pay more for transport to get the produce to the market before it turned bad.

If ever they decided to take the plunge, some transporters of cargo inflated charges, she says, as most were unwilling to risk a drive through muddy road networks that could damage their vehicles.

“Often times vehicles got stuck in the mud,” Mrs Mbara said, adding “the cost of transporting the tomatoes to Harare eventually shot to $170 per load (of whatever tonnage) from $150 last year.”

Price volatility
Headlands is a prime farming district in Zimbabwe, receiving lots of rain each year.

Soils are moderately good, with tobacco, maize and a variety of horticultural crops widely grown in the area.

Most small farmers like Mrs Mbara take their produce to markets in Harare and Rusape.

But the flooding of Hande river had cut the link to Rusape while the roads connecting Lesberry Farm to Headlands, then onto Harare had been washed away, although passable by the brave.

Now, with the limit to what got to the market reaching a crescendo in the heavy January rain, restricting harvesting and deliveries, tomato prices doubled to $1,60 per kg.

Charles Dhewa, chief executive at agriculture research firm Knowledge Transfer Africa, believes the increasing unpredictability of rainfall patterns are disrupting the way markets function, and yet farmers are none the wiser.

“Climate Change is challenging our predictive capacity such as predicting price trends in the market,” Mr Dhewa said, by email.

He said the volatility in fresh produce prices at Mbare Musika, Harare’s biggest produce market, in January and February resulted from the fact that “no one is sure about rainfall patterns, including the Meteorological Services Department . . . ”

“We don’t have enough information on how much damage has been done to crops in farming areas. Farmers may be bringing to the market what they have salvaged from too much rainfall,” Mr Dhewa said.

“However, farmers who are going to be good at harvesting water will be in business the whole year if they are going to be doing horticulture or livestock.”

As roads and bridges connecting remote rural areas to major markets curved-in, isolating entire villages, this is the time rural councils should step-in and make markets available again to small farmers, says Paul Zakariya, chief executive of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU).

“This issue of markets will likely become more a rural district councils’ issue,” Mr Zakariya, whose organisation represents 1,3 million small farmers, told The Herald Business, by phone.

“The councils collect marketing levies from farmers for livestock and other commodities.

“This is where such money could be employed, to fix roads so that farmers can get access to markets on time.”

Mr Zakariya admitted farmers in rural areas “faced difficulty” in delivering crops to markets this marketing season on account of the damage to road infrastructure by heavy rain.

And with Zimbabwean farmers losing over 30 percent of their harvest to poor handling and storage, there are concerns limited market access could put a damper on a season expected to yield too much food.

But negating the vagaries of harsh climates and the attendant impacts, Mrs Mbara, the Headlands tomato farmer, remains hopeful.

“With farming you won’t go wrong,” she said, cheerfully.

God is faithful.

-The Herald