Macadamias to Marigold Seeds Spark Hope for Zimbabwe Farm Reboot

(Bloomberg) -- Walking through rows of macadamia trees on her farm in eastern Zimbabwe, Shalet Mutasa proudly displays a set of soil-quality results showing the fields’ conditions are improving.

This will be her third harvest of the creamy white nuts after switching from less-profitable corn. Mutasa, who is in her mid-50s and was allocated the previously white-owned land by the government, is targeting 20 metric tons of production. That’s nearly double last year’s crop and a big jump from the half a ton she managed the first year.

“It will be third-time lucky,’’ she said. “We initially grew maize but later realized the crop wasn’t rewarding financially,” she said, using another name for corn.

The expansion of niche and export-oriented crops like macadamias and flower seeds may signal the sustained return of Zimbabwean farm products to international markets after a 16-year hiatus caused by the turmoil of the government’s land reform program. In 2000, President Robert Mugabe’s supporters began an often-violent seizure of most of the country’s white-owned farm land.

Production Slump

The program drew international condemnation of Zimbabwe’s government and slashed agricultural production, decimating foreign-exchange earnings from tobacco and turning the country from a corn exporter to an importer of its staple food.

As a percentage of gross domestic product, “Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector remains low at around 10 percent -– obviously much lower than at the start of the 21st century,” Chantelle Matthee, an economist at NKC African Economics in Paarl, South Africa, said by email. “Nevertheless, a large proportion of the population is currently dependent on agricultural activities, which is important for income generation.”

In western Zimbabwe, Netsai Sibanda oversees almost 20 workers harvesting marigolds on her three-hectare farm. Sibanda, who also switched from a more traditional crop -– in this case cotton -- grows the flowers to extract seeds that she sells to a Dutch distributor which ships them all over the world.

Just two decades ago, Zimbabwe was the world’s sixth-biggest rose producer, sending the flowers to Europe from greenhouses and storage centers that were among the most advanced in Africa. The picture today is vastly different, as small-scale black farmers focus rather on flower seeds, using varieties and species that don’t require greenhouses or sophisticated irrigation systems.

Zimbabwe’s economy has halved in size since 2000 and the country faces deepening unemployment, the collapse of basic services and a cash shortage after abandoning the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 in favor a basket of currencies, including the U.S. dollar and South Africa’s rand.

The decline of farming output was a forerunner of the country’s economic collapse. About one in four Zimbabweans is dependent on some form of aid to feed themselves, according to the United Nations.

Sibanda and her fellow growers in Gokwe are expected to produce as much as six tons of flower seeds, according to Charlene Mathonsi, a coordinator for Lion Farm, which contracts the farmers.

The crop is more attractive than cotton because prices are agreed upfront, Sibanda said.

“Flowers are smart, they give life to the area,’’ she said in an interview. “When they saw what we were getting paid, now others want to go in and grow flowers.’’

Macadamias to Marigold Seeds Spark Hope for Zimbabwe Farm Reboot

While the flower seeds are shipped to the Netherlands before distribution all over the world, most of Zimbabwe’s macadamia exports are to China, said Lazarus Dhliwayo, a technical adviser to the growing association in Chipinge where Mutasa’s farm is located.

The group, which includes large-and small-scale farmers, is targeting production of 15,000 tons of macadamias this year, compared with 8,000 tons in 2016, he said.

Moses Mabvuu, a 66-year-old pensioner, planted 750 macadamia trees on his three-hectare farm in 2014 and plans to add another 100 trees next year, he said.

“It’s almost goodbye for growing maize,’’ Mabvuu said.